I love walking through Naples, particularly Spacca Napoli, the true center of the old city. I often venture to an area just off San Gregorio Armeno, where one little shop after another sells the elements that make up the famous Neapolitan presepe, the nativity scenes, or crèches, that embody the holiday season for people all over the world. The history of the presepe is particularly important for Naples, integral even to the city’s cultural history.
The origins of the craft date to the twelfth century and it is often attributed to the workings and teachings of San Francesco d’Assisi. By the eighteenth century, the crèches, which until then had been housed only in churches, became fashionable among the Neapolitan elite. This shift changed the presepe from purely religious iconography into a decorative and valuable domestic collectable. The figurines became smaller so as to fit into their new setting, the aristocratic house. The heads are made from terracotta, the hands and feet carved from wood, and the bodies fashioned from clothes that replicate the style of costumes native to the kingdom of the Two Sicilies. The figurine became an image reflective of its time and place.
In the bustling via San Biagio dei Librai, a beautifully lit sculpture catches my eye from the window of a small gallery. Inside, yet another figure emerges from a dark corner of the room, an accademia, a fully sculpted figurine. Its pose is so real; it almost seems to come to life. I am so taken by the intensity of the expression emanating from the work that I have to meet the man who made it. As I enter his studio, he is sculpting a small head. The artist gets up to greet me and rapidly covers the clay with a warm cloth.
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PHOTOGRAPHY BY MIGUEL FLORES-VIANNA
WRITTEN BY ALLEGRA HICKS
This story appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of MILIEU.