Manger in naples: of madonnas and monsters

The Nativity scene is about the struggle between good and evil. In Naples, each crib maker tells his or her own Christmas story.

In a workshop on the San Gregorio Armeno Photo: Victor Sokolowicz

The devil is in the details. But sometimes he squats in the Christmas idyll. In the art cribs of the Scuotto siblings, he waits, snarling, to thwart the birth of the light child. Once upon a time, the devil is said to have been part of the permanent staff of the Neapolitan nativity scene. Today, he has disappeared. "We take the artistic liberty of bringing him back to life," explains Salvatore Scuotto. Because the Nativity scene is always about the struggle between good and evil, between life and death, between dark and light, he says. In the Scuottos’ store, misshapen freaks and other unseen figures stand in the display case alongside wing-beating angels.

The crib is a landmark of Naples – like the pizza and Mount Vesuvius. But every Neapolitan has his own opinion about it. The Catholic Church does not like devils and demons in the nativity scene. Neither do the gypsy woman with her breast exposed or the feminiello, the Neapolitan version of the transvestite. These two figures are a traditional part of the popular nativity scene. Their origin lies less in the Christian salvation myth than in customs and cultures handed down for centuries. Since the 17th century, in the alleys of Naples, in the shadow of the countless foreign occupations by the church and noble houses, these have come together to form a mosaic of images and stories. The baby Jesus was added only later.

To this day, the Neapolitan nativity scene is as confusing as the pre-Christmas hustle and bustle in the city of Vesuvius. The Nativity Street San Gregorio Armeno and the adjoining alleys of the former craftsmen’s quarter San Lorenzo are crowded before Christmas. Kitsch is king. And, of course, Pulcinella, cunning Punch and Judy mask and emblem of the city, and the red horn-shaped good luck charm Corno – in plastic, glass, metal, plush, on a bracelet and fairy lights, and whatever else you can think of.

Hordes of nativity staff

For as little as one euro, there are refrigerator magnets in the shape of a pizza and Christmas baubles with Disney motifs. In between, the inevitable and infernally stinking motorini rattle and above it all, the neomelodic heartache sound of the Camorrastars drones on. Silent night, holy night does not exist here. But the mood is good, and so is the caffè in each of the countless bars. And on every corner there is the smell of sweet sfogliatelle and deep-fried pizzette. But you often have to stand in line for them. And sometimes you have to fight to get a euro of leftover money and not a water bottle as a replacement.

Nativity season Naples is the stronghold of Italian nativity scenes. In almost all churches some are set up. The largest collection of nativity scenes in Italy is in the Certosa San Martino above the city. But the most interesting thing is to look at the hands of the crib makers in their workshops. They work all year round.

Art and horror at the Scuotto siblings in the Bottega La Scarabattola: Via dei Tribunali 50, www.lascarabattola.it.

Traditional clay and wood figures at the Gambardella brothers: Via dei Figurari 36, FB Fratelli Gambardella

The smallest cribs in the world at Aldo Caliro: Via San Biagio dei Librai 85/C, www.presepiandoenonsolo.it

In the midst of the hustle and bustle, lined up on the stands are the legions of nativity scene personnel. The baby Jesus with parents, the Magi, Madonnas with bleeding hearts, donkeys with and without carts, oxen, shepherds, bagpipers, market vendors, drinkers with demijohns and angels without end. The cheaper ones are made of plastic made in China, the better ones of clay. They are joined by footballers, pop stars and politicians. Neapolitans have no problem spicing up their traditional presepe annually with the hottest celebrities.

This phenomenon was explained as early as the 1970s by Umberto Iannacone, a metalworker who – like many Neapolitans – became a crib maker out of a passion for the object. At that time, he hung a picture of Che Guevara in his crib. "Every era has its Christ and in this century it was Che," was his theory. Today, the saviors look different. Perennial favorites include Diego Maradona, the Pope, and two famous Neapolitans: actor Toto and musician Pino Daniele. Silvio Berlusconi has been cleared from the shelves after many years and sometimes still stands dusty behind the counter. The highlight this year is an entire Nativity scene with the characters from "Star Wars".

In the Gambardella workshop, around the corner in Via dei Figurari, you won’t find any celebrities. Instead, clay figures in all dimensions. The Gambardella brothers sit at the work table. Salvatore is modeling the head of a customer who wants to make a very personal Christmas gift. He has her photo on his smartphone in front of him. Like any true crib maker, he is an artist. His brother Raffaele is holding a half-finished angel. He’s pretty pissed off. "The whole story with the celebrity heads is a PR ploy. It has nothing to do with our crib craft," he says.

