The annual crib exhibition in Bagni di Lucca and the competition for the best Nativity scene in Benabbio our village, makes my heart flutter and I begin to feel festive. The bright lights of Lucca or Florence just don’t have this effect on me but these perfect mini scenes often complete with moving figures baking bread or trying to forge a piece of metal, running streams and flickering fires make me feel that childhood Christmas magic return.
The tradition of setting up a crib or presepe as it is called in Italy, apparently goes back to Saint Francis of Assisi in 1223. San Francis inspired by a pilgrimage to Bethlehem, recreated the nativity scene during a mass, using the congregation. These living cribs or presepi viventi are still popular in many Tuscan villages. The whole community gets involved. The village becomes the backdrop; everybody dresses up and the old crafts are demonstrated to create the atmosphere. Food is served, as at any festa, well this is Italy after all. New comers to these small communities are just as enthusiastic, so the real spirit of Christmas comes alive with villagers of different nationalities and religions all joining in.
From these living presepi developed the idea of creating nativity scenes using statues in churches and homes.
My heart in Italy is divided between two places, beautiful romantic Tuscany where we live and Naples, my husband’s passionate and complex city. Both have strong and very different traditions when it comes to presepi.
In our Tuscan home, we therefore have a Neapolitan crib using figures that have been in my husband family forever. He made many of the props, such as fish and vegetables, as a child. Here in Benabbio the other village cribs are rural and pastoral but ours is a riot of life. Neapolitan presepi are often made using contemporary figures. The Vatican apparently wasn’t too happy when Silvio Berlusconi our slightly wayward prime minister appeared. Figures such as Obama and pop stars are also readily available from the stores in the famous road, Via San Gregorio Armeno right in the heart of Naples city.
These craftsmen and woman are continuing a tradition, which reached its golden age in the 18th century. Happily in the last few years there has been a revival and I just love picking up figures in this packed and exotic street. Like everything Neapolitan the presepe is full of symbolism. At whatever tangent your imagination may take you certain characters must be present for example:
Benino or Benito- who is always represented asleep, often under a little bridge with reference to the sleeping shepherd who announced the birth of Jesus while asleep. Tradition also says that he is dreaming of a presepe.
Cicci Bacco– drives a cart laden with barrels of wine. The wine recalls the one used in the Eucharist, but also the name Bacco (Bacchus) is a reference to the Roman god of wine.
The fishmongers- symbolizes the catching of souls.
The Zampognari – are Italian bagpipers and in the presepi two shepherds playing at the entrance of the cave represent them.
The scenography is as important as the personages:
The market setting represents the months of the year by trades. The chestnut seller represents December.
The bridge is symbol of the transition between life and death.
The presepi have become more and more complicated often have working mills with running water, flickering fires and moving figures.
It is this busy market scene I love. One year I asked by brother-in-law, who still lives in Naples, why he hadn’t done a presepe with his children and he replied: “ I don’t need to, I’ve got one outside the window” and this is the point, these presepi are a social record as well as nativity scenes giving wonderful historic tableaux of Neapolitan life.
The tradition in our nook of Tuscany is completely different and much nearer to a traditional nativity scene. The custom of “figurine” as the statues are know are made from plaster in Bagni di Lucca and Media Valle, rather than terracotta, which is used in Naples. The craft of producing these figurine began in 1300 when the nuns in the local convents started making little statues of baby Jesus, known as “stucchini” because they were molded from stucco. The Dominican order first started to work with the local population. When the convents closed the production continued. Later with the diffusion of the presepe, first in Europe then Australia and America other personages for the crib were added. These makers called themselves “stucchinisti”. Over the centuries the industry became so successful that some of the makers emigrated to set up factories abroad. Like in Naples this art has resisted. In the valley there are large factories but also small workshops. In Benabbio you can peep inside kitchen doors and see home workers crouched over these tiny figures meticulously painting them by hand. Like all industries the “stucchini” have adapted and expanded so that immature towers of Pisa are produced as well as models of dinosaurs for the Natural History Museum in London. I was also told that Fontanini one of the big manufacturers in the valley supplied the nativity figures used in the movie Home Alone.
We are all now putting the finishing touches to our cribs by collecting moss and bark or constructing complicated grottos. My father-in-law has been dispatched to buy more sheep. Benabbio will soon become an enchanted Christmas village.
Photographs by Garagolo, Kilo and Cammarota