Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Italian Presepi

presepio=Madonna of the well church

It would be hard to find a church without a presepio at Christmas time in Italy. Those are the nativity scenes that depict the newborn baby Jesus with Mary, Joseph, the three wise men and sometimes scores of other people too.  Yes, you see them in churches in the U.S. at Christmastime too, but in Italy, you’ll find them not only in churches, but everywhere – in shop windows, in museums, as special displays in public spaces, and almost every home as well. And in Italy, they’re elevated to an art form – whether they’re made of terracotta, wood, paper mache or other materials. They can be rustic or ornately crafted such as the one above. You’ll often see the setting change from beautiful baroque backgrounds to perhaps a rustic farmhouse like the one below. Notice the bagpiper, an instrument that’s played not only in Scotland, but in many parts of Italy as well, like Molise and Abruzzo:

nativity scene 3

This one below looks like it could have been set in a 17th century Neapolitan neighborhood, not surprising since the most famous presepio makers are from Naples, where there’s an entire street dedicated to presepio shops.

nativity scene1

This nativity scene looks like it’s set amid Roman ruins:

nativity scene 5

This one is modeled after a street in Rome called Via Giulia, complete with a fountain that still exists there:

Picture 264 

Although you can’t tell from the photo, this presepio at Rome’s Spanish Steps has nearly life-size figures.

presepio scene - Spanish steps

On the other extreme, this one from the Alpine town of Bressanone has miniature figurines set inside an earthenware jug:

presepe in gourd

Almost all Italian presepi (plural of presepio) contain figurines at work – from washerwomen to millers to bakers, like this fellow about to put some loaves into the oven:

Picture 253

Or this fellow sharpening some knives. Many times the figures are mechanized and become animated. Rome’s Piazza Navona is a wonderland of small stalls at Christmas time, with merchants selling all sorts of presepio figurines (in addition to great torrone and other holiday candies.)

Picture 376

Look at the detailed cheeses, meats and peppers hanging from the rod in the scene below:

nativity scene 7

Pastry shops get into the act as well, like this one that sells cakes with a built-in presepio made of sugar. You can find a presepio made of almost anything you can think of. We’ve even seen them made entirely of figurines based on Pinocchio, the story written by the Italian author Carlo Collodi.

Christmas cake

And since this is Italy, don’t be surprised to see one made of pasta like the one below:

Pasta Presepio

The one below made of a styrofoam meat tray has a special story and meaning for us. We were living in Rome several years ago and our adult children came to visit at Christmas. We had schlepped them around the city to see all the presepi that we loved so much. We celebrated in a quiet way, just the four of us attending a glorious Christmas Eve midnight mass at St. Peter’s basilica and cooking a simple meal at home.  We decided to make our own presepio using a styrofoam tray from the market, with a little different twist on the nativity scene.

If you’re wondering what Charlie Brown, Snoopy and Linus are doing amid Mary, Joseph and the wise men, you have to realize that watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is a tradition that we maintain every year, whether we’re apart or together. Our son brought over a DVD of the show and we watched it together on my laptop computer in our Rome apartment. Seeing Charlie Brown holding his puny tree, Linus as a shepherd and Snoopy as part of the nativity scene just seemed right to us then and now. We wrapped up our styrofoam presepio when we moved back to the U.S. and each Christmas I look forward to displaying it and reliving the memories of one of the best Christmases ever.

styrofoam presepio

The last presepio is not located in Italy, but in the U.S. and it’s one of the most elegant, beautiful presepio scenes ever. It’s erected every year at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of its Christmas tree display, and this is only a small section of it. You might have guessed though - it was made in Italy. Buon Natale.

December 2008 292




  1. I love the tradition of the presepi. It's nice to see that macaroni art is still alive and well!

  2. Beautiful. Each is more beautiful than the next. I love that Snoopy made it into your presepio.
    Merry Christmas to you!

  3. all of those are some of the coolest I have ever seen...time to crack out charlie browns christmas!

  4. I love your family story Linda and the way you bring out your strofoam presepi each year. Great family memories! Have a wonderful Christmas Linda, I'm so glad we got to know each other.

  5. Ciao Linda anch'io ho preparato un piccolo presepe, alle tradizioni non rinuncio, quelli delle tue foto sono bellissimi; di recente sono stata a Roma e mi ha colpito il presepe della Stazione Termini, ambientato in un vagone. Buon Natale Daniela.

  6. These are all unique and beautiful in their own way...thanks for sharing them...I am a HUGE Charlie Brown Christmas fan...never tire of it, nor do I tire of White Christmas with Bing and Rosemary Clooney....have a lovely Christmas!

  7. My mother gave me a Nativity (presipi!) from Naples. I have cherished it and my children have grown up with it. It was with great pleasure and emotion that I was able to bring my children and husband to MMA to see the Nativity two years ago. It was always a part of my NYC Christmas. I loved hearing your traditions and loved the photo essay.Merry Christmas Linda to you and yours.

  8. I just loved reading about your traditions. I wish you a very Merry Christmas!

  9. The presepi are all beautiful Linda.

    Buon Natale! So happy to be your blog friend!

  10. What a wonderful post, Linda. Many thanks for all the beautiful photos and information. We've always had a presepi in our home at Christmas. It would seen right without it. I especially like the one made out of pasta.

    Best wishes for a happy and blessed Christmas from my family to yours. Merry Christmas, Linda.

  11. Linda, I love your photos and stories. The presepi are beautiful! I would cherish that styrofoam presepio as well. It would be a dream come true to attend midnight mass at St. Peter's with my family. Merry Christmas!

  12. Tantissimi auguri, Linda, buon Natale a te e alla tua famiglia...
    belle le foto che hai presentato. A presto

  13. Just beautiful! Makes me wish I was in Naples. Merry Christmas!

  14. Those are beautiful presipi. Such a wonderful Italian tradition.
    Merry Christmas y'all~

  15. Linda, this is a wonderful tradition and the folks who craft, design this stuff are to be commended.

  16. Linda,
    I have been lurking for a while and drooling over your fantastic and scrumptuous looking dishes...
    This entry about presepi reminded me of the Retablos of Peru. I did a blog about them here: http://sandiegovideoproduction.blogspot.com/2009/07/art-of-andean-retablos-second-glance.html
    Thanks again for such a stunning food blog!