You search for Presepi, for Nativity in Naples. The taxi drops you in Via Duomo, in the old city of Naples (Napoli) at the corner of via San Biagio Dei Librai with instructions to walk up the narrow street as no cars are allowed. The street, or laneway was designed for walking, or an old Cinquecento. It is straight and seems to disappear into the distance.
Virtually immediately, on the right you see a shop filled with small statues, and then another on the left. Crowds stroll or rush up and down the street, stopping to look at a novel statue or a small Presepe, that Napolitan and now Italian tradition to place at home and work what the English term a Nativity Scene or Manger Scene. There seems to be a great variety of interpretations of nativity in Naples, but now it is the new year and the crowds, except for some diligent tourists, seek out other amusements and distractions.
Single statues of a wide variety of sizes tempt the traditional catholic to carry Papa Francesco with him to bless his home. For the ‘calcio-soccer’ enthusiast, the statue of the month seems to be Balotelli. Of course, the American in Naples is never far from his hero, Obama. A raft of politicians make up the benches of statues, with the favourite seeming to be Berlusconi in prison garb.
Further along on the right is a shop filled with armies of toy soldiers, faithfully replicating their giant originals. It is these that were, for the older men, the collectibles of their childhood as Games Workshop came to be more recently for the young (and young in mind). We fail to purchase a horseman or two and so are doomed to rejection at Befana.
About 200 meters along, on our right is another crowded laneway with a stone sign up on the building on the opposite corner – San Gregorio Armeno. This is our destination. Famed for the construction of models depicting not just Presepe, not just nativity in Naples, but a wide range of scenes of history. We slow our walk and absorb the scenes deep into the narrow shops. There is an alleyway into which we turn, with a sign F.lli Capuano and a date 1840. We enter the alley and pay 1 Euro to visit a museum, downstairs to the left, with the stone above the door thoughtfully painted blue to remind tourists to duck.
On the left are large neat piles of cork bark and to the right a large scene in muted orange light demonstrating the great art of the Presepe modelers. Back in the alley, we visit the shop and talk to a family member – the business has been run by this family since inception. In these grand scenes, the statues are each about 25 to 30cm high and constructed with great detail, the heads being cast from local terra cotta clay and the limbs being carved from wood.
Clothing uses traditional materials from the royal silk factories in San Leucio. We seek some price details and find that each statue costs about 300 Euros, so a large scene with 16 statues may cost about € 8,000. And there seems to be a regular market for these and even more ornate specials carried out for the famous and royalty.
In another family shop, Cesarini, dating from 1836, we are informed that the production is all carried out in the cellars underneath the shop, including the firing of the ceramic heads. The value of San Gregorio Armeno is immense. It has a unique art form cloistered and bound within the souls and skills of a group of families who have been perfecting their art for nearly 2 centuries.
Seek it out and wonder about the Nativity in Naples.