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FABRIZIO FIORENZANO | PHOTOJOURNALIST
NAPOLI, SAN GREGORIO ARMENO
To describe an artistic form or a local tradition may seem easy, but if you have to illustrate what Neapolitan craftsmen of nativity scenes do, then the task can be quite hard.
In the heart of Naples, the Decumani district, there is a street that has become famous all over the world: Via San Gregorio Armeno. Here from time immemorial, generations of master craftsmen have committed their lives to the creation of nativity scenes and Christmas shepherd figurines. A host of workshops and little shops come one after the other along the road and in the near-by alleys. Hundreds of thousands of people, especially tourists from all over Italy and from abroad, admire and are enraptured by the incredible skill of these craftsmen. The bright colours from the shops, the stands occupying the street and from the thousands of Christmas items displayed give the place that festive and joyful atmosphere typical of the warm and passionate people from the south.
Here you can find all the accessories you need for a nativity scene, even the ones you wouldn’t imagine to find such as little cork or cardboard houses of various sizes, windmills or electronically-activated waterfalls. There are clay hand-painted shepherds dressed with real cloths custom-tailored and even wearing shoes that, measuring only a few millimeters, fit perfectly maintaining the body’s proportions. Many types of figurines are portrayed while carrying out various activities, such as fruit or fish sellers, butchers, pizza makers baking a pizza and housewives hanging the washing out of the window. They are very accurate and even the minuscule accessories such as fruits look like they are real, if not for their size. And then of course there are the classic figures of Christmas nativity scenes as the Three Kings and the Holy Family.
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Precision and attention to details are impressive. The figurines, of various sizes, are perfectly created up to the smallest detail. Without knowing the actual dimensions of these little papier-mâché houses, only a few centimeters in size, it could come across as being undemanding craftwork, but if you pay attention to the details you’ll see there are really minute items, almost microscopic.
However, this is not an everyday market display: those who go to San Gregorio Armeno will be admiring art in the true sense of the word, all of which are the fruits of labour of families’ whose craft ,skill and technique have been handed down for generations.
Not all the Neapolitan Nativity Scene craftsmen can spare much time answering visitors questions; they’re not being rude, they’re just concentrating and are busy working.
It’s almost impossible to resist the desire to buy something and leave San Gregorio Armeno empty-handed. Those who want to create their own Nativity Scene can use their imagination by buying the stable of their desired size and decorating it with the preferred characters, putting them where and how they wish.
Wandering among the stands looking at the goods displayed help you to get ideas too. You can always copy and adapt an idea to your needs, although asking craftsmen for advice is usually the best thing to do.
There are products to suit every budget but of course, since the professional skill and extreme patience needed to create these masterpieces, it could be expensive if you decide to buy the most sophisticated items. Usually the price starts from 35-45 Euros for simple models, for example the 5 cm shepherd figurine, up to thousands of Euros for large creations based on the classic eighteenth century shepherds.
Apart from the shepherds, in San Gregorio Armeno you can also find objects that have nothing to do with the holiness of the Nativity Scenes but that indicate the Neapolitan imagination, irony and creativity.
There are caricatures of famous personalities from current affairs, such as politicians or big name celebrities. Some craftsmen have specialised in creating these mockeries and as soon as a person comes to the fore, they create a statuette of them. Among the most famous worldwide there is the Pope, Luciano Pavarotti, Diego Armando Maradona, a few heads of state and, recently, a craftsman has portrayed the candidates for the primary American presidential elections.
But why this street? History has it that in 726 A.D. some Greek and Armenian nuns, victims of a decree by Emperor Leo II against icons of worship, took refuge in Naples. The nuns couldn’t imagine that the relics of Saint Gregory, the Bishop of Armenia, which they had taken with them, would later have given the name to an area of Naples, center of the religious symbolism cult.
When San Gregorio Armeno Church was erected, it brought about an activities center connected to the icons and relics cult exactly where we can now admire the Neapolitan art of Nativity Scenes.
Via San Gregorio Armeno can obviously be visited all the year around: most of the workshops are always open, even if displaying a smaller amount of handcrafts. Even then you can still watch craftsmen at work and without any rush. At Christmas time, on the contrary, the influx of tourists is tremendous. Sometimes even taking a picture can be hard because of the crowd.
The ideal time to visit is between September and November; without the crowd you can easily move among the various shops and, without any rush, choose more wisely and compare prices.
It has to be said that what’s most appealing in a visit to San Gregorio Armeno is the chance to see for yourselves the history of the city and a part of its soul. You can almost hear the great Eduardo De Filippo’s voice while, in the play Natale in Casa Cupiello (Christmas at the Cupiello’s, 1931), he fiddles about preparing his nativity scene. 1
Just before Christmas you are bombarded with the aromas of seasonal Neapolitan cuisine and the excited melodious voices of the population.
Nativity scenes constitute a solid and rooted Neapolitan tradition, a very precious treasure both local and national, a peculiarity of a people that, even if it often gets itself talked about for the wrong reasons, at the same time is much loved and recognized to have huge qualities and virtues.
In short, Naples is this way too.