Year 1 - n.4 - September 2001

Music and culture in the eighteenth-century crib

E. De Angelis "Tamburello e mandoloncello a manico lungo

Archivio della Sezione


This study wants to be a short reflection on the relationship between the authors of the great crib stagings in Naples in the 18th century and the cultural and musical background where they worked. The first consideration which strikes us is that, while nowadays we can link immediately the image of a man who is playing to the today's musical reality , it is more difficult to link the crib iconography to its musical world; and yet the eighteenth- century crib scene is a great theatre where the actors (the shepherds) and the places, portrayed with an obsessive realism, are the mirror of Naples, considered as the uncontested European capital of culture and, above all, of music. The 18th century is, for this town, a golden age for each artistic expression. The musical masterpieces give Naples an everlasting fame: the serious opera, or Metastasian, so-called for the decisive contribution of the eighteenth-century greatest poet, the comic opera, vivid and ironic representation of the Neapolitan humor, and also "cantate", oratorios, sacred dramas, serenades and various instrumental music. By a large amount of news and newspapers of the period, we become acquainted with a great number of celebrations, linked to parties, anniversaries, marriages, birthdays, pregnancies, victories and military parades, and also all the fests of the liturgical calendar, of the carnival and the patron Saints, which involve all the classes of society. These numerous shows come out from the constant effort of very active institutions, such as the four Conservatoires, the theatres, the churches, the Royal Chapel, the Chapel of San Gennaro's Treasure, and then the Charity institutes, the brotherhoods and the congregations, the Annunziata and the monasteries, only to quote the most important ones. An art product, always fashionable, such as the crib showed certainly, through an imaginary filter, the importance of this phenomenon, and together with the painting and sculptural aspect, music interested crib artists as regard construction of instruments. The artists, who were often lutenists too, worked with the usual philological and realistic rigour to make the perfect and miniaturistic reconstruction of the musical instruments. They were also able to make them play when the products were of high quality. Being the crib an extraordinary synthesis of popular and learned, where the reality is reproduced in the moving act, we can't listen to music through real sounds, but we can only connect it to a series of events of common life, where music is the essential and natural element, and where the player is not linked to the Christmas tradition, but recalls a cross-sections of Neapolitan history and gives an exotic touch to the prevailing eighteenth-century style. In this connection we can see the real topical places of the 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 the Birth; here the shepherds act as actors of musical theatre performing, motionless, the same part.
The tavern was considered the place where customers, travellers and merchants, players and soldiers, students and idlers found a shelter, amused and gladdened by the music of buskers and beggars; we can find a lot of them in Naples and the most famous ones were the tavern of "Cerriglio", of "Crispano agli Incarnati", and then of "Pontone", of "Fondaco del Cetrangolo", "Cerriglio piccolo" and " Cerriglio grande" all in the area of Rua Catalana, only to quote some of them. They had got, as indispensable frame, all kind of food, drinks and goods which, put on fine display, stimulated the imagination of artists, sculptors and painters, architects and set designers of the great crib stagings.
In this lively mass of colours, sounds and noises, music was not only a decoration, but like a poetic counterpoint, it reproduced the show of wealth and opulence in the texts and in the joyful rhythm of "villanelle". But players' life was very different from the set they were looking at; margined from any working and corporate opportunity, marked by customs and sanctions, forced to beg and busk, they lived in condition of poverty and endemic hunger, with their hollow and wrinkled faces in a state of permanent resignation, as it is supported by the wonderful eighteenth-century samples made by G. De Luca and F. Celebrano. Musical instruments, played by musicians, belonged to the popular tradition of the Southern Italy and were played in serenades, joyful excursions in the country and boat trip to Posillipo, as it is testified by Giovan Battista Valentino in the little poem " Napole scontraffatto doppo la peste" in 1668, where he tells about some instruments of the period such as "cetole, chitarre e tammorielle", "tiorbe a taccone e Colasciune", "viole e violune". We can find some of these instruments on the crib, such as the " torbia a taccone", a string instrument played with a special quill, the "torbia" and the "coloscione", a kind of three-stringed lute with a little convex soundbox and a neck 100/200 cm.long; they were built by crib artists with abundance of details, utilizing tortoise's sheets with bone, ivory and nacre inlays. They were little masterpieces of art and refinement that indirectly recall a great Neapolitan tradition linked to violin-maker's and to the construction of strings. They caused the birth of a string-makers' corporation.
The other theatrical aspect of the crib art is the sumptuous procession of the Eastern men. In this connection our speech suggestes many considerations. The eighteenth-century crib, as a product of art, is sensible to all the cultural and literary styles of the period: one of these is the Eastern style, born in the wake of the trade exchanges made with those far countries thanks to the establishment of the Indian Company. The Eastern style pervaded all kinds of decorations, from clothes to furniture of 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 reflex of the attention to the Ottoman culture. The Turkish military instrument entered the Western world to imitate the loud sounds and timbres of the Janissaries'band.
Naples was not immune from the Eastern attraction, pervading also the music and the opera scenes. The reproduction of sounds and harmonies of these far countries was named "Turcherie", and neither Mozart's theatre was immune from them. Eastern players' band set on the crib, so richly dressed, recalls the suggestive taste of these sound atmospheres. They make the playing act more realistic, their instruments show the human faces in a more sincere expression, their features change in the effort of breathing and their fingers are often represented in the act of pressing the pistons. The band is made up of ten elements and a bandmaster, unlike Jannissaries' band which had fifty four players. The instruments were tubas, horns, drums, bassdrums, "davul" in the Turkish language, struck by a mallet or a brush, oboe with high-pitched and shrill sounds, "serpentoni", cymbals, "zil" in Turkish, bugle-horns, Turkish brass trumpet called "buru", and clarinets, instruments we will find again in the French and Rossiniano theatre and in many symphonic orchestras. We will give you some information about each of them. The "Serpentone" was a kind of horn in the shape of "S", very large and with a low register, which was used as a grave support in military band and in Rossini's opera " l'assedio di Corinto"; the bugle-horn was a military trumpet with the "padiglione ricurvo"; the cymbals, called also "plates", were metallic instruments with a tinkled sound, called mutual percussion instruments, that is each hand held an element; the "mezzaluna" , or Turkish hat, was a vertical stick with a metallic "mezzaluna" and other elements such as hand-bells and harness-bells; The tubas were instruments belonging to the family of "cornette e flicorni"; some of them had got a grave register and straight-shaped, those greater ones were circular, called "helicon".
And also we could tell other details of these instruments, and the list would be very long, but it is important, instead, to say that the representation of these characters, the realistic expression of these statuettes, the abundance of details, are the indirect reflex of a living and present cultural background. It is the same for learned and aristocratic buyers and the artists, makers of very important crib staging.


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E. De Angelis "Tiorba Liuto ed Arciliuto" 

Archivio della Sezione

Fulvio Guida "Mandolone" Archivio 

dell'Associazione Amici del Presepio

Eloisa Intini