How Saddam Hussein nearly landed a bit part in Naples' nativity scenes

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The Independent Online

He's not the most obvious person to find in the vicinity of a nativity scene, but last year Osama bin Laden was a surprise hit on San Gregorio Armeno, the winding old city lane in Naples where citizens go to buy the wherewithal to make the elaborate nativity scenes, known as presepes, which have formed centrepieces for Neapolitan Christmases for hundreds of years.

This year's hot item was expected to be Saddam Hussein, until 19 Italians were killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq last month, and the joke suddenly fell flat. Stall-holders decided to stay with trusty favourites: not only Mary, Joseph, the Angel Gabriel and the holy child, but also Diana, Princess of Wales, Mother Teresa and the legendary Neapolitan comedian Toto.

The focus of the presepe may be the traditional Christmas scene but, as the Saddam no-show indicates, presepe artists have an endearing willingness to wander off the point.

The first such scenes in the country were said to have been made by Saint Francis of Assisi in 1223. The craze spread to Naples in the 15th century when a life-size nativity scene was displayed in a city church.

The custom captured the city's imagination and more and more craftsmen brought their fancy to bear on the basic nativity tableau. In the 1500s animals other than the basic ox and ass began to appear - dogs, goats, flocks of sheep - and new human actors came on to the scene.

Then in the 18th century, the profile of the presepe suddenly shot up when the city's great reforming Bourbon king, Charles III, developed a passion for making them. "He baked toy bricks," a contemporary recorded, "built up layers of cork [for the hills], made mud huts, designed distant vistas and arranged the shepherds, while Queen Amelia cut, sewed and embroidered the figurines' clothes."

The best examples that survive from that era are of Baroque elaboration and scale. In one of the most splendid, Mary and Joseph no longer huddle in a stable, or a cave on a cliffside - a favourite variation - but under the columns of a ruined classical temple. A flock of splendidly robed angels floats down from heaven and a procession winds up the rugged rocks behind the three wise men: a trailing cortege of camels, warriors, merchants, ladies strung with pearls, porters and musicians.

Below the procession is a tavern, a popular staple of the presepe down the ages, although its connection to the miraculous event would appear to be nil. Its activity is realised in fantastic detail: a dog with a huge collar menaces a cat, a tavern girl haggles over the price of a rabbit.

And the wonderful thing about presepes is that the custom of making them remains so popular. "People buy the figures and other bits and pieces, but the layout of the scene is something you do at home with your children," says Giovanni Festinese, a presepe modeller.

"My son is a cardiologist living in Rome, but when Christmas comes around even he stops working and makes the presepe."