The word “presepe” or “presepio” (crib) comes from the Latin verb “praesepire” which means “fencing with hedge.” A term used only in Italy (and in Hungary) because it was introduced in Naples in the fourteenth century, when one Anjou’s descendant became king. The tradition, mainly Italian, can be dated back to St. Francesco of Assisi who, in 1223 in Greccio, created the first living representation of the Nativity. His representation cannot be considered a crib as we currently consider it, because it was just a cave with two real animals on the sides of a trough with straw.
The first example of carved nativity scene is preserved in the Basilica of Santo Stefano (in Bologna), the oldest known nativity scene in the world that consists of the thirteenth century’s statues by an anonymous sculptor from Bologna.
Soon this kind of symbolism was widely understood at all levels, especially within families, where the representation of Jesus’ birth, with statuettes and elements taken from the wild, became a rite.
In the fifteenth century it became common practice to place big statues in the churches, tradition that also spread throughout the sixteenth century. Some of these ancient statues have survived, despite many thefts, and are still on display during Christmastime.
The use of the crib started to spread in the nobles houses in the form of knick-knacks or real chapels, although the great development of carved crèches occurred in the eighteenth century, through three different and great traditions: Neapolitan cribs, cribs from Genoa and from Bologna. In the eighteenth century, in Naples even began a competition between families over who had the most beautiful and gorgeous crib: the nobles used a whole room for represent the nativity, with statues dressed with precious fabrics and jewelry.
Although among the various Italian regions, the crib diversified for cultural reasons, from these perspective, the Italian crib’s art only differentiates for different products and materials used to recreate the nativity. Traditionally, the crib in Genova was made with wood, with papier-mâché in Puglia, while in Sicily some typical products are added, like branches of orange and mandarin, and different materials such as coral, pearl and alabaster.
The Neapolitan crib was characterized by statuettes made with terracotta, with the use of cork to recreate the setting. Later in time, the use of clay was reduced as a result of the overwhelming success of plastic figurines, which provided large scale production at a lower price.
The Neapolitan crib scene added other popular and anachronistic characters, such as taverns, street traders and typical rural houses. Sometimes these characters are symbolic, such as for example the tavern represented “the bad”, and the character of “Ciccibacco”, who brings barrels with wine, represented the “devil”.
The Neapolitan crib art has remained unchanged for centuries, becoming part of the Neapolitan Christmas traditions. Famous in Naples is “San Gregorio Armeno” street, that offers a showcase of all the local cribs crafts. In addition, there are many museums (like San Martino Museum or the Royal Palace of Caserta), where
historical or very old pieces are exposed.
The first nativity scene in Naples is mentioned in a document that talks about a nativity scene in the Church of St. Maria ‘s crib in 1025 . In Amalfi, according to various sources, already in 1324 there was a “crib’s chapel” in Alagni’s house.
In 1340 Queen Sancha of Aragon (wife of Robert of Anjou) gave to the Poor Clares a crib for their new church, and today only a statue remains, visible in the museum of St. Martin. Other examples date back to 1478, with a crib of Pietro and Giovanni Alemanno of which we have received twelve statues, and the crib in marble of 1475 by Antonio Rossellino, visible in Sant’Anna dei Lombardi church . One of the clearest examples of Neapolitan crib is given by manufacturing clay with pieces dating back to the eighteenth century, exposed in the Elliptic room of the Royal Palace in Caserta. In the eighteenth century, the Neapolitan nativity scene experienced its golden age, when from the churches, where it was a religious object of devotion, the crib became a tradition in each aristocrat’s house. Giuseppe Sammartino, perhaps the greatest Neapolitan sculptor of the eighteenth century, a skilled artist for terracotta figures, gave rise to the first school for cribs.
In 1787, Goethe describes the crib in his Italian Journey to Italy.
“That’s the time to talk about another entertainment that is characteristic of the Neapolitans, the crib […] they build a small stage, hut shaped, all adorned with trees and small evergreen trees , and there they put the Lady, the Child Jesus and all the characters, including those that hover in the air, sumptuously dressed for the festivity […] . But what gives the whole show a note of incomparable grace is the background in which the Vesuvius frames itself with its surroundings. »
Although Jesus was a poor family’s son, with our cribs, it is as if for we Neapolitans Jesus’ birth happens in a Naples’ street, in a narrow and dark alley, among taverns and bassi, where poverty reigns. The crib can be made by poor people too, with papier-mâché or bark, twigs and a few plastic small statuettes. Until a few decades ago, only a few people decorated a tree for Christmas, considered more a cold symbol of northern traditions, and it was said that once you had prepared a crib, you had to adorn and show it every year to avoid a bad luck!
Our cribs, as a symbol of equality, became the ransom of a miserable existence. It conveys joy and sweetness, and gives faith to even those who have little.
Once, it was the custom to visit relatives and friends to see their new crib; cribs that although simple and cheap, many families did not throw away, but kept close in a glass or wood’s container called “scarabattola” (Neapolitan term not translatable). Thanks to these containers, we today can admire old cribs that, centuries later, have got a historical and artistic value.