WITHFor the first time in around 250 years of crib construction history, we had to keep our shops closed for weeks! ”In the words of Master Marco Ferrigno, sheer indignation sounds like. He is trying to focus on the tiny baby Jesus made of clay in his hand. And nobody looks over his shoulder as usual.
His life as a crib maker in Naples is currently taking place behind closed doors without an audience. The Campania region, the capital of which is Naples, was temporarily declared a red zone due to the Corona, which is why not only all shop doors were closed this year, even for Advent, but also all showcases were locked. The shops were only allowed to reopen in the last few days before Christmas.
This is a full-blown catastrophe for Naples’ crib builders, who traditionally also have a boom at the end of the year. You have to know that in Naples the crib is more important than the Christmas tree. All Neapolitans want a nativity scene for historical reasons.
The grandson becomes the baby Jesus
In the middle of the old town of Naples is the center of the nativity scene builders, which normally attracts thousands of visitors at Christmas time, from Naples and from all over the world: in Via San Gregorio Armeno dozens of small nativity scene shops are lined up, which are also workshops – like the shop by master Marco Ferrigno. During this strange pre-Christmas season in 2020, he had locked himself in his workshop with two assistants, as he had done every morning recently.
Also on this morning when Ferrigno sculpted the face of a little boy into the clay figure with the help of a fine modeling wood. In front of him is the photo portrait of the child, he is working on behalf of a customer from northern Italy who wants to make an exclusive gift for his grandson with this personalized Child Jesus.
Despite this unusual job – Marco Ferrigno must be devastated because as a crib builder, like his colleagues next door, he actually makes his main annual turnover in the three months before Christmas.
This has now ceased, as has already been the case with sales in the summer, when tourists from all over the world are usually drawn to Naples’ Krippengasse. But Ferrigno has kept to his daily rhythm over the past few weeks, he has opted for optimism, let’s make the best of it.
The crib is actually a pretext
The Nativitywho have favourited The Neapolitan nativity scene – it differs from all the others in its diverse scenes. The Christmas trio with Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus is of course present, but it does not play the central role by far as in an ordinary nativity scene.
Actually, the Holy Family in the city on Vesuvius was only the occasion to be able to depict the Neapolitan hustle and bustle in the old town streets: The Bourbon King Charles III. is said to have been the first in the middle of the 18th century to have these colorful market scenes, arranged like a doll’s house, brought into his palace, says crib maker Ferrigno.
The first figures were made by the renowned court sculptor Giuseppe Sanmartino, known to an international travel audience for his unique sculpture of Cristo velato, the veiled corpse of Christ, exhibited in the Cappella Sansevero, usually one of the most visited museums in Naples.
With his first nativity figurines, Sanmartino set the standard: They have heads made of clay, only a few are carved, and their faces are made of Venetian Murano glass. The hands, calves and feet are made of painted terracotta ceramics, and simple stick figure bodies made of wire mesh are hidden under the puffy baroque silk dresses, which a skilled nativity set builder can give any imaginable posture. This is how the typical representatives of the people of the time emerged.
Figures came into fashion
The real Neapolitan nativity scene lives from gesticulating fish and fruit sellers, egg sellers with chicken under their arms, red-cheeked pizza bakers, fat-bellied butchers, shepherds, a street beauty in a low-necked corset dress and countless misshapen freaks with humps and warts. In particular, they should not be missing in any nativity scene to this day, because they have always protected against the evil eye.
The nobles quickly took a liking to the lifelike doll figures of their king, at that time a real nativity boom developed: in every noble house in Naples, such an overwhelmingly large nativity scene should suddenly attract the attention of the guests at Christmas time.
Maestro Sanmartino, who until then had been occupied with monumental marble sculptures, had a new source of commission. Artisans quickly settled around his workshop in the old town. This is how the alley of the Nativity Scene Builders in Via San Gregorio Armeno in the center of Naples was created.
Princes, counts and dukes of the Kingdom of the Bourbons spent their silver coins on elaborate nativity scenes to pass the time, which often took up dozens of square meters in the palace salons. In late Baroque Naples everyone wanted to own the most beautiful and most exclusively furnished nativity scene.
Biden and Trump with the baby Jesus
Tailors tinkered the miniature robes made of brocade and real silk together, the jewelry of the street women should be made of real coral and pearls, gold and silver if possible. According to the legend, some nobility cribs were so precious that they could be used as pledge in times of financial need.
Marco Ferrigno is the fourth generation to work in this handicraft tradition, his filigree works do not have to shy away from comparison with the historical figures in the Neapolitan Nativity Scene Museum San Martino up on Vomero Hill. It’s even a little more colorful with his cribs.
In any case, there are no limits to the imagination today, and so resourceful nativity scene builders like Ferrigno have expanded their range of figures: Famous contemporary actors, athletes, politicians, music and media stars have been cheering the international nativity scene audience every year since then.
Joe Biden would certainly have made the running in the Krippenstrasse this winter and would have counted Trump among the shopkeepers – if there had been a Christmas market.
Maradona has god status in Naples
A black-maned man in azure-blue jersey is currently becoming a star in the crib sky: In the last few days, the red Covid-19 zone or not, the Maradona crib figures, which Ferrigno has actually had in its range for a long time, have gone under the counter, so to speak.
Since the football idol’s death at the end of November, everyone seems to want to decorate their crib with him – the Neapolitans also revere Maradona as a figure reincarnation, apparently like a god.
In this year’s pre-Christmas period, social media platforms also play a special role for the crib builders. At this time last year, Ferrigno was in the shop almost around the clock and on Christmas Eve until 7.30, selling cribs and setting up new ones. But during these months he, like his 17-year-old son, spent a lot of time on the Internet.
In this way, he quickly sold a large nativity scene that he had posted on Instagram to China. Sure, that was a stroke of luck, opportunities like this don’t come up every day, and Ferrigno knows that he won’t be able to make up for the season.
Optimism is required
Now he hopes that he will be able to open his shop in the days between Christmas and Epiphany. Otherwise it looks bleak for him and his business neighbors.
The Chinese have left their business cards with some crib makers – but this time not as crib customers. Some of the Asians who have been living in Naples for a long time are just waiting to buy up the workshops that are centrally located in the historic old town in order to turn them into profitable souvenir shops.
Marco Ferrigno places his baby Jesus made of clay on the work table. No question about it, he is a master of his trade, the laughing child’s face that he has just formed is like the little boy’s face in the photo.
Marco’s talent is currently less in demand than his optimism. A Christmas angel hovers above him, held only by a transparent thread. Never in all these years has he so much associated the hope of better times with the Speranza angel.
Tips and information
In Naples old town, the nativity scene shops are concentrated in Via San Gregorio Armeno, which is also popularly known as Via dei pastori, the street of the nativity scene figures. Particularly recommended there: Marco Ferrigno (arteferrigno.it) and Gennaro Di Virgili (divirgilioart.com). Other shops are in Via dei Tribunali and Via San Biagio Dei Librai.
A historical nativity scene collection with numerous figures by the sculptor Giuseppe Sanmartino is shown in the museum of the Certosa di San Martino monastery. The 18th century Neapolitan crib from the Catello Collection is on display all year round in the Museum Capodimonte (museocapodimonte.beniculturali.it).
Italian National Tourist Board, enit.de