This article first appeared in 2007. Updated 2018.
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I have always maintained a firm policy of staying out of those year-round Christmas stores; even the one on Route 101 from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara with the giant inflated Santa Claus flying over it was no temptation for me.
This month, however, I went to the ultimate Christmas store, of sorts, the Via San Gregorio Armeno in Naples. This narrow street in the center of the city (and near the 16th-century Benedictine cloister of the same name) is lined with shops overflowing with Christmas decorations. My change of heart came about when I read an article about Neapolitan artists who are making contemporary political figures for traditional Italian nativity scenes. Only the idea of Nativity composed of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi as the “Three Wise Men” could have gotten me to break my rules!
Historically, Italian nativity scenes varied greatly from region to region. The tradition in Naples – where in many homes the presepio (nativity scene) is still more important than the Christmas tree – was to create a scene made up many different figures. In addition to the traditional elements from the Bible, Neapolitan nativities feature representations of everyday people going about their daily lives – cooking meals, baking bread, even working in a bar.
(Visit this special Christmas Street in the Naples/Amalfi Coast episode of Dream of Italy on PBS)
Today, a number of artists continue these centuries-old traditions, but it is also possible to find contemporary twists on these old crafts. Genny Di Virgilio in the shop of Rosario e Gennaro Di Virgilio specializes in creating traditional nativity figures from terracotta. These days, however, this young artist may be better known for his figures of Obama, Clinton, Berlusconi and other internationally famous politicians.
A few doors up the street, the craftsmen of another traditional shop, Giuseppe e Marco Ferrigno, are also producing political figures. I think my favorite sight at this shop was the scene with the figures of Berlusconi, Luciano Pavarotti and a number of soccer players placed immediately next to a lovely large figure of the Madonna rocking an empty crib.
As I was taking all this in, I found myself eavesdropping on three Italians who had stopped to look at this display. Since they had suitcases, I assumed they were not from Naples, and they seemed as fascinated as I was with the figures. As I was straining to understand their conversation, one of them pointed to the Obama figure and said, in perfect English, “Yes, we can.”
I went home from my trip with two bags bulging from my purchases. In addition to my Obama and Berlusconi figures (I decided my third Wise Man would be a traditional one), I bought some small animal figures and a manger complete with the Babe.
Not wanting the religious emphasis to completely take over my house, however, I also bought several of the secular items including a motion-sensitive La Befana (the witch of the Epiphany) who hangs from a swing and laughs somewhat demonically when I clap my hands. In fact, there was an incredible assortment of these motion-sensor decorations and you could hear the shop owners’ hands clapping as I walked up and down the street – along with tinny music and the “Ho, Ho, Ho’s” from the Santa Claus figures.
While I am not given to rushing the Christmas season, I have to admit that it was hard to refrain from setting up my decorations as soon as I returned to my apartment in Rome. I think Mr. Obama and Mr. Berlusconi will feel quite at home here. I wonder who might be joining the nativity next year.
— Frances Kidd
Rosario e Gennaro Di Virgilio
Via San Gregorio Armeno, 18/19/20
(39) 081 5524064
Giuseppe e Marco Ferrigno
Via S. Gregorio Armeno, 8/10/12
(39) 081 5523148