San Gregorio Armeno and the art of the nativity scene

Understanding all the facets of a complex city like Naples is perhaps an impossible mission, but for those who want to take a look at the enigma represented by what was once the capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, a walk along Via San Gregorio Armeno is an absolute must. On this road, in the historic centre of the city, are in fact located the workshops dedicated to the Neapolitan nativity scene, famous throughout the world.
Tradition has it that by the day of the Immaculate Conception, the 8th of December, most of the Italian families have already prepared the Christmas nativity scene under their tree, so a visit to this historic site can be crucial to acquire a little bit of “Italian-ness”. And if some workshops are open all year, it is only at Christmastime that you can see the items actually set up on display. So what better time for a trip in the beautiful and mysterious city of Campania? Let’s discover 5 curiosities regarding the tradition of one of the most famous streets in Naples.

1-      Via San Gregorio Armeno, the tradition
The tradition of the nativity scenes of San Gregorio Armeno has ancient origins. In this street in the classical era there was a temple dedicated to Ceres, to whom the citizens left small clay statues as offerings, which had been made in the nearby workshops. The birth of the Neapolitan nativity scene dates naturally from much later, from the end of the 18th century. Today Via San Gregorio Armeno is renowned the world over as the exposition centre of the craft workshops located here, all year long creating the statuettes for the nativity, following the canonical style as well as making original figures. Usually each year the most eccentric craftsmen create statuettes in the likeness of people who have been in the news and who have come to notoriety in either positive or negative ways throughout the year. The actual displays are set up during the Christmas period, usually from early November until the 6th of January.

2-      The best-selling statuettes
Here you can find everything you need for the nativity scene: from the houses made of cork or cardboard in various sizes, to “mechanical” objects powered by electricity such as windmills or waterfalls, from statuettes of shepherds in hand-painted terracotta to those measuring 30 cm in height with clothing in fabric that is tailor-made. There are also fruit vendors, fishmongers, the butcher and the water-carrier; but also the mechanised pizza chef who puts the pizza in the oven, classics like the presidents of Italy and the Three Kings and of course the Holy Family, accompanied by the ox and the ass, in all sizes, materials and prices. But alongside real works of art, made by artisan families who hand down the craft from generation to generation, one can also find objects that could only be called kitsch, but which however denote the imagination and the irony of the Neapolitans: statuettes (but it would be more accurate to call them caricatures) of the politician or the VIP of the moment which have become a must in the stalls of Via San Gregorio Armeno. Some artisans have specialised in the realisation of these shepherds of their own kind, and as soon as a personality is under the spotlight of the news, the relative figure is created, very often emphasising some detail connected to the event that made him or her famous.

3-      Costs of the Neapolitan nativity scenes
The countless Nativity scenes on display capture the attention of people of all ages. The workshops mainly offer all the material necessary for building or expanding one’s own manger scene. Those who prefer, however, can of course buy a nativity scene that is already complete, then separately buying other figures to decorate it. In general, the prices begin at 35-45 Euro for the simple models, but created with great care, for the figures that measure 5 cm, but can cost thousands of Euro if they are the large scenes based on reproductions of the classic figures used in the 18th century.

4-      How to reach the heart of Via San Gregorio
Via San Gregorio Armeno connects perpendicularly with two of the main roads of the historic centre of Naples, the so-called Decumani, the Greater (via dei Tribunali) and the Lesser (via San Biagio dei Librai). Starting from Via Duomo, one reaches Via San Gregorio Armeno by taking one of the two Decumani. For those using the metropolitan rail, the easiest way is that of getting off at the stop of Piazza Dante of Line 1 of the underground and walking to Porta Alba: from there, cross Via San Sebastiano, get to Via Benedetto Croce, until reaching the bell tower of the Church of Santa Chiara and continue in the opposite direction of that leading to Piazza del Gesù Nuovo. 

5-      And after the nativity scene… we eat!
After having seen the wonders of the artisan workshops, you surely are going to feel hungry: so you simply cannot miss the chance of trying the famous “cuoppo napoletano”, a paper cone filled with an assortment of fried foods (zeppoline, potato croquettes, fried dough, zucchini flowers, mozzarella, rice balls and so many other things). To be bought and eaten strictly on the street!

Looking for an hotel? Let’s discover where to sleep in Naples