Bill, Monica and Mother Teresa too

Some odd characters rub shoulders with the Holy Family in the extraordinary nativity cribs of Naples, writes Catherine Pepinster

ON THE coastal road between Positano and Amalfi, cars stop every few yards for people to admire the still, blue stretch of sea that mirrors the sky of the same rich, infinite azure. They stop, too, for those "through the keyhole" moments, to catch a glimpse of the island that was once home to Nureyev, and of the sumptuous villas of Gore Vidal, or Zeffirelli, or Carlo Ponti and Sophia Loren. What most of them fail to notice are the little houses hidden behind makeshift wire fencing along the road, miniatures laid out in crescent shaped gaps in the cliffs, which resemble nothing less than ghost towns.

But now it is Advent, and they will not be empty for much longer. From 8 December - the great feast of L'Immacolata, or the Immaculate Conception - the people of the Neapolitan coastal towns will be laying out their Nativity cribs in preparation for Christmas. The tiny towns along the Amalfi drive will be filled with the wooden, highly painted figures of Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and the three kings, small children and choirs of angels. Then, on Christmas Eve, the Christ child will be laid in the manger, completing the most famous tableau the world has known.

This is not just an act of Christian symbolism. Nothing is more important at this time of year along the Neapolitan coast than the competition to create the best crib, or presepe. Woodworkers, known throughout the world for their marquetry, vie in town contests to win this year's prize. Churches and town halls lay out their finest displays throughout Advent, and major exhibitions are given over to the cribs.

Nor is this just a southern Italian equivalent of rivalling your neighbour to grow the biggest leeks. In Naples itself, the true importance of the presepe becomes apparent - as cultural heritage, as commercial enterprise, and as a vehicle for caricature and religious kitsch.

Nobody knows exactly when the custom of representing the birth of Christ as a tableau of sculpted people, animals and angels began, but manger scenes - praesepe is Latin for manger - date from the days of early Christianity. St Francis, in the 13th century, set up a Christmas scene with living figures, close to Assisi. In Rome, in the Villa Borghese, you can see an ancient coffin depicting baby Jesus between an ox and an ass, while one of the earliest examples of a presepe is to be found in Rome, in the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Arnolfo di Cambio originally made a complete set of figures, but when a covetous Pope Sixtus V ordered that they and the Bethlehem grotto standing outside the Basilica be moved to his personal chapel, the tableau broke into pieces. Just Joseph, the Magi and the animals survive of Di Cambio's work, and they are locked in Santa Maria's crypt, with 16th-century replacements of Mary and the infant Christ, all placed in a temple-like structure. A sacristan will unlock the room, if you ask him nicely.

Back in Naples, there is far more pride in their presepe tradition, for this is where it became a real art form. It is only since the end of the 19th century that the merits of the artisan craft of crib-making has been recognised, but today they have pride of place in the San Martino museum, in the Vomero district, high above the city. From the outset, when the Carthusian monks first founded San Martino in the 14th century, they wanted it to be a place where Neapolitan history and culture was celebrated. The collections at San Martino document all manner of art work and culture of urban Naples, but none more so than the cribs, particularly those of the 18th century when the craft reached its zenith.

What you start to notice at San Martino, and which becomes even more apparent when you visit the street off Naples' main thoroughfare, Spaccanapoli, dedicated to presepi, San Gregorio Armeno, is that these Nativity scenes are not just depicting a moment in Palestine 2,000 years ago, but a world which is as much about Naples now as the Holy Land then. Presepi, like that most famous of Neapolitans, Thomas Aquinas, see the world as a harmonious, living organism with the Incarnation at its centre. These worlds-in-miniatures say to the people: your world is like the Bethlehem stable, Christ is at its heart. And it is a world where everyone has a place, be they rich man, poor man, beggarman, thief. So you find in the Settecento scenes, the pezzente, or beggar, the Naples scugnizzo, or street urchin, and women carrying baskets of fruit and shellfish.

The best time of all to see presepi is now, in the days leading up to Christmas, and at dusk, as the lights come on in the shops and stalls of San Gregorio Armeno. There are tiny miniatures in gaudy colours, and life-size wooden figures with their own clothes, carefully stitched and pressed. In one shop, you will find presepi in a box, ready made, like the thousands of others which will be assembled by excited children, but then, cross the road, and wander into a yard and you will find someone loading up a cart with a new, specially made life-size crib which will be pushed through the streets to an awaiting church congregation.

Families like the Capuanos have been making presepi since 1840; Luciano makes the wooden stables and the figures, just as his father and his grandfather did before him. He and the other artigiani in the street work throughout the year preparing for December, but it is in the last few days that the shoppers flock to San Gregorio Armeno to select and purchase their cribs and Bethlehem scenes, in which, in the little bark houses, lights flicker, and nearby windmills turn. The tiny putti, gazing down upon the child in the manger seem to have a touch of rouge about their cheeks and their lips.

Contemporary life is here, too, in the presepi scenes. Tiny statues of Naples' favourite religious modern-day icons, Mother Teresa and Padre Pio, stand to attention, awaiting their slot in the stable. But so, too, do effigies of Antonio di Pietro, responsible for the mani pulite anti- corruption campaigns, and Naples' mayor, Antonio Bassolino, who is intent on reviving the fortunes of his city with his pedestrianisation and clean- up plans, as well as other well-known Italians, including the writer, Umberto Eco. There, too, are Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, and not for one moment do they look out of place. For in tableaux of this kind life is depicted as it really is - messy, crazy, beautiful, kitsch, commercial, divine.

No city on earth can make you realise that better than Naples.

FACT FILE

Naples

Getting there

British Airways (tel: 0345 222111) flies direct to Naples daily from pounds 287 plus pounds 15 tax in December. For a cheap alternative, fly to Rome and take one of the frequent, direct train to Naples. Go (tel: 0845 60 54321) offers daily return flights to Rome from pounds 120. In summer, Sky Shuttle (tel: 0800 129 129) offers flights to Naples from pounds 150.

Further Information

The Italian Tourist Office (tel: 0171 408 1254).

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