Carnegie Museum Nativity scene includes works by the finest artist of their times
December 13, 2009 10:00 AM
A Pittsburgh tradition is to look for this small bird, which is moved by Carnegie staff to a new location each year.
The Nativity scene, left, with Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, farm animals and putti, the little nude angels suspended overhead.
One of the Three Kings. His gift, an urn, was made by a silversmith from silver. Artisans made the hundreds of small objects that complete a presepio, with careful attention to detail and of the finest materials.
This shepherd shows the care given to modeling presepio figures, many of which were made by important artists of the time. A sleeping shepherd, also present, symbolized the world's ignorance of the birth of Christ.
The Neapolitan Presepio is a Christmas traditions; It is a nativity scene, but also a representation of village life in the 18th century.
Members of a Turkish band. Each of the large merchant ships had its own band, which would enter the city to announce the ship's arrival in port.
A stag, a symbol of Christ, stands near the Holy Family.
This angel with censer, a container in which incense is burned, is among several keeping watch over the Holy Family.
The Carnegie Museum of Art rings in the Christmas season with an elaborate Nativity tradition that originated in Naples, Italy. The Holy Family takes pride of place, but what makes a Neapolitan presepio unique is the addition of scenes and figures representative of the bustling, cosmopolitan 18th- century port city.
The beggars, above, are among the earliest figures in the presepio.
Market vendors sell fruit, meat, vegetables, chickens, cheeses and, in this case, grapes.
By Mary Thomas Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In 18th-century Naples, setting up the annual Christmas Nativity became a devotion with production values. The Neapolitan presepio has since found fans far from its native Italy. Carnegie Museum of Art has one of the most complete presepi in the world.
Wealthy Italians, including the aristocracy, assembled elaborate Nativity scenes that comprised hundreds if not thousands of figures and other objects, and some employed "Christmas crib directors" to ensure that they were artistically displayed.
"The 1730s to the early 19th century was the golden age in Naples and the heyday of the presepio," said Rachel Delphia, assistant curator of decorative arts at the Carnegie.
Three components distinguish a Neapolitan presepio: The Nativity, or Mistero, which always holds pride of place; the Three Kings, or Magi; and a city scene with a colorful array of figures representing individuals typical of the bustling, cosmopolitan 18th-century port.
At the Carnegie, a gathering of majestic angels with robes and hair flowing herald the Christ child. The Magi, astride Arabian horses with braided manes and accompanied by attendants, arrive with gifts. And in the streets, merchants sell grapes and cheese, a boy carries a tray of snails and squid, and a dog is poised to snatch a sausage hanging from a shop doorway. More exotic individuals arrive from afar to pay homage to the child.
The Carnegie presepio has just fewer than 100 human and angelic figures, and several dozen animals, architectural elements and other objects. Specialist craftsmen and some of the finest artists of the time, among them employees of the Royal Porcelain Factory at Capodimonte, created presepi components.
"There was an aspect of competition in terms of outdoing your neighbor," Delphia said, and people would add annually to their presepi somewhat the way people expand their lawn lighting displays now.
The Presepio remains on display in the Carnegie Hall of Architecture through Jan. 10. For information: 412-622-3131 or www.cmoa.org.
"There's an aspect of human delight -- a celebration of realism and trying to create something in miniature that is so lifelike."
Four of the Carnegie's figures -- a fisherman, two mendicants or beggars, and a poor man -- are among the earliest and made entirely of terra cotta. The beggar group is attributed to master sculptor Giuseppe Sammartino, known for his monumental marble works.
Later figures have terra cotta heads and busts that are attached to tow and wire bodies. Carved wooden arms and legs that may be articulated heighten the illusion of animation, as do glistening glass eyes.
"No one is boring," Delphia said. "Every expression is identifiable as an expression. No one is blank."
Skilled seamstresses made costumes of the finest materials, silk and linen, some with gold and silver metallic thread. Some figures wear jewelry, such as the real coral bead necklace on a woman at far right. Embroidery patterns and other embellishments represent identifiable regional features.
Silversmiths, goldsmiths, whitesmiths and others produced finimenti, or finishing touches, like baskets and plates. The urn a Wise Man carries is crafted of real silver, for example. Fruits, vegetables and meats were often fashioned from wax for its translucent quality.
Details are impressive. Tiny cheese wheels bear the stamp of their makers. One man sports a five-o'clock shadow; others, moles or birth marks.
People who worked in theater and opera prepared the sets and staging, including lighting the display.
"[The presepio] brings all the arts together," Delphia said, "this army of passion and talent coming together to create these beautiful things. You can imagine people opening up their homes," to share and to show off.
Delphia has been responsible for setting up the presepio for four years and changes it a little each time, paying particular care to relocating a small nesting bird.
"I was told it was a Pittsburgh tradition to hide it in a different place every year."
But care is given to each placement. "I love our angels. When we hang them, we consider height and pitch and rotation, almost like in aerodynamical terms."
What she's most intent upon is instilling a sense of vitality and movement, achieved partly by setting up vignettes. She places a standing woman next to the grape seller, who appears about to break into tears; a second woman approaches from behind. Two ruffians stop a man driving an ox cart loaded with wine casks.
"Are they asking for directions? Giving him a hard time?" Delphia asks.
A Turkish band snakes through the crowds announcing that the ship they belong to has arrived in port.
"It's important to have that sense of realism as opposed to a bunch of little props."
The 18th-century viewer would have been more familiar than today's audience with the contemporary characters depicted; he would probably also have been more knowledgeable about symbolic pieces.
The sleeping shepherd beneath the Holy Family, may look innocuous. But he represents "the slumber of man as Christ came into the world. Man was not prepared for his coming," Delphia said.
The nearby stag is a symbol for Christ.
The two architectural pieces that came from Italy include Roman ruins that now shelter the Nativity, an allusion to the replacement of the great pagan civilization by Christianity. The other is an inn like the one that had no room for Mary and Joseph on the night of Jesus' birth. In front of it a wealthy couple dine and a musician plays, while from the upper floors startled servants look in the direction of the otherworldly flock of angels.
In the 19th century, Italy's changing political structure resulted in altered fortunes, and the large presepi were dismantled.
The late Mr. and Mrs. George Magee Wyckoff purchased the presepio figures, finimenti and architectural pieces for the museum in 1957 from noted second-generation Neapolitan collector Eugenio Catello. Only four figures have been added, a late 1970s gift of Mrs. Frederic Cook.
The closest U.S. presepio display to the Carnegie's is that of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, which also came from the Catello family.
There is a market for antique presepio figures, but Delphia said it's a challenge to find "a group that works" considering the variance of scale and of artisans' style.
For contemporary devotees, presepi components continue to be made in Naples, where the price per figure can be in the thousands of dollars depending upon quality, size and artist reputation.
That's where Rizzi DeFabo, co-owner of Rizzo's Malabar Inn in Crabtree, Westmoreland County, purchased his museum-quality components, which he continues to add to. A dozen figures plus animals and finimenti are on display in the restaurant's main dining room through Jan. 10.
The Neapolitan presepio is a living tradition in another way also, as new characters are created yearly. Delphia noted with a smile that among the most recent are President and Mrs. Obama. Even so, the Carnegie has no plans to expand its already exemplary display.