The Pugliese creche
The extraordinary abundance of narrative sources, evangelic and popular, has allowed, since the XIV century, to differentiate, even in Puglia, the representation of the Nativity from the representation of the creche.
This passage may be better understood in a Franciscan church, Santa Caterina in Galatina.
In a lowered arcade in the counter-front of the left aisle, a big fresco, representing the Nativity, forms the background to the most plastic creche in stone ascribed to the sculptor Nuzzo Barba, during the XV century.
It is unanimously considered as the oldest creche in Puglia, but only the central components of it survive: the Virgin, the Infant Jesus, San Giuseppe and the Ox and the Donkey.
Anyway, it is during the XVI century that the creche representation in stone sculptures finds its greatest achievement, beginning since then a slow decline in the XVII century to reappear later in the late XVIII century in different forms, influenced by the neapolitan fashion of the dressed creches that in Puglia have been turned in paper-pulp or terracotta creche.
The most plastic scupltor in the course of the XVI century is Stefano Putignano, who makes up large and ancient creches in Grottaglie, Polignano a Mare, Martina Franca.
But other artists, like Paolo da Cassano, in Cassano Murge and Bitritto; Altobello Persio in Altamura, Tursi and Gallipoli, enrich the century outline, in the course of which perhaps Gabriele Riccardi has staged, for Lecce Cathedral, the most refined creche, which takes the whole altar, where in the fastigium are placed the riding Magi and the adoring Shepards and, over the altar, the Nativity group.
There is a beautiful relief creche in Torre S. Susanna, that has been previously ascribed to Riccardi, but today is attribuited to a still anonymous sculptor, as well as anonymous are the three stone figures, painted, of the Nativity of Manduria.
In the course of '600s and '700s, the altars dedicated to the creche, like in the Rosario Church in Lecce, often turn around the central painting.
The popular religiousness recovers strenght in the XIX century, when, with alternating quality, the paper-pulp craftsmen from Salento and from Lecce begin a tradition still alive today.
First protagonist of this tradition was Mesciu Pietru de li Cristi, the first paper-pulp craftsman nickname documented by the San Lorenzo statue in Lizzanello in 1782.
His name was Pietro Surgente (1742-1827) and he was the master (Mesciu) of a series of great paper-pulp sculptors in the '800s, most of them recalled by their nicknames: evidence of a very rural dimension of their work, nearly domestic and humble.
In the last century there is a passage from the big altart statues to the small creche statues.
A certain Mesciu Chiccu Pierdifumu started moulding in clay creche puppets which, helped by his wife Assunta Rizzo, used to "dress" the smaller sizes puppets with pieces of cloth, as they used in Napoli, , and with paper sheets drapped and drenched with glue the bigger sizes (up to 30 cm.) with the body reduced to a iron-wire and tow skeleton.
In this way, imperceptibly, it has been moved from the classic neapolitan puppet to the classical leccese puppet.
Besides the professional artisans work, there is a real spontaneous germination of popular artists, among them stands out the class of Lecce barbers, who around the 1840, started to imitate the paper-pulp craftsmen and in the long lasting hours free from their comb and scissors activity, were moulding both paper-pulp and clay with hands, burins and moulds.
Among the best examples of their work, certainly has to be mentioned that of "Istituto Marcelline di Lecce" in 1890, realized by Manzo and De Pascalis and Agesilao Flora; the fragmented one by Guacci, today at Comune di Lecce and the Michele Massari's one, a contemporary polyhedric artist, also at Comune di Lecce.