Il presepe in Italia – Nativity scenes in Italy – Christmas words

The Italian presepe is a traditional representation of the nativity, but also a chance to stay together during Christmas

Il presepe, or presepio, is a classic representation of the nativity. Every catholic family (famiglia cattolica) in Italy makes the “presepe” with kids and friends at home. An Italian Christmas (Natale) is not complete without the presepe!

There are many presepe, everywhere, in every church of Italy. Small, big, made of all the possible materials. Very often whole villages, paesi, put on stage living presepe’s (il presepe vivente) with real craftsmen creating tools and shepherds making cheese. Usually, the last baby born in the community (l’ultimo nato) becomes the Gesù bambino, surrounded by a real ox and a donkey.

Presepi di Veona
The most ancient presepe in the world – Bologna 1300

Many people are convinced that the presepe was born in Naples (Napoli), perhaps because the tradition is very strong there, and centuries ago from Napoli (when southern Italy was under Spanish domination) the presepe migrated to Barcelona and finally to all South America.

Actually, the presepe dates back to San Francesco di Assisi, the little Italian friar devoted to poverty and simplicity (povertà e semplicità). He wanted to represent Christ as a man close to people, born in a humble barn, and celebrate Christmas with a living representation of the nativity. So, his group of young friars, used to stage a the nativity with real people. A cultural revolution!

The most ancient presepe in the world (il presepe più antico del mondo) is in Basilica di Santo Stefano, a very old church in Bologna. There are 5 wooden statues in full size, surprisingly modern, dating back to 1290 to 1370, with vibrant colours and a natural posture.

Now the presepe is quite popular, not only in Catholic countries. The exhibition inside the Arena di Verona, displays every year as many as 400 presepe, coming from every corner of the planet (da ogni angolo del mondo). The 2013 – 2014 edition is open to public until the end of January. On your right, a small selection of pictures from the exhibition.  The atmosphere inside the Arena is perfect. It’s dark. The thick walls made of stone are a suggestive and silent theatre.If you are lucky and are in Verona at the right time, along with beautiful hand-crafted presepe (or presepi, the correct plural in Italian), you can enjoy the colourful Christmas market (il mercatino di Natale) in the fantastic piazza in front of the Arena. There are stands where you can buy typical products, Christmas sweets, souvenirs and Xmas presents. Don’t forget to buy the authentic Pandoro, the Christmas sweet of Verona (il dolce natalizio di Verona). If you are not in a hurry (se non vai di fretta), we suggest a one day trip to the small medieval city of Soave, 15 minutes by car from Verona. You won’t regret it…

It’s worth mentioning two very special Italian presepe. The most traditional and, in our opinion, the most innovative (il più tradizionale e il più innovativo).

Presepe Napoli
Statue of a fishmonger – Napoli’s Presepe

The first one is a perhaps the most popular and funny celebration of the presepe. Of course, it takes place in Napoli, in the district (nel quartiere) of San Gregorio Armeno. The realistic small statues are authentic masterpieces (capolavori). They are designed and created following the smallest details, with a particular style, unique.

The small botteghe artigiane, workshops, display fantastic examples of creativity, and not only for the presepe. The smart (furbi) napoletani depict every new aspect of Italian social life, making fun of famous people with irreverent statues. Their favourite target is of course politicians (i politici). From Berlusconi surrounded by sexy girls to Angela Merkel, a smiling Obama or a serious Putin, and of course the beloved Papa Francesco, Pope Francis.

Presepe di sabbia lignano
Sand presepe in Jesolo, Venezia

Artists from all over the world gather in Jesolo, near Venezia, for creating presepe’s with sand. This outstanding show will go on until mid february. I presepi di sabbia are so far the most pleasant surprise of this 2013 Christmas.

Creating your own miniature village in the living room (in soggiorno) is a lot of fun. The centre of the scene is a small wooden barn (una piccola stalla di legno) with the statues of Mary and Joseph (Maria e Giuseppe), the ox the and the donkey (il bue e l’asinello).

Then, the “village” is populated by statues of shepherds (pastori), a blacksmith (un fabbro), a carpenter with tools (un falegname con  gli attrezzi), a fisherman, the baker with a small wood oven, geese (oche), cows (mucche) and dozens of sheep (pecore). All out of proportion. So the game is arranging everything properly and put the statues in the right perspective. We make rivers and lakes with tin foil (alluminio) and hills of paper (colline di carta) in the background. Everyone put the small statue of baby Jesus (Gesù bambino) on Christmas, and the three kings (i tre Re Magi) on the 6th of January.

We hope this post about the Italian presepe was useful. Please be social and share, Ciao!

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Riccardo
Milanese, graduated in Italian literature a long time ago, I began teaching Italian online in Japan back in 2003. I usually spend winter in Tokyo and go back to Italy when the cherry blossoms shed their petals. I don't like social media.

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