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Deep in the heart of Naples at Christmas time, in the shadow of an ancient Greek road, you will find butchers, bakers and gynecologists mingling with the Pope, Donald Trump, the Beatles and baby Jesus. They are approximately six inches tall, hand painted and forever frozen in time. This is the magical miniature world of the nativities in San Gregorio Armeno Street in the historic center of Napoli.
For centuries, artisans known as presepaio have hand-crafted and painted elaborate nativity scenes involving not only the holy family, but also fish mongers, waterfalls, mechanical angels and unlikely pop culture icons.
These baroque nativities once provided vital outreach to an overwhelmingly illiterate Catholic populace in Naples. Presepaio started adding figurines of notable local celebrities to attract customers. The Capuano family,who has crafted nativities since 1840, secretly included the likeness of local shopkeepers as a private joke. Leading up to WWII, one local artisan included a carved rendering of Benito Mussolini at the sight of Jesus’ birth.
Today artists work overtime to add figurines of pop stars and politicians in keeping with current events. After Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un had their war of words, local presepaio competed to carve a life-like painted set of this odd couple, complete with a jumbo rocket and a windswept hairpiece. You can view Kim Jong Un and Trump along with Lady Gaga and Fidel Castro at the nativity displayed by Ferrigno Marco.
Another unlikely nativity artisan is Carmine Mauro, who does not work with wood, ceramic or paint but with the most Neapolitan of building materials—pizza. For twenty years, Carmine has sculpted an intricate nativity out of the same pizza he serves at his pizzeria, 900, in the center of Naples.
Carmine’s career in pizza-sculpting began as a child when helping his grandmother on her fried pizza stand, where he spent slow periods crafting toys out of pizza dough. When his own children were born, he made a simple nativity scene out of pizza—a small manger, a few shepherds and the holy family.
Today the pizza nativity is a miniature village. It includes a fountain that pumps water dyed with pastry cream. There is also a pizza oven next to Jesus’ manger.
True to custom, Carmine will place his pizza Jesus in the manger only after midnight on December 24. After Christmas Eve mass and before returning home to his grandchildren, Carmine will nestle Jesus in the manger and turn on an electric disco ball, which projects neon stars to guide the Three Wise Men to their destination.
So if you’re seeking a different kind of nativity for your home this Christmas, visit San Gregorio Armeno Street to explore the traditional Neapolitan nativities, soak up the festive atmosphere, and perhaps stop off for a slice of pizza.