Although the first historical reference to representation of a Nativity Scene dates from the 13th century, this custom, common in all the Christian world, reached its maximum splendour in the 18th century and within a particular territory: The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in times of Charles III of Bourbon, who was a monarch that was very interested in the research and development of the Decorative Arts and particularly, in these ‘Presepes’ or Nativity Scenes.
Thus he hired some of the best sculptors of the moment, such as Giuseppe Sammartino, Gori, Celebrano, Nicola Somma and many others. Therefore, the Nativity Scenes went beyond the religious sphere and were set-up in the Court and private homes of aristocracy and high bourgeoisie, acquiring thus a unique personality. Even today, the best families of Naples take pride in the permanent exhibitions at their homes, the ‘crèches’ or nativity scenes carefully looked after for centuries.
Compared to other similar representations, the Neapolitan Nativity Scene can be distinguished by its splendour and richness of scenography, which is achieved thanks to the activity of a wide array of artists and craftsmen (architects, sculptors, painters, silversmiths, potters, tailors…) whom, with their imagination and ability, managed to reproduce the popular and daily life of the city of Naples as a basic argument to accompany the religious event of the Nativity of Jesus.
Playing a leading role in the different scenes, the main characters are made with a technique that combines diverse materials: the body and the beginning of the extremities are structured using a flexible wire covered with tow, which allows to change their postures. Carved wooden legs and arms were added to this core. It is, however, the head, made of terracotta, which gives personality to the figure; and the reason why the heads needed a more delicate work usually commissioned to relevant sculptors, whom also mould complete pieces known as ‘academias’.
The search for authenticity determines the thoroughness with which these pieces are enamelled. So, by adding glass eyes and, particularly, due to the attention given to design and production of the vestment and the accessories, the artists defined the role of each figure in the group. Shepherds, gentlemen, peasants, gypsies, and orientals are attired according to their social status, offering a very rich collection of period costumes, folk and courtiers, adorned with trimmings, buttons, buckles, lace trims…
The female figures outfits are finished off with a funny repertoire of miniature jewellery.
Along with the different characters, the animals are main characters in this Nativity universe and their creation involves a careful process based on the direct copy of the natural figure, often in the hands of specialized artists (N. Vassallo, F. Gallo).
The Royal Palace of Madrid held a magnificent exhibition of a Nativity Scene that belongs to the March Foundation; another exhibition also took place in Salamanca. The studies carried out by Gennaro Borrelli (1970) point us to the regular traffic of shepherds and ‘crèches’ between Naples, Rome and Spain; in fact, many Spanish museums have important collections of Neapolitan Nativity Scenes (Museum of Sculpture of Valladolid, the Museum of Ceramics of Valencia, Museum of Decorative Arts of Madrid).
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