Neapolitan crib figures, 1850
"During three weeks or a month, there is a species of devotion to be seen here, almost peculiar to Naples.... This is a dedication of a Presepio ... in many of their churches, and many of their private houses. ... It is a group of little figures, or puppets, representing the whole transaction. There are the Wise men of the East, with a star over their heads on one spot: The shepherds attending their flocks, with the Angel descending over them on another: The Virgin, the Infant, Joseph, and the ass, on another.
In short the composer has introduced such figures and historical facts, into the group, as the New Testament, and sometimes his own genius, have suggested."
- Samuel Sharp, March 1766 Naples British surgeon and traveller.
This is one of the earliest descriptions of a Neapolitan Christmas crib which became by the middle of the eighteenth century part of custom in Naples. Up to the 16th century only monasteries had nativity scenes. Later on, they found their way into many aristocratic homes although, during the 16th and 17th century, they were still designed by the clergy.
Originally Christmas cribs with figures and stage-like sets first appeared in Naples about 1670. It was soon practiced by the leading aristocratic families who kept open-house at Christmas to let local towns folk come in to see the presepio. The displayed scenes were enriched with a vast number of extras and additional figures, numerous animals, as well as everyday objects such as clothes, jewelry, and furniture and bridle gear.
The Neapolitan cribs had a special meaning and symbolic importance in the way they combined the magnificence of the divine representation and popular tradition. The devotional and religious scene of the Holy Family was surrounded by scenes depicting the life of pleasure and everyday life which represents the profane. Initially the nativity scene was placed inside a cave and later the manger of a humble stable. In an attempt to underline the triumph of Christianity over paganism, the Holy Family was later placed inside the ruins of an antique classic temple. The everyday populace was represented by groups of men playing cards or groups were shown having fun around the table. A rotund landlord or a scantily clad, voluptuous landlady served all kinds of food and wine, often accompanied by mandolin players. The figures were common and humble people from 18th century Naples, wandering around, engrossed in menial tasks or daily life.
In I734 Charles III of Bourbon became king of Naples. The royal family shortly after led the way in fashion and it was reported that the King modelled and baked little clay cakes for the Royal Creche, arranged shepherds and devised perspective views. The Queen was said to have sewn costumes for the figures to please her husband and children. Charles’ interest in the making of Christmas crib figures took its momentum.
But the most typical characteristic of 18th-century crib art is the magnificence of the settings providing a background for the main thematic scenes - the Nativity, the Annunciation to the Shepherds, and the Tavern Scene. It is especially these settings that provided the presepianti and craftsmen with a medium for their artistic creativity. Many craftsmen with the most diverse specialisations contributed to the creation of the many masterpieces of crib art produced in this period. They included architects, painters, sculptors, wax and clay modelers, and tailors. Some specialised in producing sceneries and accessories. Modifications to crib figures included a reduction of the figurines size, adjustable heads and limbs, interchangeability of pieces, the use of actual cloth for the clothes. In the 18th century the wooden heads were replaced with wax or clay ones. These pliable materials allowed a degree of finesse and expressiveness, especially in the figures facial expressions. The bodies were largely made of tow and wire, their arms and legs are finely carved of wood, and their heads and shoulders are modelled of terracotta and accurately finished. Figurines were also often enriched by accessories, jewels, and embroideries of 18th century costume. The shepherds were portrayed in as natural a fashion as possible. Sets and lighting effects became more elaborate and were changed every year. The cribs were also noteworthy for their clever play of perspective and the artful disposition of the figures, amidst the scenery which enhanced this.
The central group of the crib was the Holy Family or the Mistero, Next were placed the three Magi, all splendidly attired. They approached the Divine Infant with expressions of tender awe and piety, marvel or mystical expectation, gesturing with their hands. Behind the Magi came the mingled crowd of brightly dressed, exotic travellers, who symbolised the homage rendered by all nations to the baby Jesus. These figures often have some of the most elaborate accessories executed by Neapolitan silversmiths and other specialised craftsmen. The world of the exotic was then counterbalanced by the humble shepherds and common folk. Naturalism appeared in the figures of people of the inn of Bethlehem - rich burghers, merchants, valets, peasants; or women coming from the countryside to peddle their produce, colourfully displayed in miniature baskets. All of the figures are made to relate to one another, in chatter or in laughter, or divine reflection.
Some of the crib craftsmen became celebrated masters such as Giuseppe Sammartino (1720-1793), renowned for his monumental sculptures in marble and in stucco. His pupils were also famous Salvatore di Franco, Giuseppe Gori, and Angelo Viva, and one Lorenza Mosca (d. I789), was employed at the Royal Porcelain Factory at Capodimonte and became stage director of the Royal Christmas Crib.
By the middle of the nineteenth century nearly all the great family cribs of the preceding century had been broken up, their sets dismembered, their figures sold singly or in small groups to dealers and collectors, who would then show them in vitrines, as objects of curiosity rather than devotion. however the magic of the Neapolitan cribs endures primarily because of the warmth of simple, sincere emotions which are set against a theatrical backdrop.