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The Neapolitan Presepio

This long-time holiday favorite has deep roots rich in Neapolitan noble culture.





Italian, Neapolitan Presepio, 1700-1830, Carnegie Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. George Wyckoff

Derived from the Latin word praesepium, which means manger or stable, and based on events at the heart of Christianity, presepi were extremely popular between the 16th and 18th centuries, eventually becoming not only one of the showiest expressions of Italian Christian faithfulness, but also status symbols for the noble, aristocratic, and middle classes in Naples, Italy.

“ Between the 14th and 16th centuries, Bethlehem—the site of the Nativity—was a very popular pilgrimage site, and royal families returning from their trips spread interest in and devotion to the Nativity throughout Italy,” says Elisabeth Agro, assistant curator of decorative arts at Carnegie Museum of Art. “They also paid to have elaborate presepi built in churches or chapels. Then, around the turn of the 18th century, the aristocracy brought the presepio out of the church and into the home and its popularity really began to flourish.”

While every presepio ever made included three scenes based on Christian Gospels—the inn that denied the travelers space, the Holy Family in a manger, and the angels’ visit to the shepherds—at the height of its popularity in the 18th century, the presepio had very little to do with religion. Over time, the elaborate scene around the Nativity evolved and began to depict contemporary Neapolitan life. It became a popular pastime among the aristocracy to decorate the figures in the latest fashions using expensive fabrics and even jewels, displaying them in a different way every holiday season. In fact, constructing and visiting presepi in private homes became an important social ritual.

“ The presepi in 18th-century Naples were a way of displaying a family’s wealth, social status, and artistic sensibilities,” Agro says. “ The size, richness, and complexity of the owner’s display determined the owner’s level of prestige.”

By the middle of the 19th century, interest in presepi making and collecting waned and most of the important private collections were separated, either sold off in pieces or placed in museums. Purchased in 1956, Carnegie Museum of Art’s Presepio is one of just a few antique Neapolitan presepi in the United States that is still remounted every year. The entire collection consists of 123 handcrafted figures and animals and more than 100 accessories, props, and architectural elements.

“ The Presepio at Carnegie Museum of Art is one of the best examples of its kind outside of Italy,” says Agro. “It’s a very rare and exceptional artifact, and we’re pleased that we have been able to share this important Italian holiday tradition with Pittsburghers for the last 48 years.”

This year, visit the Neapolitan Presepio in its new location in the Hall of Sculpture at Carnegie Museum of Art. It will be on view through January 8. Guided tours of the Presepio will be offered Tuesdays through Sundays, November 25 through December 31, from 12:30-1 p.m.

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