The Nativity scene took its origin from St. Francis of Assisi’s wish to recreate, in a natural environment, the scene of the birth of Christ in Bethlehem, with real characters of his time, such as shepherds, angels and animals, all of whom took part in a re-enactment in Greccio, in the Lazio region of Italy on Christmas Eve in 1223.
The first recorded example of a non-living presepio was made by Arnolfo di Cambio in 1280, using wooden statues, some of which are still preserved in the Crypt in the Chapel of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. Until the mid-15th century, artists created terracotta or wooden statues which were then placed against a painted background. The Nativity scene was usually placed inside churches during the Christmas season.
The cradle of this craft was in Bargia (Tuscany), but it soon became a tradition that moved to Naples under King Charles III. The Neapolitan crèche consists basically of two parts; one is called mistero (mystery) – which includes Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, angels, oxen and a donkey. The second part is called diversorio – a marketplace scene that may also include hundreds of peasant characters. The Nativity scene is often placed among the ruins of a temple or against a mountain background.
In the Christmas season, via San Gregorio Armeno in Naples becomes a splendid marketplace where one can buy all kinds of figurines made of glass, stone, marble, clay, gesso or porcelain.
Neapolitan masters in the 17th and 18th centuries developed this tradition, adapting the landscape of Campania to that of the Nativity scene. The creation of figurines was funded by the Royal court and very often, the clothes made for the Magi imitated those of prominent people in the community and were woven in the Royal textile mills of San Leucio. During this time, there were also schools in Liguria, particularly in Genoa and also in Sicily, where artisans followed the Neapolitan tradition but instead used wax for the heads (in Palermo and Siragusa), or painted terracotta (in Savona and Albisola).
In the 19th century, the presepio tradition became a popular feature of most families. In Puglia, especially in Lecce, the use of paper-pulp became very sophisticated. In Rome, the most prominent families competed for the best and biggest presepe, set against landscapes typical of Rome or the surrounding countryside.
In the 20th century, especially after World War II, the tradition started to disappear and was replaced by the Christmas tree. Today, the presepio tradition is undergoing a true revival thanks to the live re-enactments, such as ones in Greccio, Rivisondoli (Abruzzo), Belcastro (Calabria), San Donato in Lecce and many other cities from the southern tip of Sicily to the northern reaches of the Italian Alps.