Presepe of Serrone imagining Bethlehem

It is Thursday after Christmas on an early winter’s day in Serrone, in central Italy, with bright sunshine and a breeze blowing the leaves off the oak trees and spreading them in little swirls on the road.

Our friend, Giancarlo Flavi, has drawn Claudia and myself from the quiet of the blogger’s room to seek out something he says will fill us with excitement, the Presepe of Serrone.

The town of Serrone, south of Rome, sits on the side of Mount Scalambra about one third up. Its old town seems to be built into the hill, reshaping the terrain, with buildings climbing up the steep hill on each other’s back, and no apparent reason for them to not slide down into the valley.

Why this particular point on the slopes of the Ernici mountains was chosen by the medieval villagers as their preferred place to avoid the barbarian hoards is not obvious, but it may have been the magnificent view to the Lepini mountains across the valley, the warmth of the sun in the afternoon, or a place that provided a near perfect view of the valleys through which ‘visitors’ would arrive. Serrone owes its name to ‘serroni’ i.e. the steep slopes of the Ernici mountains.

Wondering what particular uniqueness the presepe of Serrone will show, I recall the wide range of Presepe (originally nativity scenes) I have found throughout Italy. From the magnificent models in the presepe alley in old Naples to the live acting of the presepe in Città Delle Pieve, with many other towns proudly displaying their artistic and artisanal images.

So when we park at the end of the road in the old town, and we are met by a wide stairway with a faux arch at the bottom, I am interested to see it guarded by two Roman centurions, or full size mannequins of them.

Under the arch on a wooden plaque is the name ‘Betleem’ (Bethlehem) and just through the entrance to our right is a post with the nameplate ‘Censimento’ (Census) – and we recall that the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem was driven by the fact that Mary had to return home to Bethlehem for the Roman census.

We climb the stairs that slowly navigate the side of the mountain witnessing other full size mannequins engaged in their daily toil, men and women, all faithfully dressed in local costume (for instance many of the women wear traditional Italian coral jewellery from Torre del Greco). The men fulfil tasks such as blacksmith, cobbler, hunter, woodcutter, builder, stonemason.

The women cover a wide span of activities including repairing of broken ceramic plates, needlework, kitchen duties, fruit and olive picking, washing, and of course, caring for ‘bambini’ (children). Quite early in the walk we pass all aspects of food harvesting and sale, a brazier of chestnuts, root vegetables, nuts and seeds, greens, fruits; and then food preparation – polenta, cheese, bread, and an Osteria with men playing briscola (a Betlehemic card game?).

I am losing count of the number of scenarios and scenes when Giancarlo introduces us to his sister, Elisa, and brother-in-law, Tonino Serafini, who is president of the local association that creates this magnificent presepe of Serrone every year (for the past 19 years).

I hear that there are over 100 mannequins in probably about 40 scenes on the presepe tour of Serrone. Every time we come to an opening between the buildings, we stop to admire the magical advantages of Serrone, the royal theatre box in nature’s opera theatre – the best views of the greatest productions con ducted to perfection.

Finally, at the top of the tour in a small square (maybe half way up to the castle of Colonna), we arrive at the nativity scene – the star show of this presepe, and find some other exceptional surprises, the stories of which must wait for another chapter of our tales of Serrone.

Yes, the presepe of Serrone is unique, it is grand, it tells a story not just of nativity but faithful recollections of living in this part of Italy in previous centuries.

The mannequins of the presepe stay at their posts until Befana, so there is still time for those who appreciate artisanal majesty to drive up the side of Mount Scalambra off the Piglio road and spend a few hours wandering around and up and down old Serrone, catching the views, and enjoying the presepe of Serronian Bethlehem.