Year 1 - n.1 - December 2000



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


n a city, where  perseverance in applying  itself to one theme only was certainly not one of itís  principle  characteristics; between the end of the 16th century and the first twenty years of the 18th century, an unusual phenomenon occurred, something which  has never been seen in the entire history of this population, neither before or afterwards. During a period of increasing formal expression and quality, which reached itís peak  between the 60ís and 80ís of the XVIII century, the neapolitan population of all social levels, prepared christmas cribs. In the circles  where the economical and cultural  conditions  existed,  cribs of such an impressive artistic value were produced that an enormous interest surrounded them, in fact they were mentioned in the chronicles of the time and noted down in the diaries of foreign travellers who visited Naples in the 17th century.

Why such perseverance ? Why was it that the constructions representing  this religious event flourished in the whole  of the catholic world, and lasted for so long ? We can start off by saying that this perseverance could exist and continue  to exist only if the spirit and the  basis were of a genuine nature; to stimulate this there was the need to find a symbol : and as a symbol for the population there was nothing better than religious faith.

  The involvement in the birth of the Holy Baby was so intense and so deeply felt that the wish to represent the religious moment made many commit mistakes in the  sequence of events, changing the consistency and logic, and  not even hesitating to represent ďThe MysteryĒ in his own era, in the familiar countryside among well known people  recognizable  in the small,  dressed up figures, in the dream coming true, in the global vision of apparent reality.  What other energy existed, to bring to the crib such truth ? what other power could stand side by side with the faith ?

Carefully analysing the time and the ambience in which the events were maturing, it is helpful to remember that the man of the 17th century was developing a thirst for knowledge, an indipendant  train of thought, a freedom of mind, a curiosity to understand nature and the personality of  mankind.

Therefore, the rococo scene, conditioned by the domineering classes  (the government,clergy and aristocracy), was opposed to by another  tendency having a completely  different bases : the beliefs of the middle-classes. Strangely enough, the obstinate intention of  trying  to dispel  these differences at all costs,  found in Naples, in the making of christmas cribs, fertile ground. In what way?

Certainly  without knowledge, unconciously, and in any case on every occasion in which it was possible to let itís imagination roam, in giving form to a magnificent construction  trying to replicate  real life, including each minute detail describing the scenes inspired both from every day life  to those only imagined;  in the complexity of  scenes and buildings shown in detail with their various levels, angles and views; in a reproduction of the environment appearing in an extremely realistic prospective, with the intention of stimulating the feeling of  spaciousness. Documents confirming theses opinions exist, they are the cronicles and manuscripts  drawn up in the 17 TH century. Even though they were by authors of different nationalities, written in the space of a hundred years, with opinions both flattering and disparaging ( speaking of the neapolitan crib as an artistic form); all the writings have a common denominator : they all agree on an overall positive opinion, and the  point of view  regarding the perspectives.  Reading these opinions again transmits a clear and unambiguous reference to the main figurative symbol of the century.