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Neapolitan crib, a symbolic masterpiece

Not only a religious symbol, the Neapolitan nativity scene is a vivid representation of Naples in the 18th Century

presepe napoletano Maradona

With Christmas on the doorstep, the tradition splits into two: the team “tree” and the team “crib” dominate the scene, but it is not uncommon to come across a third-team syncretic: that of fans of both symbols, which subdivide with abundance the living room to set up the tree and nativity scene, regardless of square meters.

There is, however, a magic that goes beyond all that, and that manages to excite and amaze anyone: it is the Neapolitan nativity scene, an incredible synopsis of sacred and profane, of genius and madness, a maze of symbols to leave anyone speechless. Real works of art in which all the imagination and creativity of the Neapolitan people is expressed, every Neapolitan nativity scene  is a journey into the crowded and colorful Naples of the 700, between faces and costumes, arts and crafts.



“‘O scartellato”, Benino, Cicci Bacco, Maria “‘a purpetta” are just some of the many people we meet in the workshops of San Gregorio Armeno, the beating heart of the nativity scene art of the capital of Campania. 

Of course, now we can not walk quietly through the alleys, preferably with a heart in hand, and breathe the atmosphere of Christmas that surrounds Naples, but we can travel the imagination waiting to be able to return to do it physically. 

And so, here we are at the heart of the artisan tradition, between the famous Decumani and the church that houses the Veiled Christ, the precious work of Giuseppe Sanmartino, one of the greatest Neapolitan sculptors of the eighteenth century, and, coincidentally, the most famous nativity scene, that started a real school.

This year, to dominate the scene of the colorful windows of San Gregorio Armeno – we can imagine it without any effort – there is him, Diego Armando Maradona, the undisputed idol of the city. Yes, because, for those who do not know, the artisans do not just create terracotta figurines that represent a classic nativity, although surrounded by picturesque characters of eighteenth-century Naples: the stars and stars of today are present more than ever and they’re highly sought after.


The scenery represented in the present Neapolitan nativity scene is, in fact, the extension of what, already in the eighteenth century, was intended to be: an instrument of pure realism, identifying and strengthening the feeling of belonging to a community in its detailed composition. The same realism permeates theatrical performances, literary works, and Neapolitan film productions.



Returning to classicism and the history of the Neapolitan crib, we know that its origin is dated around 1500, in the period in which San Gaetano di Thiene, founder of the Order of Clerics regular teatini, gave a considerable boost to the culture of the popular crib, including secondary characters in the set design. In 1530, the Saint created in the Oratory of Santa Maria della Stalletta a crib with wooden figures belonging to both the ancient world and contemporary times: a considerable turning point, which led to the birth of the craft of “figuration”.

The art of the creation of the statuettes then exploded in 1600, when the Neapolitan artists fully grasped the version of the crib of San Gaetano and introduced new characters with a strong mysterious perspective: the people, the sellers of fruit, the gypsy, the beggars, to name a few. The latter correspond, according to a codified symbology, to the 12 months of the year, starting from the butcher or the charcuterie, which represent the month of January, up to the fishmonger or the fisherman, a simulacrum of December.

There are as many as 72 figures today recognized as fundamental pieces of the Neapolitan crib, but there are those who say they go as far as 90, just like the numerology of Smorfia. In the year of the pandemic, many of the artisans of San Gregorio Armeno have opened to e-commerce: you can find the list on this page.




To be able to admire the most famous nativity scene in the world, mark a visit to the National Museum of San Martino, where the wonderful nativity scene Cuciniello is kept. Its story is just as wonderful: its author, Michele Cuciniello, was a multifaceted character of Naples, lived in the city of Campania in the nineteenth century. His greatest passion, in addition to architecture and theater, were the statues depicting the shepherds of the eighteenth century, with the head in painted terracotta, the wooden arts, and the body in tow. He collected about 800 pieces, an impressive collection that he decided to donate to Demetrio Salazar, director of the Museum of San Martino, on the condition that he set the stage himself, with the help of a friend architect.

Less known, but equally important and deserving of being visited are the traditional nativity scenes of San Nicola alla Carità, that of Santa Maria la Nova, and Sant’Anna dei Lombardi.