Bars instead of workshop

Raffaele grew up in the workshop. Both parents’ families were crib makers. Until recently, the Gambardellas had three stores. All that remains is this one store with the workshop in the back room, where two young helpers make small clay figures from plaster molds. Rents have tripled in recent years. "For every manger that closes, a bar or fry shop opens," he says. This allows street food chains to spread out and the Camorra to invest its surplus capital. They earn more from a quick snack than from a hand-molded nativity scene. But without them, the Christmas magic that everyone is looking for here would not exist.

In the past, collectors from all over Europe, including many Germans, came to the Neapolitan Christmas workshop. Today, as at every German Christkindlmarkt, tour buses dominate business here. "With us, the tourists take photos and maybe buy a figurine for two euros," Raffaele grumbles. Competition also comes from the Internet, where many do-it-yourselfers now offer their figurines. Of course, at lower prices, because they do not pay rent. Stores that don’t make their own nativity scenes and figurines buy from them. Often the Gambardellas discover heads that have been copied from them.

Aldo Caliro has solved the problem of pirates in his own way. He’s been sitting behind his work table in Via San Biagio dei Librai day in and day out for 40 years, fiddling with microscopic figurines that are often smaller than the head of a pin. "No one can copy this," he says. With angelic patience and tweezers, he places beads and metal shards into nuts, shells and even wristwatches. One of them even adorns the pulse of the Cardinal of Naples. The mini nativity scenes from Caliro’s workshop are famous in Italy. He has placed his smallest model on a lens.

A universal system

"You need imagination for this work," he explains. But you also need philosophy. Aldo interprets the nativity scene as a universal system of symbols understood in all cultures. That’s why it’s a cultural asset, he thinks. The art of the Neapolitan pizza makers made it to the Unesco World Heritage List two weeks ago. The art of the crib maker has not yet made it.

The store doorbell rings. A customer asks for a mini-motor for the water wheel above the Holy Family grotto. "I don’t carry that one anymore," Aldo says. It costs him 25 euros himself and would end up being far too expensive for his customers. But otherwise, he has everything for sale that a collector’s heart desires. In his showcase, it looks like a dollhouse outfitter. On display are little crowns, little necklaces, little plates, little buckets, and little bags of mini bricks, each of which he fires in his kiln.

The comparison with the doll’s house or the puppet theater makes perfect sense. For the Neapolitan crib was from the beginning a play and not a static image. It is said of the young Bourbon king Charles III, who pushed the art of the crib in the Baroque period, that he was always inventing new scenes with the figures. At that time, the figures were about 40 centimeters tall, dressed in velvet and silk and movable. The bodies were made of straw and metal wire, heads, hands and feet of clay. They could be disassembled and placed in ever new positions. The Scuotto brothers and sisters still make them by hand using this technique. In the workshop of Aldo Caliro hang for viewing models in different sizes.

This richly decorated and expensive version of the nativity scene was reserved for the nobility and later for the wealthy bourgeoisie. The presepe was in every fine salon in Naples and became a kind of status symbol, for which some families even drove themselves to ruin. The large collectible figures were expensive, then as now. In the case of the Scuottos, prices start at 500 euros. The baroque scenery depicted on the one hand the birth of Christ, and on the other hand the life and customs of the people, as the nobles imagined them. Sacred and profane belong to the nativity scene, just like good and evil. The latter is traditionally represented by gluttony in the osteria and the innkeeper. In the chain of sausages he wears around his neck, human flesh is said to have been processed. In the less common ecclesiastical version of the time, the Magi are at the center of the action.

Pagan customs

The popular nativity scene, on the other hand, has a different tradition. It has been studied for 20 years, especially by the Neapolitan musicologist and theater director Roberto De Simone. According to him, the roots of the Nativity scene lie in pre-Christian, pagan customs. As early as Roman times, homes had a shrine with figures of deceased ancestors who brought sweets to children at the winter festival.

De Simone also describes the nativity scene as a game with scenes that change and stories that are told. He says there is even a specific image for each of the 12 days between Christmas Eve and Epiphany. In addition, he connects the Nativity scenes with the symbols of the Neapolitan raffle. "It is one of the most ancient Christmas traditions and in its images the dimensions of time, the difference between the past and the present, disappear," he explains in one of his books. In the number system of the tombola, 1 stands for the sun and 77 for the devil.

For De Simone, devils and demons are part of the traditional nativity staff. The Scuotto siblings value him as a consultant. His research always unearths new creepy figures that garnish their nativity scenes with a dash of horror. One of them is the eerie monk Mafalda, who carries the severed head of her lover in a sack. "These figures are not recognized by the church," Scuotto says.

But the Scuottos’ nativity scenes also tell stories of mercy and the political present, as has always been the tradition in Naples. In one scene, fishermen pull stranded people from the sea, as happens daily off the coasts of southern Italy. "Because," Salvatore explains, "the Nativity shows the great play of life. And for that, there’s more to show than soccer heads."

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