Music and culture in the 18th century crib
This research wants to be a brief consideration on the relationship between the authors of the great crib staging in Naples in the 18th century and the cultural and musical background they worked in. The first consideration which strikes us is that, while nowadays we can suddenly link the image of a man who is playing to the musical reality of today, it is more difficult for us to link the crib iconography to its musical world; and yet the 18th century crib scene is a great theatre where the actors (the shepherds) and the places, represented in an obsessive realism, are the mirror of Naples, seen as the indiscussed European capital of culture and, above all, of music. The 18th century is, for this city, a golden age for every art manifestation, but it is the musical masterpieces to give it an everlasting fame; the serious opera, or Metastasian - from the contribution of the 18th century greatest poet - and the comic opera, vivid and ironical representation of the Neapolitan comicality, and also "cantate", oratorios, sacred dramas, serenades of other instrumental music. From the plenty of news, newspapers, and notes of that age, we can point out a lot of major and minor manifestations, linked to parties, anniversaries, marriages, birthdays, pregnancies, celebrations, victories and military parades, and all the festivities of the liturgical calendar, of the Carnival and the patronal Saints, which involve all the social classes. These myriad of shows come out from the persevering engagement of very active institutions, as the four Conservatories, the theatres, the churches, the Royal Chapel, the Chapel of S. Gennaro's Treasure, and then the Charity institutions, the confraternities and the congregations, the Annunziata and the monasteries, only to quote the most important ones. A work of art, always fashionable, as the crib, certainly underlined such an important wonder, through a fantastic filter, and, together with the painting and sculptural aspect, music was specially interesting to crib artists as far as the instruments construction was concerned. The artists, who were often lute players too, with the usual philological and realistic rigour, committed the perfect and miniaturistic reconstruction of the musical instruments and they were also able to make them play when the products were of high quality.
The crib is an extraordinary synthesis of popular and learned, where the reality is reproduced in the moving act; so we can't listen to music through real sounds, but we can only imply it in a series of events of the ordinary life, where playing music is an essential and natural element, and where the palyer is not only linked to the Christmas tradition, but recalls a piece of real Neapolitan history and confers an exotique touch to the prevailing 18th century fashion. We can see some real topical places of a theatrical scene, the tavern, the "tarantella", the Eastern players' procession, the group of the serenade, besides the pipers in the scene of the Announcement and of the Birth; here the shepherds act as musical theatre's actors, playing, motionless, always the same role.
The tavern was considered the place where customers, travellers and merchants, players and soldiers, students and idlers found a shelter, amused and cheered by the music of strolling musicians and beggings; we can find hundred of them or more in Naples and the most famous were the tavern of "Cerriglio", of "Crispano agli Incarnati", and then of "Pontone", "Fondaco del Cetrangolo", "Cerriglio piccolo" and "Cerriglio grande", all in the area of Rua Catalana, just to quote some of them. They had, as an indispensable frame, all kind of food, drink and goods which, with their fine show, nourished the imagination of artists, sculptors and painters, architects and scenographers of the greath crib stagings.
In this lively exultancy of colours, sounds and noises, music was not only a set but, like a poetic counterpoint, it reproduced this exhibition of wealth and opulence in the texts and in the joyful rythm of the villanelle. But these palyers' reality was very different from the scenary they were looking at; margined from any working and corporative opportunity, branded by customs and sanctions, forced to beg and to street play, they lived in condition of poverty and endemic hunger, with their hollow and wrinkled faces in a state of resignation, as it is well supported by the wonderful 18th century samples made by G. De Luca and F. Celebrano. The musical instruments, they were used to accompany themselves on, belonged to the popular tradition of the Southern Italy, present in serenades, joyful trips in the country and boat trip to Posillipo, as it is testified by Giovan Battista Valentino in the little poem "Napole scontraffatto dopo la peste" of 1668, where he tells about some musical instruments of that age: "cetole, chitarre e tammorielle", "tiorbe a taccone e Colasciune", "viole e violune". We can find some of these instruments in the crib, as the scab tiorba, a string instrument played with a special quill, the scab and the "colascione", a kind of three-stringed lute with a small convey case and a neck 100/200 cm long; they were built by the crib artists with plenty of details, using tortoise's sheets with bone, ivory and nacre inlays. Small masterpieces of art and refinement which indirectly recalls a great Neapolitan tradition linked to the lute-makers and to the string construction, that brought to the birth of a string-makers' corporation.
The other theatrical typical of the crib scene is the sumptuous procession of the Eastern men, and now our speech becomes rich in suggestions. The 18th century crib, as a work of art, is sensible to all the cultural and literary fashions of the age: one of these is the Orientalism, born in the wake of the commercial exchanges embarked on with those far lands thanks above all to the establishment of the India Company; it pervaded all kinds of decoration, from dressing to the furniture of the Neapolitan nobility (the so-called Chinese knick-knacks). At the end of the 17th century, in France, the interest for the Turkish music was born as a reflex of the attention to the Ottoman culture and the Turkish military instrument set entered the Western world to imitate the loud sounds and timbres of the Janissaries' band.
Naples was not immune from the Eastern fascination, which pervaded also the music and the opera scenes, and the reproduction of sounds and harmonies of these far countries was named "Turcherie", and neither the Mozartian theatre was immune from them. The Eastern players' band on the crib, so richly dressed, seems to make alive the suggestive taste of these timbre atmospheres; they make the playing act more realistic, the instruments they use inspire a more sincere representation of the faces, their features change in the effort of breathing, and their fingers are often reproduced in the act of pressing the pistons. The band is made up of ten elements and a bandmaster, unlike the one of the Janissaries, which had fifty four players. The instruments were tubas, horns, drums, bassdrums, "davul" in the Turkish language, stricken by a mallet or a brush, high and shrill oboe, "serpentoni", cymblas, "zil" in Turkish, bugle-horns, Turkish brass trumpets, called "buru", and clarinets, instruments we'll find again in the French and Rossini theatre and in many symphony orchestras. We'll give some information about each of them. The "serpentone" was a kind of horn with a typical "S" form, very big and with a low register, which was used as a grave support in military bands, and was also used in the opera "The Corynth siege" by Rossini; the bugle-horn was a military trumpet with a curved pavillion; the cymbals, called also "plates", were metallic instruments with a tinkled sound, called concussion or reciprocal percussion instruments, that is every hand held an element; the crescent, or Turkish hat, was a vertical stick with a metallic crescent and other symbols such as hand-bells and harness-bells; the tubas were instruments from the family of cornets and "flicorni"; some of them were with a grave register and straight-shaped, some greater ones were circular, called "helicon". And also we could specify other peculiarities of these instruments, and we could extend this list very much, but it is important, instead, to underline that the representation of these characters, the realistic rigor of these figurines, the plenty of details they are dealt with, are the indirect reflex of a lively and present cultural background, common both in learned and aristocratic buyers and in the artists who made every important crib staging.