The Italian tradition of the Nativity scene
A Christmas tradition that has Italian roots is that of the Nativity scene ("Presepe" in Italian), a display of objects and figures representing the birth of Jesus. The term “presepe” derives from the Latin “praesaepe,” meaning manger, trough, or an enclosed area for sheep and goats.
The baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph are the main characters in this kind of display recounting the nativity story, but there can be many others: shepherds, sheep, and angels are usually displayed near the manger in a stable or cave, as well as a donkey and an ox that are typically represented in the scene behind the crib of the baby Jesus; in addition to these the Magi and their camels are also included in the scene.
The first Nativity scene is the one created by Saint Francis of Assisi in 1223, and it is described by Saint Bonaventure in his “Life of Saint Francis of Assisi” written around 1260. Staged in a cave near Greccio, it was a live Nativity scene, with humans and animals playing their role in the reenactment of the biblical story.
That of Saint Francis was an attempt to place the emphasis of Christmas upon the worship of Christ. The saint had been inspired by his visit to the Holy Land, where he'd been shown Jesus's traditional birthplace. The display became very popular and inspired communities throughout Catholic countries to do the same.
Within a hundred years every church in Italy was expected to have a nativity scene at Christmastime, and every country has its own distinctive tradition for Nativity scenes, that are displayed in churches, homes, city squares, and other venues during Christmas season.
Eventually, human and animal participants were replaced by statues, of various sizes and made of a variety of materials, such as terracotta, paper, wood, wax, and ivory.
The theme of the Nativity in art was always very popular, it is actually one of the most represented in Italian art history. The first testimony of such a representation dates back to the III century, but it is in the XV century that the iconography of the nativity scene really started to develop. Here in Florence we have many examples of this in paintings by great artists such as Sandro Botticelli, Filippino Lippi, Gentile da Fabriano and Leonardo Da Vinci with their own version of the “Adoration of the Magi” or the Flemish Hugo Van Der Goes with the “Portinari Triptych”, all of which are on display at the Uffizi Gallery.
In recent years in Florence it has become use to set up a presepe near the Duomo in Piazza San Giovanni, and in addition this year, the monumental Nativity scene designed by Matera-born artist Francesco Artese has been set up in the Basilica of Santo Spirito after having travelled around the world. With its 110 characters, it really is something impressive, that helps us remember our roots and also winks at Florence's art history: the figure of a bearded Michelangelo is included in the scene, intent in carving the crucifix that would be positioned in the church’s sacristy.
Unlike the much more popular tradition of the Christmas tree, a use that came from North Europe countries, the setting of the Presepe at Christmastime is something uniquely italian, though it managed to spread out throughout the world. Even if it has gone out of fashion lately, it remains an important tradition for our country, definetly to be handed down to the next generation and kept alive.