Transforming tradition

The art of the ever changing presepi

Tom Castronovo
December 14, 2006

The Christmas I’m used to includes fighting over the last ‘perfect’ gift in an over-crowded shop-ping mall and sitting on my Italian-American grandmother’s plastic covered couch watching her decorate her tinsel covered tree. As much of a pain these things are, they have become part of a tradition I’ve grown to love. When I realized I would be spending the early Christmas season in a different country, I didn’t know what to expect. I wasn’t going to be at home to see the star top the tree or be able to put out the Nativity scene that my grandpa built for the family. I would be miss-ing the traditions that make Christmas what it is for me.

But as I walked down Florence’s streets in late November, I was pleased to discover a new Christmas decoration everyday. The canopy of lights that arch above the center’s streets leads to the pine that towers over Piazza Republica. One afternoon, as I sat looking up at the tree from the piazza’s bench, I could almost feel that uncomfortable tug of plastic I am accustomed to. Then I ventured a little further down the sea of lights and found something more traditionally Ital-ian: a presepe.

Presepe translates as ‘manger’ but is more commonly known as Nativity scene. They were popularized by St. Francis of Assisi in 1223, who set up the first animal filled presepe in Greccio, Italy. By the 18th century, the presepe had gained widespread popularity and the tradition was adopted by bigger cities like Naples and Rome. Made mostly of terracotta or wood, many his-toric presepi have been destroyed over time. Some noteworthy examples still exist, however, like Arnolfo di Cambio’s marble presepe that stands in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.

Presepi meccanici are Nativity scenes that have moving figures which bring the whole town of Bethlehem to life. In these mechanical presepi you can see everything from Mary moving her arms to Joseph doing the robot. There are also presepi viventi, in which live actors and animals take the place of static figurines.

Continuing my holiday stroll, I walked down Via dell Corso and found a break in the flow of the street top lights. A makeshift sign sporting the word ‘Presepe’ hung next to the Chiesa di Santa Maria dei Ricci. I was immediately drawn into the warm light that seeped out the church’s open door. As I stepped inside to admire the Nativity scene that took up the entire front of the church, I saw a woman placing the figurines that dotted the entire area. Giulia, I found out, had been put-ting up that presepe for 30 years; you could see her passion for it in the meticulous arrange-ments she created. ‘Every year we try to add something more,’ she told me. Santa Maria dei Ricci’s presepe, like many scattered throughout the city, represents a rural town complete with trees, wells and homes populated by townspeople including bakers, wood-cutters and women carrying water. Giulia assures me that the figure of Jesus is safe and that they don’t place him in the manger until Christmas Eve.

You can find presepi all over Florence, in churchyards, in people’s homes and even in restau-rants. To get your fill you can visit churches like Santa Croce or the Duomo. The Basilica of San Lorenzo even holds a children’s contest where visitors can view and vote for their favorite scene. A mechanical presepe is in movement at the Don Orione Institute on Via Capo di Mondo.

If you are visiting other parts of Italy this Christmas season, seek out the Museo Tipologico In-ternazionale del Presepe in Rome, which displays presepi from as far away as Asia and Central America. The different cultures are reflected in the materials used in each Nativity; shells, hay, tin, and corn-husks are just a few examples of the materials employed. To view more worldly cribs you can head up to Verona for La Rassegna Internazionale dei Presepi, where more than 400 scenes are represented from around the world.

Though far from my grandfather’s homemade manger scene this Christmas, I have found in the heart of Florence the chance to share in this very Italian tradition.

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