Thanksgiving in our family is a Slow Food feast, and a coming together of friends – this year from the Amalfi Coast – and family. It is a time to give thanks too to all of our Insider’s Italy family, the many friends we have made through the joy of travel planning with you. For me personally this is a time to give as I can to three organizations I feel are consequential: Terramadre, The World Food Program, and Diversity for Life. All three are helping to alleviate hunger or increase agricultural biodiversity. For the opportunity to help them I am grateful.
Throughout Italy, these last weeks of November and the beginning of December see feverish activity in artisan shops throughout Italy (specifically in Naples) and again in churches nationwide as the season gears up for the annual tradition of the presepio. Rome’s Piazza Navona will soon become the forum for a number of presepio sellers, some of whom have been coming to Rome since I was a child. Around the country, the sound of sawing and hammering is common in church side chapels as paper mache’ mountains, grottos, rivers and even miniature aqueducts and restaurants are constructed or dusted off and remounted. Walking near the Pantheon this morning, we stopped to watch two priests hoisting an elaborate and unwieldy sky scape through the side door of a 17th century church.
The presepio, or Christmas crèche, is an Italian passion whose heart lies in Naples. In 18th century Naples, the presepio became an elaborate, dramatic scene, in a fully Neapolitan 18th century environment, full of minor characters, each with their own conventions that have little to do with the Biblical story. These intricate scenes, with figures in wood or terracotta made by leading sculptors, were destined not for churches but for the houses of wealthy patrons. In actual fact, the nativity scene is of secondary interest and is an excuse for a good celebration; the Neapolitan artist was really interested in representing contemporary Neapolitan life.
Today that tradition lives on in Naples’ Via San Gregorio Armeno. In the center of Naples, this narrow street, which runs past the 16th century Benedictine convent of the same name, is crowded with about 50 artisan workshops with colorful window displays and stalls overflowing with Nativity scenes. Figures are nearly all four to five inches in height. If you become fascinated with the Lilliputian presepio concept, essential too is a visit to the Museo Nazionale di San Martino for their “Presepe Cuciniello”, a monumental collection from the 1700’s that includes shepherds, angels, animals, foodstuffs (presents for the baby Jesus, also pictured in our photo) and all of the trappings of Neapolitan street life. Open 8.30 A.M. – 7:30 P.M. Tuesday to Sunday.
You will on San Gregorio Armeno also see cork grottoes, tiny tiles, miniature eels, miniscule provolone, as well as some rather elaborate stage-set presepi featuring mechanical, flowing streams, smoking fires, washing flapping in the breeze and pizzas being loaded into the oven (somewhere in the scene you may see Jesus and family.) In the non-Christmas months, many of these stores also sell silk flowers – Neapolitans are traditionalists and prefer to acquire their presepio pieces at Christmas-time so these artisans resort to other wares to keep their businesses going in the warmer months.
We will be in Naples soon to collect a few new secular figures of our own, and are happy to be planning travels there for several of you too next month. We look forward to seeing our travelers at our favorite bar, Scaturcchio (the best coffee perhaps in Italy?) and to sharing together warm, crisp, crunchy sfogliatelle. Also round the corner from Scaturcchio is their hotel base, a lovely four-star inn just steps from Via San Gregorio Armeno. This is a perfect base for Naples-wide exploring, and a welcome relief from the city’s international-feeling hotels in their rarified out-of-the-center locations. If you are in Naples, be in Naples. And please do let us introduce you to our Naples, a treasure trove of a city, and one of the single most interesting destinations in Italy.
With warmest wishes for a happy Thanksgiving.