Year 1 - n.1 - December 2000


Lay culture and faith in the neapolitan crib of the 17th century.      


he crib strongly suffered from “the movement of thought that brings clarity”, and in the entirely new  situation  that took root,  even more so as time passed, it turned it’s attention to nature, and to the representation of real life , participating in immediate and documentated seasons, to revalue  the realities of the period that were considered an important  part of a complicated spiritual world, in which the  artist took part himself.

In fact, it was not by chance , that the director , the head artist of the crib, was almost always a middle-class painter or architect; in any case a person who possessed a culture that transpired the essence of the century. an essence of which , in the neapolitan environment, risulted well moderated by a strong historical and religious conscience.

The art of crib making, in it’s complexity, did not conclude it’s development with the attention it dedicated  to the environment, with the representation of real life, and with the cronicle of topical interest, it’s contribution to the enlightenment philosophy;  it also contributed to the movement with the most concrete and impressive representation of the time: from the products of  the earth and the sea ( made of wax and polychromed terracotta ), to manufactured articles,  jewellery,  musical instruments,  weapons, and to everyday objects ( made to scale , in the original  materials and essences ); all worthy of being among the curiosities named in the Diderot and D’Alembert encyclopaedia for their enormous and complete variety of examples, published in 1751.

The animal world was also represented, by realistic anatomical figures,  that enlarged the theme to particular moments of life and contained a whole  zoological series of domestic pets complete with every type and variety of species, enriched also with a vast amount of exotic beasts.

In the growing interest towards nature,  individual values and human feelings could not be absolutely omitted. The greatest neapolitan  scuptor of  the 17 TH century, transformed these qualities into practical suggestions for the crib, therefore leaving clear proof in these particular works of art of the strains and tensions expressing state of mind and passions. Now if the crib figures of Giuseppe Sanmartino reflect the enlightment philosophy, in the same way it was to be found also in the small heads moulded by Nicola Somma, Francesco Celebrano, Salvatore Franco and Lorenzo Mosca, whom, differing from the Maestro,  dedicated their attention to the external aspects of man, to the study of  physiognomy.

At the turn of the century, the enlightenment  characteristic was fading , the inspiration that had maintained it for so long had died, and the only part left was the  memory; nostalgical, miming the editions of the past. The change in the political and social conditions had indirectly made the crib take a different course;  it was at a standstill, continuing with it’s 17 TH century costumes and environment, unable to keep up with the times, and without  renewing the  scenery, a profound internal necessity was missing and that consequently forced this type of work of art to cease existing.

The neapolitan crib of the “gold century”, rich with lay culture and faith, full of religious symbols and refined pictorial quotes, was often confused with other contemporary representations of the 18th century,  changed it’s inclination and started working  in a new direction, towards the deviation that already existed and that priviliged the working class aspects, and to the parody. The unusual rise in popularity of the “tavern scene” (representation  that dominated over others, a fascinating and luring environment, certainly an unusual choice for the crib) and the growing popularity of figurines depicting each single one working at his  own job and  selling, selling everything, everything under the sun, subtracted attention and thus left  it only a limited space. This tendency became the most popular, thus  breaking it’s precedent procedure, uniqueness, compactness,  the conception of a great crib set, and it resulted even more popular with the majority, reflecting the  pleasure found in the episode, in reference to uses and traditions; underlining the fact that no careful planning or special attention preceded the  work that would have overcome  the eventual  difficulties,  an enormous amount of scenery, crib figures, and accessories placed  together;  leaving aside everything  that had been before, disregarding the core of the subject, the only basis for the representations: “The Mistery”, that objectively speaking, had become only an excuse  for so much ostentation.

 Were these french jacobean ideas ? the retaliation of the bourbonic reign ? Or was it the beginning of a new generation of crib makers who possessed limited knowledge and very little faith ? The fact remains though that cribs were never constructed again, and even if they were by chance made, they had lost that special characteristic, that stimulus, that had made them protagonists of the 17th century in Naples.