Even though Christmas trees are widespread, the traditional Italian Christmas decoration is by far the Nativity scenes: il “Presepe”. From December 8, the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception, through January 6, the Epiphany, you will find the Presepe literally in any family, church and shop. We could say that Presepe is the quintessence of Italian Christmas.
The Presepe is a fascinating ancient tradition. It originated in Italy in 1291 when St. Francis of Assisi asked Giovanni Vellita from the village of Greccio to create a manger scene. St Francis held a Christmas Eve mass there, starting a century old tradition. Over the years, displays became more and more elaborate, well beyond the manger scene and the traditional saints and biblical characters. The most elaborated Presepi include vibrant and lively representations of an entire village or neighborhood, often in a medieval-renaissance style setting. Complicated lights and water effects are fairly common.
If you are in Rome (or, in general, in southern and central Italy) around Christmas, you shouldn’t miss a Presepi tour. It could actually be an interesting activity on Christmas day, when most museums are closed.
Every single church will display his own Presepe, but some should definitely be part of your tour. Here are my pics.
St Peter’s nativity
Probably the most visited Nativity scene in Rome (of course!), it’s an open air Presepe, right on St Peter’s square, so you can’t miss it. It features life-size figures and last year was inspired by the Unesco Heritage site “Sassi di Matera”. A Christmas Eve mass is held in St. Peter’s square, usually at 10 pm.
Spanish steps nativity
The second largest Roman open air Presepe is located right on the Spanish Steps. The nativity scene is set in a typicall old Roman neighborhood (looks like “old Trastevere”!). Funny enough, just down the Spanish steps the restaurant La Rampa offers a very similar setting in its main dining room! It can be a convenient place for your “Pranzo di Natale” (Christmas lunch).
Santa Maria Maggiore nativity
This is the oldest known nativity scene. The first example of figurines for nativity scenes started in the late 13th century when Arnolfo di Cambio was commissioned to carve marble nativity figures for the first Rome Jubilee held in 1300. The nativity can be seen in the museum of Santa Maria Maggiore Church.
Other great Presepi to be visited can be found in the churches of Santi Cosma e Damiano, Santa Maria in Trastevere and Santa Maria in Aracoeli.
Worthwhile visiting is also the exhibition “100 Presepi”, which is held in Piazza del Popolo.
By the way, if you during your visit you have the feeling that key characters are missing (including the Divine Infant himself…) don’t get too worried: characters “arrive” based on the biblical sequence, so you will only see Baby Jesus in his manger after the night of December 24, and the Magi after the Epiphany.
After all these tours, if you feel you still didn’t have enough Presepi, there are some great opportunities of touring around, using the hunt for the best nativity scenes as an alibi.
Naples – market of San Gregorio Armeno
Naples is the best city to hunt for Presepi. During the 17th and 18th century Naples turned the nativity into an art form. The presepi included the nativity scene but also represented life in Naples at the time. Today many artisans are still dedicated to the craft of creating handmade figures for Presepi.
The street Via San Gregorio Armeno in central Naples is filled with displays and stalls selling Nativity scenes all year. Don’t expect to find “only” an unbelievable variety of biblical figurines and settings. Given the world wide known fantasy of Neapolitan artisans, don’t be surprised to find, among the traditional characters, also figurines of modernicons such as Steve Jobs and Pope Francesco the 1st!
Also interesting to visit is the Neapolitan Nativity Scenes Association exhibition in Gesù nuovo church, in Piazza del Gesu’. Many of the handmade Presepe you will find are extremely elaborated and may use antique figures.
Greccio – living nativity
Each year, the small town of Greccio organizes the Historical Re-enactment of original San Francesco living nativity scene. With the participation of people in medieval costumes, the historical representation brings to life the story of the birth of the first nativity scene (Christmas 1223) made by St. Francis of Assisi with the help of the Noble Lord John of Greccio Velita, (click here for the schedules).
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