It’s late November, and I’m walking in the old section of downtown Naples, making my way down Via Tribunale – known throughout Naples as “Spaccanapoli” or the “Split of Naples”. Seen from above, this age-old avenue cuts across the city, severing it like an artery. A typical Napolitano inner city “street”, Via Tribunale seems not much more than an alley in parts, but certainly much more crowded and with no end in site. I dodge mopeds and cars, and pedestrian traffic of all ages that is amplified by the lack of space.
All year round – but even more so during the holidays – Via Tribunale is the place to go for bargains of all kinds. Sidewalk vendors jockey for space, hawking books, CD’s, sweaters and more, and nearly crowding out the sight of more than few famous landmarks. Can’t find what you’re looking for? Ask around. For the right price you can chance upon just about anything. But be careful what you wish for: more than one tourist has purchased a digital movie camera, only to find a block of wood hidden under the convenient plastic bubble-wrap. All this shoulder-to-shoulder chaos however is just a warm-up for what lies ahead. Just a few blocks away sits the beginning of Via San Gregorio Armeno, better known to tourists and locals as “Christmas Alley”.
It’s here, that visitors will find one of the largest displays of precepe’ in Europe. The precepe’ is the traditional manger or crib scene. Typically made out of paper mache’ and complete with figurines of the baby Jesus, the wise men, animals and more, San Gregorio Armeno is home to dozens of Precepe’ craftsmen. Including some families that have plied the same trade and occupied the same space since the 1930’s.
I’m careful not to trip. The cobblestones underneath my feet date back to the 18th century and still show signs of the wear and tear of carriage wheels from a simpler time. History will note that this was the presepe’s golden age. King Charles III is credited with creating the trade of “figuraio”, or figurine-maker. The King commissioned a magnificent presepe’ at Naples’ Palazzo Reale’, complete with mountain ranges, streams and trees, streets and bridges, taverns and shops. All with a hand-carved population of bakers, vendors, young and old. Over 150 angels were suspended over the Christ child, asleep in the manger vested with real silver, precious gems and ancient coins at his feet.
Such is the stuff of legend. Back in the real world, here on San Gregorio Armeno, the artisans of the precepe’ and its figurines are hard at work. These days you can find a wider variety of “personaggi” or characters to stock your precepe. From the traditional to the absurd. From the Christ-child to the crown-prince of fools known as Pulcinello, to politicians and more. Business for the precepe’ and it’s accoutrements is brisk and continues long after the holiday season has died down. But for all its popularity, the precepe’ may represent a craft with a nebulous future. Comments craftsman Paolo Annello,
“Ã¢Â?Â¦I learned this art form from my father and he learned the craft from his. But my sons, they want have no interest in the precepe’. It is exacting work – sculpting the manger, or fashioning the limbs and the heads and the faces. I do all right. I am lucky to earn a living for my family. But this work demands commitment. A real dedication that you either have or you don’tÃ¢Â?Â¦”
The variety of manger scenes far exceeds the traditional images from the Bible. Here you will find intricate replica’s of Italian village life. Figures that move. Bakers that roll bread dough. Spickets with real running water. I notice several shops displaying signs that say “We ship anywhere in the world”. It re-enforces what I’ve suspected for quite some time: that the business of precepe’s extends far beyond the city streets of Naples.
Despite it’s history, Naples isn’t the only place in Italy you can find the precepe’. In the South of Italy it’s called “Carte Pesta”, in the North it’s referred to as “CrÃ?Â¨che”. Apparently, like all popular art forms, the techniques of this craft have spread throughout Italy and abroad. In fact, every now and then – just to satisfy my curiosity – I look on the underside of several figurines to see if there is a “Made in Taiwan” stamp. Fortunately this isn’t.
So I purchase a few knick-knacks, snap several dozen photos and proceed to peel away from the ever-present crowd.
Christmas Alley is like a scene from some crazy film, except the cast of characters work on this avant-garde set year round. And for a moment at least, I was privy to its magic.