Nativity Scene Craft


“For hundreds of years, the deep religious sentiment of the people of Naples, their memories, their myths and their contradictions have been poured into a unique and highly refined work of craftsmanship”

Naples has always been a place of strong contrasts, so it is only natural that nativity scenes, the extraordinary “product” of the local artisan production, would become embroiled in this and become the basis on which all these contradictions miraculously converge and are formed.

The Neapolitan tradition of nativity scenes can be traced back to the fifteenth century, as firmly demonstrated by the polychrome wood representations made by the brothers Alamanno and Giovanni da Nola, who expressed the deep religious sentiment felt by the population of Naples.

But it was only in the eighteenth century that nativity scenes became a system of sacred and profane elements, with both notably mundane and purely theatrical results...

...an animated scene that concerned the representation of contemporary life in the Kingdom of Naples.

The person who explosively brought this phenomenon into being was Charles III of Bourbon, who wanted the nativity scene to reflect the grandness and complexity of the kingdom.

The king and his wife personally attended to the costumes and sets, and they wanted the shepherds’ clothing to be an extraordinary snapshot of the outfits popular at the time.

[Saint Joseph]

In the eighteenth century, nativity scenes were also a statement of the Baroque theatricality that took the form of a fundamental innovation...

...the adoption of the adjustable mannequin, made from sweet iron wire and oakum, a technique which made it possible to create a dialogue between the shepherds.

The heads of these puppets ("shepherds") with an iron core were modelled in terracotta.

The tailors took inspiration from the drawings of Saverio Gatto and Alessandro D’Anna when dressing the shepherds. 

Some of these tailors were so specialised in this activity that they only dressed shepherds, as the orders were plentiful and the work well paid.

The jewellery of the era also had to be a feature...

...“granatelle” garnets with gold emblems, “laccetti” (laces), “incannature” (spools) made of gold and coral and silver filigree buttonholes, all made by artisans who created miniatures of the actual jewels owned by the nobles or the bourgeois nouveau rich.

The presence of so many oriental characters in the nativity may seem to contradict the efforts made to represent the traditional aspects of the situation at the time faithfully…  

...but Naples' historic tolerance and hospitality towards other nations has always been a special characteristic of this kingdom.

The frenzy for enriching and embellishing was such that everything was recreated and depicted…


...taverns with their ‘sperlonghe’ (large oval plates), tureens for soup, saucers, tankards “co’ pizzo ’e papere” and the product of toil in the fields, created by skilled modellers. 

Credits: Story

Curator — Camera di Commercio di Napoli

Credits: All media
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