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Artists in Naples continue tradition begun by St. Francis

Shop creates Nativity scenes in Naples

Courtesy Lee Ann Mundy

Alice Alech - published on 11/30/23

Following the inspiration of St. Francis of Assisi, talented artists in Naples continue to create Christmas creches throughout the year.

Wanting to emphasize Christ’s birth and show his devotion, St. Francis reportedly said:

I want to do something that will recall the memory of that Child who was born in Bethlehem, to see with bodily eyes the inconveniences of his infancy, how he lay in the manger, and how the ox and ass stood by.

Thus, in 1223, St. Francis created the first Nativity scene with a manger and live animals outside Greccio, a little Italian village.

Hancrafted nativity scen in a coffee pot from Naples

An Italian tradition

This was the start of the tradition of the presepio or Nativity scene, the Italian custom of lovingly displaying a scene of the birth of Jesus over Christmas. In Italy, creating the presepi is part of a tradition that is passed down from generation to generation.

Daniele Gambardellaruns the family business, Gambardella Pastori, on Via San Gregoria, the street well known as the origin of some of Naples’ most elaborate handcrafted figurines. He was only 10 when he first discovered presepi in his father’s workshop. Curious to learn more, Daniele developed and refined his talent, skill, technique, and art over many years.

Via San Gregorio in Naples
Via San Gregorio in Naples

Scenes of life

The days leading up to December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, are an especially a busy time for all the artisans on Via San Gregoria. The bustling street is chockful of shops dedicated to presepi.

The figurines these shops produce not only depict the traditional manger scenes — incorporating the stable, Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus — but also snapshots of Neapolitan life. There are marketplace scenes, bakers at work, and fishmongers.

Non-nativity figures created by Gambardella Pastori
Other figures created by Gambardella Pastori

Crafting the figures

At Gambardella Pastori, Daniele works with another artist, Pina Cafiero Zanniello, to produce finely crafted figures using different base materials such as terracotta, wood, and cork. The team is known for its details and excellent craftsmanship. Pina is said to be exceptionally gifted in producing miniature shepherds. Just imagine the skills involved in creating a 1-cm high shepherd figurine!

Sculpturing and painting, Daniele explained, is best done in batches, dried in the open, and then placed in the special ovens to harden. The finishing touches, he said, usually take place in the shop. In addition to traditional Nativity scenes, they also produce diverse range of other figures such as football players and pizza makers, along with TV and film stars.

Advanced technology and tools have allowed these artisans to master Neapolitan crib art, which has come a long way since its humble beginnings with St. Francis in the 13th century. The presepio is more than an art, however; it is part of Italy’s heritage – a form of storytelling that combines the past with the everyday lives of folks from different walks of life.

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