Where Is Your Bethlehem?

My blog buddy Mitchell post a wonderful series of pictures from the crèches or belén in his town of Fuengirola that brought back memories of the presepe we saw in cities, towns and homes throughout Italy during our four Christmases there.

At the centre of each one was the familiar Nativity scene but what surrounded it seldom resembled the landscape around Bethlehem familiar from Christmas cards. The Holy Family were encircled by the traditional Shepherds, Magi and Angels but set in panoramas that mirrored the surrounding neighbourhood. Castello Sant’Angelo loomed in the background at Santa Maria in Via, in Napoli a plume of smoke from Vesuvius oversaw the birth of Christ, in Piazza Sant’Eustachio the filigree tower of Sant’Ivo peeked over the rooftops. The birth of Jesus is happening, not in a distant exotic place, but in the midst of the people who are celebrating the Feast Day.

As well as the link to Mitchell’s photos – the belén created by the children is a true delight – I thought I would reblog a post from those days in Rome. It is only a fragment of what would have been a larger scene but looking at it today gave me a sense of delight and brought back great memories.

Willy Or Won't He

Its no secret that I have a fondness for Napoli and things Napolitani – even though the first visit there was a bit unsettling, the second time I came away from the city enchanted and wanting to go back. And another well documented fact is my love of presepe and there is nowhere in the world quite like Napoli for these incredible minature scenes. Divina, the restaurant we went to New Year’s Eve in Madrid had the most wonderful presepe at one end of the dining room that was immediately identifiable as the work of Napolitani craftsmen.

As is this remarkable little tableau that was in the window of a small cafe on a side street off Piazza Fiume near our house. It is obviously meant to be only one element in a larger presepio. (Remember that a left click will open a larger version of the photos in…

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Pop-Up Presepe

In Italy the centre piece of Christmas celebrations is always the Presepe or crêche. A tradition that preportedly began in 1223 when St Francis of Assisi constructed a representation of the Nativity scene in a grotto in Greccio and celebrated Christmas Eve mass there. Though it spread throughout Europe – the lovely folk art santons of Provence, the elaborate and colourful Kraków szopka of Poland – Italy is still at the heart of this tradition.

Napoli remains the best place to see presepe with hundreds throughout the city – in churches, squares and if you are lucky private homes. Via San Gregorio Armeno is lined with shops selling all your presepe needs year round. The items that are found there range from working fountains to haymows to tiny butchers knives – everything needed to recreate the town of Bethlehem as it could have only existed if it was miraculously transported to Italy.

Here in Roma presepe have been set up all over town – the top of the Spanish Steps, Piazza del Popolo, St Peter’s Square and the various churches – but my favorite this year is at Parco del Musica. A delightful nativity scene created in 1997 for Torino by the late Emanuele (Lele) Luzzati (right). The amphitheatre between the three halls is filled with more than life size colourful figures in the destinctive style of Genovese artist, who retained a childlike joy in all his creations until his death at the age of 85 in 2007.

Unfortunately last weekend for the first time in two years I hadn’t brought my camera with me to a concert so I will have to wait until next week to get some shots. In the meantime I found a worthy proxy in the the well stocked Parco bookstore window: a pop-up Presepe based on Lele’s designs.

It brought back memories of that first nativity scene I had as a child and I just had to get it to add to our Polish creche and South-western corn husk manager.

The design is in Luzzati’s signature deep almost jewel-like colours and in the great tradition of presepe he mixes the everyday with the fantastical. His people are obviously filled with the joy of the birth of the Infant.

When I first unfolded the scene I was a bit mystified – there were Mary and Joseph with attendent ox and ass, heralding angels and assorted folk in attitudes of adoration but I couldn’t find the baby Jesus. Then I pulled the star up in its slot and there he was – which is as it should be, the Bambino should never be revealed until Christmas Eve when the star appeared. And I must say he is one of the happiest Infant Jesus I have ever seen.

As well as trumpeting angels and the court and country folk a shepherd with his rather oblong dog – Laurent insists its Nicky – comes to the manager. As does a drummer boy surround by Luzzati’s fanastical birds and – in homage to the traditional Napolitano presepe – an old orange vendor.

Caspar, Balthazar and Melchior can be hidden in a slot until it’s time for them to canter up to the stable on the Feast of the Epiphany.

The whole scene has a fanciful lightness and joy which, for me at least, conveys the true spirit of the Nativity. Its a shame all the other wonderful characters that Lele designed couldn’t be fit in but it is, after all, only a pop-up book. Later this week I’ll try and get some shots of the big display but in the meantime I have to find a place for my new Presepe. I think place of honour under the tree will be appropriate.

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