A Nativity from Naples

Glencairn Museum News | Number 11, 2016

 

The Holy Family is positioned in the midst of Roman ruins, while a host of angels descends from heaven above. Shepherds visit with their sheep and wise men from the East arrive on horseback.

 

According to Samuel Sharp, a British surgeon who visited Naples in 1766, a Presepio is “a group of little figures, or puppets” depicting the events surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ. It was set up “in many of their churches and many of their private houses.” In Sharp’s opinion, “what renders a Presepio really an object for a man of taste, is the artful disposition of the figures, amidst a scenery of perspective, most wonderfully deceitful to the eye.” While Presepi were usually associated with churches and the aristocracy, Sharp observed that “all the poor people, if they are not already provided with a Presepio, purchase a cheap trumpery one at this season, which, with care and locking them up the remainder of the year, will last them their lives.” (Letter XXXV, Naples, March, 1766)

A Presepio presents the Nativity scene within the setting of daily life in 18th-century Naples, a bustling port city. This artistic tradition has been called "the translation of the Bible into Neapolitan dialect.” The figures are clothed in period costumes typical of the aristocracy, peasants and visiting foreigners. The birth of Jesus is depicted as taking place amid crumbling Roman ruins, signifying the end of paganism and the dawn of Christianity.

 

Figure 1: No figures have been placed in the way of the Holy Family, so the eyes of the viewer move naturally up the steps toward the Nativity.

 

In the Presepio on exhibit at Glencairn, the Nativity of the Christ Child, which takes place below a host of angels descending from heaven, stands in stark contrast to the mundane life of the inn or tavern. Life at the inn goes on as usual, but the attention of some of the customers has been drawn in the direction of the miraculous event. No figures have been placed in the way of the Holy Family, so the eyes of the viewer move naturally up the steps with the townspeople toward the Nativity.

 

Figure 2: Life at the inn goes on as usual, but the attention of some of the customers has been drawn in the direction of the Nativity. Some of them are walking toward the Roman ruins.

 

Each Presepio is a theatrical event, and the scenes are reinterpreted annually by the individual who plans the installation. This year Bryn Athyn artist Kathleen Glenn Pitcairn, who has a background in stage set design, has assumed the role of “theater director.” According to Kathleen, “I approached the Presepio as if it were a stage.” She has also created artistic settings for most of the other Nativities in Glencairn’s World Nativities exhibition.

 

Figure 3: According to the biblical account, Mary and Joseph were turned away from the inn at Bethlehem. The inn scene in this Presepio, which includes several unsavory characters, is located as far as possible from the Holy Family.

 

Each figure, and each grouping of figures, tells a different story. It’s hard for Kathleen to pick a favorite, “because all of them speak to me.” However, she especially enjoys figures that express movement, and the individuality of their facial expressions. “Some of the faces of the characters were made to show emotion; you feel there’s life in them. One shepherd is coming around the corner to see the Christ Child for the first time, and he has a look of awe."

 

Figure 4: According to designer Kathleen Glenn Pitcairn, who planned the installation of the Presepio at Glencairn, “Some of the faces of the characters were made to show emotion; you feel there’s life in them. One shepherd is coming around the corner to see the Christ Child for the first time, and he has a look of awe.”

 
 

Figure 5: Designer Kathleen Glenn Pitcairn (left) and volunteers Ashley Henderson (right) and Meredith Schnarr began the installation of the Presepio in Glencairn’s Great Hall the week before Thanksgiving. The placement of each figure had been carefully worked out in advance by Kathleen.

 

The tradition of Presepio-making continues in Italy today; numerous shops dedicated to the craft are located on the Via San Gregorio Armeno in Naples—also known as “Presepio Street.” The Presepio in Glencairn’s World Nativities exhibition is on loan from the Samuel S. Fleisher Art Memorial in South Philadelphia. The figures and structures were donated to the Fleisher in memory of the late Elizabeth Anne Evans by her sisters, Marcia Evans and Suzanne Hoyle-Rhodes. The mission of the Fleisher is to make art accessible to everyone, regardless of economic means, background, or artistic experience. (fleisher.org)

 

Figure 6: Marcia Evans at the opening of Glencairn’s World Nativities exhibition. Marcia and her sister Suzanne Hoyle-Rhodes donated the Presepio to the Fleisher Art Memorial in memory of their sister Elizabeth Anne Evans. Elizabeth collected the figures and structures over a period of more than thirty years during her annual trips to Naples, Italy.

 
 

Figure 7: The innkeeper presides over his tavern, while a family sits down at a table for a meal.

 
 

Figure 8: Vendors sell bread, cheese, eggs, grapes, fruit and vegetables, while the fishmonger announces his catch of the day.

 
 

Figure 9: Two musicians at the tavern play Italian folk instruments. The triccheballacche (left) is a Neapolitan percussion instrument. Pulecenella, a stock character in Neapolitan puppetry who wears a mask, plays the organetto (right).

 
 

Figure 10: Outside the tavern, a gambler smokes his pipe and tries to lure people into a game. Extra cards are hidden inside his cummerbund.

 
 

Figure 11: A pickpocket holds a gold watch in his right hand, and prepares to slip his left hand into the coat of the man ahead of him.

 
 

Figure 12: A man holds a bottle of wine, accompanied by his pet pig.

 
 

Figure 13: A gentlemen farmer smokes his pipe and carries a wooden flask.

 
 

Figure 14: The vendors seem more concerned with their sales than with the excitement at the Roman ruins. An exotic animal vendor with a parrot on his arm restrains a monkey with a leash.

 
 

Figure 15: Aristocrats wearing period wigs carry animal-headed walking sticks.

 
 

Figure 16: The angels and cherubs suspended above the Nativity scene may refer to a passage from the Nativity story in the Gospel of Luke: ”And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!’” (2:13-14).

 
 

Figure 17: All segments of society, rich and poor, are present in a Neapolitan Presepio. An aristocratic lady arrives at the Nativity scene in a sedan chair, carried by attendants.

 
 

Figure 18: Shepherds arrive at the Nativity scene with their flocks. A mendicant begs on the steps, perhaps a reminder that those who give to the poor will have “treasure in heaven” (Gospel of Mark 10:21).

 
 

Figure 19: A Turkish band plays in celebration of the miraculous event. Sometimes in Presepi these foreign bands were considered part of the retinue of the wise men, but they were a common sight in 18th-century Naples.

 
 

Figure 20: The wise men arrive on horses, carrying costly gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for the Christ Child.

 

A complete archive of past issues of Glencairn Museum News is available online here.