SARONNO, Italy - Nativity scenes, depicting the birth of Christ, have been around for more than 2,000 years. St. Francis is said to have created the first when he used figurines to honor the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day in 1223.
The traditional figurines are still made by a handful of Neapolitan artisans using traditional methods developed in Naples hundreds of years ago. About twelve years ago, when I was the Associate Editor of an English language magazine in Milan, I interviewed Signora Clementia Colella, one of the few women in Naples producing hand-made nativity figurines. I wanted to interview her again for this article and tried to locate her earlier this week, but I wasn’t successful.
During our last interview she explained that the figurines she makes are the traditional type with terracotta heads, shoulders, arms and legs. She said the terracotta pieces are fired in a kiln near her workshop and aged using an old technique of covering the pieces with wax and baking them in an extremely hot oven. The baking process produces the lovely aged patina that adds to the character of the figurines.
After they are aged, beautiful glass eyes are put in place and the heads are painted. The completed heads are then connected to wire forms which are then stuffed with various types of material and wadding to create the figurine body. At this point the arms and legs are attached and the figurine is ready to be dressed. It’s labor intensive work.
Signora Colella told me that it was during the 1600’s that the art of making terracotta nativity figurines spread from Naples to the rest of Europe. The French still favor traditional Neapolitan figurines and at the time of our last interview, French boutiques and specialty shops in Paris, and other parts of France, were selling those made by Signora Colella.
If you are in going to be in New York City during the holidays, there is a Neapolitan Baroque crèche, flanked by 18th century Neapolitan angels and cherubs, on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from November 23, 2009 through January 6, 2010.