Holiday Craftsmanship, Neapolitan Style: San Gregorio Armeno

Holiday Craftsmanship, Neapolitan Style: San Gregorio Armeno

by Dejou Marano

Where on Earth can you visit a place where it is literally the holidays all year round? No, it’s not Santa’s workshop in the North Pole but a tiny street nestled in, of all places, the heart of Napoli’s historic quarter.  Via San Gregorio Armeno is an enchanting enclave of artisanal workshops and boutiques specializing in hand-made presepe, or nativity scenes, known the world over for their intricacy and craftsmanship. The street is affectionately known as “la strada dei presepi” because it is the year-round home for Neopolitan master craftsmen who carve and create elaborate figurines encompassing themes from the religious to the secular and the pastoral to the urban, all in the spirit of the holidays.

Aside from being a picturesque southern Italian neighborhood rife with character and signature Neopolitan personality, the street has ancient beginnings that date back to the time of the Romans. During the Roman civilization the street housed a temple dedicated to Ceres, the goddess of agriculture. The local citizens would offer to the goddess a sacrifice of little terracotta statues produced by nearby shops, in order to win good favor for their crops. Those early terracotta figures would become the ancient predecessors for today’s beautifully elaborate nativity scenes.

While presepe may be considered a holiday favorite in Italy, the craftsmen of Via San Gregorio Armeno do not rely solely upon Christmas traditions for inspiration. Today the famous street’s vibe is that of modern artistry, with nativity scenes being a niche within a larger sea of eclectic keepsakes. An intriguing union of old and new, it is not uncommon to find figurines of popular futbol players or celebrities mixed in with more traditional characters. The jovial figurines offer a way to incorporate a bit of modernity into traditional holiday cheer or simply add some flare to everyday household decoration. Caricatures of politicians even find their way into the motley mix of personalities featured in the colorfully lit shop windows that line the ancient street. They usually feature subtle political messages demonstrated through their gestures and attire. Although artists showcase their wares year-round, they usually begin exhibiting their newest holiday creations in November until the beginning of January. But if you should find yourself on Via San Gregorio Armeno later in the year, fear not, there is enough imagination left to go around for the ages.

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