Italians on Italians
Beyond Toscano

The art of the nativity

At Christmas time, just like in America, many Italians like to create a nativity scene as part of their holiday season decorations. From painstakingly crafted wooden figures (something the city of Naples excels in) to joyfully re-enacted manger scenes by schoolchildren across the land, the nativity (known as the presepe, or presepio in Italian) inspires creativity in thousands.

Timing’s important for their installation. Most crafted Presepi are installed on December 8th, date of the Feast of Immaculate Conception and taken down on Epiphany – January 6th. Fans of tradition will make sure the baby Jesus is only installed on Christmas Day itself.

While the story behind the nativity is hundreds of years old, the idea of recreating a nativity scene to celebrate the occasion only dates back to 1223, when it’s believed Saint Francis of Assisi built the first nativity scene in a cave in Greccio. Now, the scene is recreated every year in Greccio, drawing crowds from far and wide.
The first carved nativity figurines are said to date back to the late 13th century, when marble figures were created and installed to recreate a nativity scene for the first Roman Jubilee. This early creation still exists in Rome’s Santa Maria Maggiore Church, attracting visitors year-round.