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Illusionistic Neapolitan Crib, XVII-XVIII c., terra cotta
Royal Palace of Caserta, Caserta, Italy
The custom of showing the scene of Nativity of Jesus in Churches in Europe flourished in 17th and 18th centuries, but its origin is much, much older. in 1223 in the village of Greccio on the border of Umbria and Lazio Saint Francis of Assisi popularized the Christmas Christ's Crib in his Holy Night mass celebrated before the crib. His Christmas crib was very simple, only the sculptured figures of the Holy Family flanked by living animals, ox and ass, angels and three shepherds. But according to the historic documents some fragments of first Christ's manger, five pieces of wood connected by bits of metal which the oldest parts come probably form 8th century or earlier, have been found in Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. By the end of 1025, however, in the Church of Santa Maria ad Praesepem in Naples was shown the scene of Christ's Nativity, which become a focus of devotion, mostly women. The Christmas Crib, in Italian presepe or presepio (derived from the Latin praesepe), tells the story of shepherds, who after hearing of Christ's birth while tending their flocks, take gifts to the child in the manger. According to the Luke, at the Nativity Mary laid the Christ child "in a manger".
It was in Naples that the culture of the presepe as a subject of devotion achieved its full development. Most citizens, for their private devotion, build in their houses replicas of the Church presepes, where infant Jesus is laying in a manger on hey flanked by figures of Maria and Joseph, shepherds, three Wise Men of East and animals. In fact by the end of 1601 every church and aristocratic palace in Naples has its own Christmas Crib. Therefore although the Christmas Cribs were displayed only at Christmas time, their production became an all year ongoing industry and very important subject of export to other Italian state-cities as well as to South France and South Germany.
The oldest example of a monumental Neapolitan Christmas Crib sculptured by brothers Pietro and Ciovanni Alemanno in 1478 - 84 comes from the Church of San Giovanni a Carbonara. The original presepe sculptured by brothers Alemanno was consisted of 41 life-sized wooden figures of which 19 survive to our time. These beautiful life-sized wooden figures of Maria, Joseph, infant Jesus, animals and guests, plastered and polychromed can be seen in Museo di San Martino in Naples.
The custom of building Christmas Crib in the churches spread around Italy and then Europe quickly. In 1513 another crib sculptured by Pietro Belverte was displayed in San Domenico Maggiore, and before 1526 another Neapolitan Church, Santa Maria del Parto a Mergellina, commissioned a presepe to Giovanni Merliano da Nola. By the mid-16th century the traveller Saint Gaetano da Thiene from the Veneto discussed in his letters the proliferation of Neapolitan Cribs of Nativity of Christ in Neapolitan Churches and private homes. By the first decades of 17th century the custom of Christmas Cribs was introduced in Spain. It is worth to notice that in 1658 Garcia de Avellaneda y Haro, the Conde de Castrillo, commissioned 112 figures in wood at rather less than life size for his own court. The Neapolitan Cribs also travelled with Spanish missionaries on Spanish ships to new discovered continents of South and North America. However, at the end of the seventeenth century, a prestigious presepio was most likely to consist of a limited number of relatively large and solid figures in polychrome wood. Although in the beginning of eighteenth century wood still was the basic material to produce body of the figures, but their heads were made of wax, porcelain or other materials. All figures were dressed in elaborate costumes of the time, giving the presepe special feast atmosphere. By the end of eighteen century the wooden figures were replaced by smaller and lighter terra cotta figures. The theatrically scenographic, illusionistic Christmas Crib consisted of hundreds of terra cotta figures were richly illuminated with candles and torches.
The Christmas Crib shown here comes from Royal Palace of Caserta (Campania, italy). This real masterpiece of the sculptor's art is one of the most elaborated Christmas Cribs in the world. This magnificent Christmas crib of the eighteenth century is animated by over 1200 small statues made of terra cotta (Capodimonte china) and dressed in silk and wool lovely garments made partly by artisans and partly by Burbon princesses themselves. It is worth to add that the king of Naples Charles of Burbon (1734 -?) carved a few of the figures himself and his queen, Maria Amalia, sewed exquisite costumes for them with her own hands, as did her ladies in waiting. They used lace and rich fabrics, real jewels, and gold and silver to adorn their costumes.
The figures are completely realistic, down to the last wrinkle or wart, tiny vegetable or fruit, lantern or musical instrument.
It seems as the figures actually moved, breathed, sang, argued, ate, and drank showing in miniature the authentic Neapolitan life.
Each small human was dressed according to occupation or rank and in the fashion of the times: from great ladies and gentlemen down to the humblest villager. Men sat in a tavern drinking wine and twirling spaghetti on forks. Housewives haggled with vendors or wearily swept their doorsteps. Animals wandered amiably through the streets, a donkey lay down and rolled in the grass, a cow scratched with her hind leg. Real waterfalls tumbled down rocky hillsides, and fountains gushed real water. The fantastic, exuberant, vivid masterpieces of the sculptor's vision, art and creativity.