For all of us at Christmas time it’s ‘tis the season,’ but in Naples, there is a neighborhood where it is Christmas year-round. The bond between the tradition of the presepio or nativity scene and the City of Naples is so entrenched and so exclusive that the term Neapolitan Nativity was coined.
The famous center of the universe for all things presepe is located on Via San Gregorio Armeno, also known as Christmas Alley. It is home to the artisans and merchants who specialize in the art and the craft of the Neapolitan Presepio.
From the religious to secular, the sacred to the profane, the presepio is a snapshot of Neapolitan life, both past and present. The centuries-old tradition of crafting the presepio was elevated to new heights by Neapolitan artists of the Baroque period, but it has continued to evolve, as successive generations of artists placed their own stamp on this time-honored craft.
What at first glance might appear to be tiny alley in Naples’ Centro Storico, Via San Gregorio Armeno is the heart and soul of the Neapolitan Christmas. Originally laid down in the 5th century BC, both sides are lined by tall, dark palazzos, creating an eerie dusk-like quality that glows with twinkling Christmas lights, interplaying with illumination from the street and shops. A sea of temporary stalls appears to have been carved into every niche in the alley, with each formerly open space inconceivably adding another dimension to the permanent shops that ply their trade year-round.
As the December 8th Feast of the Immaculate Conception approaches, the alley swells with thousands upon thousands of shoppers, tourists and the merely curious. Although the traditional craft is long established, there are always new figurines joining the already extraordinary cast of characters that have been painstakingly painted and portrayed in these novel nativity scenes.
Artisans who have had the tradition passed down from preceding generations for the past 150 years or more, work in shops such as Ferrigno, Fratelli Capuano and Di Virgilio. Many of these shops still have tiny workrooms in the back of their stores and a few have museums above. Some specialize in the mangers, others in the figurines.
Handcrafted of wood and terracotta, there are figurines of every type imaginable. The most popular are the traditional Nativity pieces, but characters who have symbolic meanings, such as the Gypsy, the shepherd Benino or Bacchus, the ancient God of Wine, are also big sellers. For those customers whose nativity scenes have grown to village proportions, there are tiny replicas of everyday life available; shop and innkeepers, butchers and fishmongers, animated bakers and pizzaioli, in addition to the annual inductees into the ‘presepe hall of fame.’ Visitor will find everything they need to create their own ‘individualized’ Neapolitan Nativity. Whether they wish to have their favorite soccer player next to the Holy Family or want President Donald Trump to be bearing gifts for the Baby Jesus, Christmas Alley is the place to make it happen.
There is so much on display among the traditional Neapolitan crafts like the famed Pulcinella or the Tammorra Napoletana, hand-painted with beautiful scenes of the Neapolitan seascape and of course, the latest cast of public characters. Whether it is the latest celebrity or political scandal, you can rest assured that the Neapolitan craftsmen will have a representation as quickly as the tabloids have a picture. From artisan crafts to the quirky and humorous, you will find it all on Via San Gregorio Armeno, a truly mystical, magical place, unlike any alley anywhere.