There is a neighborhood in the heart of Naples called San Gregorio Armeno where artisans make and sell presepi figurines for nativity scenes. You can visit this neighborhood in the summer, too, to buy the lovely figurines, but it was just before Christmas when I first discovered it and the crowds were so intense that it was difficult to move. My son and daughter, who were still small children at the time, clung to me, holding on tight. Negotiating the narrow street I was terrified that they would be swept away by this lava flow of humanity. However, the crowd was cheerful, friendly and loud, full of families and school kids, and soon we just relaxed and fell into the slow, molten movement, swept along with the others.
The streets were lined with shops and stands displaying thousands of presepi characters. The small stucco figurines are made of painted clay and look like they have stepped out of the scenes of a Neopolitan opera. In addition to Mary, Jesus and the baby, the cast is made up of flirtatious baker’s wives, half-naked beggars, old men and gossiping women, children and animals. Small buildings, tiny artisan shops, fountains and arches are all for sale to create a miniature “Bethlehem” a town, which in the presepi, looks just like Naples.
It is said to have been Francis of Assisi, that endearing saint who knew how to speak to animals and children, who first thought up the idea of displaying a living Nativity Scene in the 13th century. The tradition reached its artistic height and popularity in Naples in the 18th century during the reign of the Bourbons. On that first visit we found our way into one of the little shops and soon had a bag of figurines, wrapped in newspaper. Though fragile looking they are remarkably sturdy and survived the trip home.
Now whenever our nativity scene gets set up, no matter where we are in the world, I feel like I am not only unpacking the expressive little figures, but the intense energy of the Neopolitan streets. Sometimes when I walk by it, I can almost hear the voices, the singing of a tenor in one of the tiny upstairs windows, the characteristic musical shouts of the shop keepers, the bustling, enchanting noise of Naples itself.
If you are staying at the UNA Hotel Napoli on Piazza Garibaldi you can walk there to the area of the presepi. Head up Via Duomo, Turn left on Via Tribunali, then take your third left turn onto San Gregorio Armeni.