Few places ‘do’ Christmas quite like Naples and for anyone unfamiliar with the concept of the Italian presepe (nativity scene), a visit to Naples at any time of the year, but particularly during the run-up to Christmas, is an eye-opening experience.
During the 17th and 18th century, Naples transformed the creation of nativity scenes into an art form which had the dual purpose of also representing life in Naples. The tradition has continued and the presepe is now the main focus of Christmas decorations in Italy, with every church and many public squares and shops displaying their own presepe from December 8 until Epiphany on 6 January. While some present a simple manger scene, others represent an entire village.
Unquestionably, however, the top spot in Naples – and indeed all of Italy - for all things nativity-related is the street of Via San Gregorio Armeno, now synonymous with Italy’s nativity scene. Here craftsmen work year round, creating all manner of crib accessories ranging from the traditional Jesus and Madonna figurines to animals, angels and even footballers and caricatured politicians. Visitors flock to the shops selling handcrafted figures year-round.
Figurines on display in shops in Via San Gregorio Armeno
Other places in Naples to view presepi include Naples’ Museo Nazionale di San Martino (housed in the Certosa di San Martino) where there is a famous collection of Neapolitan nativity scenes, including the rather crowded Presepe Cuciniello, with over 160 people and around 450 miniature objects. There is also an annual exhibition, organised by the Neapolitan Nativity Scenes Association, in the magnificent Gesù Nuovo church.
Façade of the Gesù Nuovo church
Equally spectacular is the collection of 18th century nativity scenes commissioned by the Bourbon king, Ferdinand IV, now on display in Naples’ Santa Chiara church, which is perhaps best known for its majolica tiled cloisters.