The stable of Bethlehem. The Holy Family is gathered around the manger and a jubilant crowd of angels praises God on high and proclaims the message of peace to the people. Some shepherds have kneeled down and are also a popular football player who has mixed in. In addition, some TV stars followed the star of Bethlehem and current political actors, who of course travel in the wake of the kings, who dutifully wear their corona mask and have a vaccination syringe in their luggage instead of myrrh. Corona in the crib? Does it have to be that way? No. But it is to be expected, because “o presebbio napuletano”, the Neapolitan nativity scene, shows not only the miracle of the birth of Christ, but also the miracles of everyday life; And this with such a great attention to detail and sometimes also overflowing topicality that not only children’s eyes widen.
This tradition, which is still alive today, probably originated in the 16th century, whereby a house crib was originally a pleasure reserved for the nobility, because the carved dolls, decorated with precious textiles, meant an investment that should not be underestimated. According to an inventory from 1567, the Duchess of Amalfi owned Costanza Piccolomini, in her castle in Celano two chests with at least 116 figures, with which, among other things, the birth of Christ and the adoration of the kings could be represented. In the time of the Counter-Reformation, the visual representation of Christ’s life that could be experienced through the senses gained ever greater importance. The great time of the Neapolitan nativity scene was the 18th century and the Protestant Saxons are said to have played a part in it.
1738 had King Charles VII of Naples and Sicily married Maria Amalia of Saxony. In her luggage, the granddaughter of Augustus the Strong also brought some exquisite pieces of the “white gold” to Italy and the young king fell so deeply in love with one of these porcelain cups that he wanted a porcelain factory for Naples like the one in Meien. The Saxons, however, did not want to reveal the top secret recipe for the production of hard-paste porcelain, despite marriage, which is why in southern Italy only soft-paste porcelain could be fired. If one believes the legends of the Neapolitan cicerone, the king ordered a crib in order to boost sales of his scarce goods, which became a real bestseller.
But as beautiful as the story may sound, it doesn’t tell the whole truth, because the porcelain from Capodimonte was quite successful even without the year-end figures, and after the king as Charles III. ascended the Spanish throne, the manufacture also moved to Madrid; together with five tons of porcelain paste.
New figures were added every year
It is correct that Charles VII actually suffered from a very severe “Krippal infection”. He is said to have carved his own stable and baked tiny cakes to put in his “Gesu bambino” in the manger. No wonder, then, that the most famous Rococo artists in Naples, in addition to their work as modellers or painters in the Fabbrica Reale di Capodimonte, also had to create nativity figures; movable, approx. 38 cm high jointed dolls that could be arranged in all imaginable positions.
While the clothed parts of the body were made of wrapped wire mesh, the heads were made of terracotta and painted in color by the porcelain painters, the most beautiful of which were made by Francesco Gallo or the gifted sculptor Giuseppe Sammartino. Their shepherds, citizens, lazzaroni, rag collectors and beggars cut faces, grimaces and grimaces to their hearts’ content. With their expressive hands carved from wood, they gesticulate wildly and use the verbose language of their ten fingers. Every year new figures were added, so that in a short time the royal Bethlehem expanded over several halls of the palace and a separate director had to be appointed for the installation. The royal crib quickly expanded into a pandemic. At first only the queen sewed and embroidered crib robes, soon all the ladies in society were tailoring them – always according to the latest fashion of the time; the court aristocrats practically competed for who had the most magnificent stable.
Golden royal gifts
Not only did they show off the royal gifts, which were chiseled by real goldsmiths and adorned with real corals and real pearls. The “pastori” were no less in love with details, although the term shepherd was generously extended to include pasta pullers, chestnuts and butchers, because the common people also had access to the palazzi of the rich as a crib figure. Like types of Commedia dell’ArteLike batches of opera buffa, the characters were grouped into frozen theater scenes and effectively illuminated – rolling market women, mustached fishmongers, buxom landlords and fat farmers from the surrounding area who stuff their spaghetti into them; but also rich citizens and elegantly dressed celebrites. Shrouded in mystery is the lame beggar with the boy, who traditionally finds himself a little below the Holy Family – a symbol for the weak person, created in God’s image, who longs for the birth of the Savior.
The connection between the sacred and the secular, between the dollhouse and salvation history, gave rise to ever more curious flowers. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe noted in the memories of his “Italian journey” that the nativity scene lovers even “rose to the flat roofs of the house; a light, hut-like barley is grown there, tasted with evergreen trees and shrubs. The Mother of God, the child and all those standing by and floating around are lavishly dressed up, on which wardrobe the house spends large sums of money. But what inimitably glorifies the whole thing is the background, which encircles Vesuvius and its surroundings. “
A real industry developed around the crib and its fittings, the “finimenti”. Special weaving mills produced fabrics with a reduced repeat, and instrument makers honed playable miniature instruments for the janissary chapel, without which no royal procession should do. Tiny shells and snails found on the beach migrated into miniaturized baskets to animate the barkers’ carts.
Even today, wax pullers make real lemons, mortadellas and Scamorza cheese in a whiff. To create a single bunch of grapes, for example, you string a glass bead on a wire, as in the 18th century, and dip it in hot wax again and again until drops – depending on the grape variety, yellow, green or dark blue – hang on it. Up to 50 of these wax-pearled wires are twisted into a whole grape panicle, indistinguishable from nature. Who through the Via Gregorio Armeno, Strolls through Naples’ famous nativity scene, recognizes the city as it was, as it is and how it presents itself in the nativity scenes shown there. Kitsch and art, mass-produced goods and one-offs, vulgarities and noble items have moved close together. The saints and the sinners, the rich and the poor, the powerful and the ruled, are in intimate unity. Now and then someone wears jeans or a beanie instead of a baroque dress and a three-cornered hat.
Biden in the manger
The Neapolitan nativity scenes have always been up to date with social life and have remained so to this day – a youthful, lively, sometimes cheeky treasure of Christianity, because in addition to mafia godparents, Berlusconi and Merkel have also been spotted in the stable. Joe Biden has recently joined the team. “Son tutti pastori con mani pulite” – All shepherds with white vests! What else? By the way, the kings brought the protective masks and vaccination ampoules mentioned above as early as 2016 – at that time, however, because of the swine flu. So nothing new under the Naples sun.
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