Monday, December 16, 2013


In the lovely church of Santa Maria di Betlemme in Modica Bassa there is an exquisite terracotta presepe [crib] made in 1882. It has 66 statuettes and the onlookers at the nativity scene are depicted as Sicilian countrymen and women. It is an absolutely stunning sight.

You will see a crib in nearly every Sicilian home at this time of year and some of the figurines will be family heirlooms. The custom of filling the crib with statuettes dressed in Sicilian costume continues and I think this must make it easier for children to identify with the characters. The Holy Family, though, are depicted traditionally and one figurine, that of the baby Jesus, is not added to the scene until Christmas Eve.
In Sicily the city of Caltagirone is particularly famous for the craftsmanship of its cribs but, as many of you will know, the "crib capital" of Italy is Napoli. The tradition began there in the Baroque era of the 18th century, when the carving of wooden figurines was elevated to an art form.  Now, in the via San Gregorio Armeno, you can find not only traditional figurines and figurines inspired by Italian country life, but representations of politicians, royals and celebrities. 
So who is "in" and who is "out" [literally] in this year's cribs? Well, Silvio Berlusconi, who has been prominent among the figurines for decades, and who was even represented, in the past, alongside figurines of some of the ladies who, at the very least, enjoyed his parties, features less often in 2013. If you must, however, you can still find a figurine of him holding a card declaring, "Sono decaduto" ["I have decayed" and a reference to his decadenza - fall from power]. You can also add the entire Napoli football squad to your decorations and representations - complete with his beloved iPhone - of Matteo Renzi, the Mayor of Florence and recently elected leader of the Democratic Party, are said to be selling well. Figurines of Nelson Mandela are available, as you would expect, but the overall bestsellers this year are figurines of Papa Francesco - a worthy winner, in my opinion.

This year the Archdiocese of Naples has the honour, for the first time, of sponsoring the Vatican's Nativity Scene, which will be unveiled in St Peter's Square on Christmas Eve. The background has been inspired by the Campania countryside and the figurines have been crafted in 18th century Neapolitan tradition by Antonio Cantone of Cantone & Costabile. The scene is entitled Francesco 1223 - Francesco 2013, a reference to the date when St Francis created a living crib in Greccio and, of course, to the current, popular Pope.

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