The tradition of the ‘presepe’ in Italy began with none other than Saint Francis of Assisi’. Profoundly moved after seeing the sacred representations on the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, Francis returned to Italy and created history’s first nativity scene in 1223 in a cave just outside Greccio (Lazio).
Thus, the tradition of arranging nativity scenes at Christmas was born. Today, the Italian holidays would not be so without the presepe, and here are five of the most evocative ones all across Italy.
The floating nativity scene in Burano, Venice, is probably the most artsy. Religious figures including baby Jesus, Joseph and Mary, emerge from the waters of the lagoon. The work was created by a local resident, Francesco Orazio, a greengrocer. The painted plywood nativity figures are anchored to the bottom of the lagoon, with the skyline of Venice as a backdrop.
The nativity scene in Cesenatico is also quite unique and evocative. In this seaside town in Emilia-Romagna, the historic ships moored in the canal designed by Leonardo, part of the Floating Marine Museum, have been the setting for the presepe since 1986, following the initiative of local enthusiasts. Life-size statues in wood and oil cloth depict daily life in an old fishing village. Especially beautiful to watch at night.
Among the largest nativity scenes in Italy is the presepe of Manarola. Since 1963, this tiny borgo in the Cinque Terre hosts a grand representation of the Nativity Scene: an entire hill, Colle delle Tre Croci, gets populated with 300 figures – characters from the story of the Nativity, shepherds, animals, angels, houses – lit by thousands of light bulbs. The nativity scene, which extends for 4,000 square meters, is built on the former terraced vineyards.
If you want to experience a living nativity scene, then there may be no better setting than the Rione Sassi in Matera, the Unesco-inscribed ancient cave dwellings inhabited since the Paleolithic period. Here, scenes from the Nativity will be re-enacted by local actors belonging to theatrical associations of southern Italy, who will bring to life ancient professions and scenes from ancient Roman life.
The ‘Via dei presepi,’ as the San Gregorio Armeno neighborhood in the heart of Naples is also referred to, is famous all over the world for its traditional shops selling handcrafted Neapolitan-style nativity characters. Sure, all the classic characters are represented, but those who often get the most attention are the unconventional caricatures of celebrities, politicians and sports personalities.