Year 1 - n.2 - March 2000




hanks to  an enormous amount of  literature on the subject, numerous texts and important Authors, we have been given the origins , evolution and the transformations “ex novo”, regarding the neapolitan traditions of the Christmas Crib, which was at the height of it’s maximum splendour from the late Baroque period  (of which it will never completely lose it’s influence), that is from the end of the 16th Century until the first few decades of the 19th century. The efforts of the artists, the hard work  of the artisans that contributed to the outcome of the final product, are  abundantly mentioned  in those pages of History that were often written in a disorderly fashion and only rarely  the opinions included therein  were in agreement.
Collective  Madness of the Naples of the time”, “Society games”, “enjoyment”, with which, in the seventeenth century Naples, in a frivolous and "false" Society, decadent aristocrats and emerging middle-class individuals passed their boring and idle days, never for one moment imagining the horrors they would have to face with the coming of the French Revolution. Nearer to the truth, though, appears the definition of “a Phenomenon swinging to and fro between the History of Art and the History of Customs”, as Franz Von Lobstein quoted, repeating the phrase heard elsewhere, in one of his texts. Nearer to the truth, we were saying, but still along way away from giving a precise idea of the Naples of the Bourbon period “Modern and illuminated”, the only true capital of Italy, Wolfgang Ghoete, some years later, replied to whoever asked him his opinion on Naples , by saying : “Naples? It’s Paris! All the other cities are only miniature Lyons!”.
In 1752, Vanvitelli, writing to his brother Urbano, described the construction of the Christmas Crib as “a boyish prank”, even though he knew that many artists participated in the preparation : scene designers, painters, silver craftsmen, tailors, dressmakers, lute-makers and according to what eminent scolars “declare” great sculptors that modelled the Figurines. In fact, this was a flourishing school, if we consider the pieces made by Lorenzo Vaccaro, Matteo Bottiglieri, Felice Bottiglieri, Angelo Viva, up until Giuseppe Sanmartino, delicate creator of the suggestive “Veiled Christ”, kept  in the San Severo chapel in Naples. The dutch architect, born in Naples (affirmation surely justified on this occasion), found, perhaps, his exact limit in the greatness of his Works : from the top of his Buildings, from his Bridges and Aqueducts he was not able to see  (or maybe he just made out he was not able to, because  on the same occasion and on others too, in the end he “acquitted” the Crib) the True Art in a small thing ( but not a small thing)  as the representation of the Nativity. To be truthful, the subject of the christmas Mystery as represented in the Crib, is not easy to understand for the neapolitan population. The direction in which mankind was going and its final destination  was certainly not represented in the arts, at least not as it was contemplated in that period. The doctrine of the time, in fact, thought of it as a representation from “Real Life” , but “Real Life” that must appear beautiful whatever the cost; therefore distant from the “False” that was represented by the procession of the Orientals (absent in the bible, and as we have mentioned on other occasions, the number of the Wise Men was not even specified ), at least as distant as the “Real Life” of the “ragamuffins” of the  “academies” (those also were false because they were more handsome and did not have  bad body odour, as those who were normally on the city streets). These “black” and “white” extremes ( strictly a baroque code), never “absolutely” white and never “desperately” black, makes the neapolitan Crib, beginning with these two simple colours, start off on the difficult road in the search for intermediate tints (“the shadows”), following the major and most important examples of baroque art, without losing itself though in the excessive structural elements that limited the production of that school. The separation  though, resulted clear  if  compared to the Contents, that with rare intuition anticipated the  Romanticism contexts. It is also to be said, that the contents did not in any way influence the opinion of the onlooker, who always appreciated the final artistic creation of the Christmas Crib, forming an opinion based on his own personal point of view (whatever that was) and single cultural background. At this point it seems necessary to discuss all themes relating to literature  and paintings ( paintings  having an affinity even closer to the themes we aim to face),and above all , the artistic trend that our christmas Crib anticipated.

Umberto Grillo