Monday, January 10, 2011

On the Last Day of Christmas

Just a reminder that a left click will enlarge the photos - particularly the last two panorama shots.

Well theoretically I guess the last day of Christmas is the 6th of January but in my old parish we celebrated octave days - a practice whereby a major feast could have an additional celebration on the following Sunday. So to celebrate the Sunday within the Octave of Epiphany we joined Olivia, Tora and Diana for a walk around a few of the presepe in Centro. Most of them will be dismantled today (Monday) though a few will stay up until February 2 - the Presentation of Christ in the Temple.

I wasn't able to get a photo of the Presepe on permanent display at Santi Cosimo e Damiano and have taken this from another website. It was taken by James Martin at Europe Travel.
Though our journey started with the Neapolitan Presepe at Santi Cosimo e Damiano at the Fori Romano the purpose was to see presepe with a Roman flavour. However it was a fitting place to start as it combined the two historical links of the presepe in Italy - its introduction as a major fixture in the Feast of Christmas by San Francisco (the church is Franciscan) and the artisans of Napoli who created, and still create, some of the most elaborate Nativity scenes imaginable. Commissioned by King Ferdinand in 1780, it led to an entire industry being built up around it including porcelain manufacturing and the silk factory in San Leucio in the Caserta region near Napoli. It became a favourite pastime of noble women to work on elaborate costumes for the various characters that populated the every growing scene. As beautiful as it is unfortunately it needs a good cleaning and a surer hand at lighting and display.

At one time the presepe at Santa Maria in Aracoeli spilled over into the nave of the church. Though the backdrop has all the marks of the 19th century scenery painter the figures themselves are naturalistic. I particularly like the young man who is staring out at us almost defiantly - a Roman ragazzo with a chip on his shoulder? And for some reason that bull reminds me of Ferdinand the Bull - no fighter he!





Tradition plays a great part in the visit of the Kings - the gospels tell us that simply that they were "wise men from the east" but the number was set at three because of the three gifts they gave. In this presepe they were are identifiably from Africa, Ethiopia and the Caucasus. I particularly love the rather jolly sheep who seem to be enjoying themselves immensely and almost laughing at the spectacle.
At the Church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli the presepe is traditionally set up in a side chapel and on Christmas Eve the miraculous Santo Bambino is placed in the manager where it remains until the 6th of January. Legend says that the statue of the Bambino was carved from a piece of olive wood from the Garden of Gethsemane and that a wild storm struck the ship that was transporting it back to Italy. In an effort to lighten the ship everything that could be had to be thrown over board including the carving. Miraculously the ship made it to home port and equally as miraculously the Bambino followed in its wake and was retrieved from the harbour waters. It (a copy I might add as the original was stolen in 1993) had already gone back to its chapel and had been replaced by a plaster Bambino on Sunday.


This Bethlehem at Chiesa San Marcello bears a striking resemblance to the country side just outside Rome. I only wish I had been able to get a clear picture of the very 19th century light fixture hanging in the farm house at the right. This was part of a movement, initiated by the Franciscans, to bring the Nativity to a more human and less remote level.



As the Kings present their gifts life goes on along the banks of the Tiber in this year's presepe at Santa Maria di Via. Though I'm not entirely sure it almost looks like the dome of San Giovanni dei Fiorintini in the background. Despite the momentous events taking place in the next street the fisher woman in the background has fallen asleep against her boat.
Two churches along the Corso have presepe that leave no question as to where their Nativity is taking place. At San Marcello al Corso the ruins of the aqueducts tower in the background and the pines are decidedly Roman. There was a symbolism to setting the birth of Christ amongst the ruins of the old civilization - the old ways had been destroyed but the new faith flourished out of them. Santa Maria in Via is unusual in that the setting of their presepe changes from year to year. Last year Castello Sant'Angelo was silhouetted against a star light sky - this year they have moved to the other side of the Tiber and the shores of the river can be seen in the background. It gives a picture of Roma when there was not embankment and the Tiber was still the life blood of the city with buildings built right to its edge.

On New Year's Eve it has become the tradition, if you are celebrating at the Spanish Steps, to give your true love a rose which she then throws at the Presepe on the stroke of midnight. I'm not sure what it signifies but I'm sure the rose sellers in the area are happy with this custom.
The presepe on the Spanish Steps was once a more elaborate affair with dozens of figurines portraying life in Rome. However vandalism and financial attrition has wheeled down the number of terra cotta inhabitants of this quartiere of the city. It once reflected early 19th century life, as indicated by the uniforms of the Papal Guards, in the area surrounding Piazza Navona (one of Roma's famous talking statues, Pasquino, can be seen at the far right). Sadly the friggiteria, which once would have had elaborate examples of their fried foods, looks like it has been stripped of all its wares and no one seems to be drinking at the Locanda either.
At Sant'Eustachio the Nativity is a small - almost insignificant - part of what is going on in the daily life of the parish including a fat priest bustling out of the church and some of the fluffiest sheep I've ever seen. Though many local landmarks are visible the famous coffee shop is nowhere to be found.
The day before we had been down in the area of Piazza Navona for a visit to the newly restored Museo di Roma. That had been followed by a stroll over to try and get one of the legendary coffees at Cafee Sant'Eustachio however 40 or 50 other people had the same idea so we gave it a pass. However the presepe at Chiesa Sant'Eustachio was a perfect example of the Nativity within the context of familiar surroundings. The scene is a replica of the Piazza in front of the church including a view of the distinctive bell tower of Sant'Ivo.

Today we followed the local custom and took down our presepe and stored it away just as most of the parishes throughout town have done with theirs. Unlike the churches here when ours is next set up it will be in a different place but like theirs it will be the familiar retelling of the Christmas story.

10 gennaio - Sant'Odilone
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4 comments:

YELLOWDOG GRANNY said...

wow.....no really..just 'wow.'

yvette said...

Following you is like finding roots to what is done in Provence, where we keep this tradition of 'crèches' at home, even if we are not believers. It is part of the ritual. We undo the nativity scenes either in churches or at home for the 2nd of feb, which is 'Candlemas' and pancake day. What is perhaps even more puzzling and going back old days is the sowing of wheat and lentils seeds at Sainte Barbe (Dec the 4th), and to display the pots throughout this period along the 'crèche' and the little ceramic figurines,(3 at least) if it grows well it is a sign of fertility. Children
are always thrilled to help sowing in little ceramic pots. But this is difficult to keep green until the 2nd of feb.
Thank you for this great post!

Anonymous said...

Lovely description and pictures Will.

CP

yvette said...

It is marvellous to visit the presepe in Rome another time this year. Thank you so much. I hope to be able to see some of them one day.(soon)