England has its nativity plays; Italy has its presepi or cribs. Making cribs is a characteristically Italian activity and dates back to at least the time of Saint Francis. Not only is it highly developed but it also presents an act of religious devotion like all tasks requiring a lot of patience! Our valley, because of its long-standing tradition of making figurines in plaster-of-Paris, is still central to this tradition.
Italy is world-famous for its presepi which are representations of the nativity of Jesus Christ. The inexhaustible invention of Italians in building the scene of the Saviour’s birth was amply shown to us when last Sunday we visited Pieve Fosciana, a beautiful town, next-door to Castelnuovo Garfagnana. Unlike the latter, Pieve didn’t suffer from intensive bombing during the last war that scarred that town and is largely intact.
‘Pieve’ means the parish church and the town’s main church is an impressive building dating back to the eighth century but now largely of eighteenth century appearance.
Next door to it is the chapel of Saint Joseph which at this time of year contains around forty ‘presepi’.
We visited the chapel last Sunday and I could not help feeling that I’d seen some of the cribs before.
Some of the scenes described the Annunciation and the Flight from Egypt:
This is when a blog comes in useful. In fact, Pieve Fosciana had contributed some of its delightful presepi to an exhibition held at Bagni di Lucca in 2014. I wrote a post about it which can be seen at:
Did this mean that our journey was wasted? Not at all! Apart from the antique setting of Pieve Fosciana we were able to see for the very first time Pieve Fosciana’s famous mechanical crib of which this is a video:
It was wonderful to see these cribs in their town of origin, especially when we had the whole place to ourselves.
What I missed most about the London version of Christmas were the presepi. I did see them in a few churches but they were pale reflections of the ingenuity of Italian cribs and clearly an import. (In a similar fashion Italians have imported the Christmas tree from Nordic European countries).
Is it perhaps because Christmas has become an ever more secular festival and the reminder, in the form of presepi, of what actually happened on Christmas day two millennia ago might be too much for some cultures to take? I certainly hope not!
Below one of the few Christmas cribs I found in London (St Stephen Walbrook)