A Roman Christmas Ritual: Micro-Architecture and the Theatre of the Presepio

by Christopher Longhurst, appearing in Volume 16

The celebration of Christmas in Rome has its own unique flavor, combining sumptuous liturgical celebrations and festive religious and cultural traditions. One of the most renowned traditions during this joyful time is the construction of the presepio. The Italian word “presepio” comes from the Latin “praesaepe,” a combination of “prae” (in front of) and “saepire” (to enclose), which is rendered in English as “manger,” or “stall.” The Christmas ritual of constructing a presepio is a tradition that has been passed down for generations, possessing an important place in symbolic Christmas representation and devotional practice. At Christmastime these displays attract visitors to the city of Rome from all over the world. They are usually artistic masterpieces, spectacular, dramatic, and adorned with delightful figurines and stunning landscapes.

Tracing the development of the presepio “ritual” entails a passage into the history of Roman religion, art, theater and what may be referred to as present-day micro-architecture. Originating centuries ago in Rome, extant documentation places the earliest evidence of commemorating the Christmas story in this manner to 432 A.D., when Pope Sixtus III reconstructed a “cave of the Nativity” similar to the Bethlehem stable in the ancient Liberian Basilica (founded by Pope Liberius (352-366) and known today as the papal basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore). A festive celebration was then introduced to commemorate the occasion of the “Infant Savior’s birth.” This devotional reconstruction resulted in what can be termed the building of the world’s first presepio.

Further evidence suggests that the custom of constructing a manger scene dates to the seventh century, when the same basilica became the home of the legendary relic of Christ’s crib, the venerated cunambulum or sacra culla, which, according to tradition, the baby Jesus was placed in at the stable at Bethlehem. This relic, an object of pious devotion for pilgrims from around the world, comprises five long narrow pieces of ancient wood purportedly brought to Rome from the Holy Land during the pontificate of Theodore (640-649). On account of hosting this relic at the Liberian Basilica, the church was also known during Theodore’s time by the title Santa Maria ad Praesepe, and some devout locals even called the neighborhood on the Esquiline Hill as “Bethlehem in Rome.”

Subsequently, in the ceremonial liturgy known as the Officium Pastorum, a practice common to eleventh century, a presepio was erected behind the main altar of the same basilica to be at the center of an august event—the Holy Christmas Mass—around which all other events were to take place. A similar experience is also recorded to have taken place there in the eighth century when Pope Gregory III (731-741) placed a consecrated Host in the crib to commemorate the laying of the body of the Christ-child in the manger at Bethlehem. A similar tradition is also attested to by the placing of a “golden image of the Mother of God embracing God our savior” in the crib.

Fresco in the Upper Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi by Giotto di Bondone depicting the Institution of the Crib built in Greccio by Giovanni Vellita. Image: Public Domain

Many scholars, however, place the origin of the presepio tradition in the thirteenth century. In 1223 Saint Francis of Assisi commissioned Giovanni Vellita from the town of Greccio to build a large-scale manger scene for the faithful to venerate on the anniversary of the Christ’s birth. Vellita therefore constructed a three-dimensional nativity scene out of straw in a cave of Greccio and Saint Francis had Christmas Mass celebrated there that year. According to the various accounts, Francis also used real people and living animals to illustrate the revered event.

As a consequence of Saint Francis’s initiative, the latter part of the thirteenth century saw the development of elaborate small-scale architectural and artistic constructions of splendid ornamental nativity scenes. Figurines in marble, wood, and terra-cotta were introduced in various basilicas throughout Rome. This practice became part of a popular devotion characteristic of Roman Christmas ritual up until the end of the sixteenth century. At that time even more elaborate representations of the nativity scene were introduced by Roman nobility extending the practice to a feat of grandiose artistic proportions. Impressive presepio scenes were then composed of permanent figurines arranged with realistic pedestrian elements such as local costumes, houses, inns, shepherd’s cabins, trees, panoramic backgrounds, all with the simple adornment of commonplace symbolism. During the seventeenth century, the Roman nobility continued to display these scenes in their homes, one being created by the baroque master Gian Lorenzo Bernini for the Barberini family of Pope Urban VIII. Later the presepio included moveable figurines dressed in the ornate costumes of the day. The triumph of baroque nativity ornamentation made it the most popular expression of Christmas devotion and ritual. By the beginning of the eighteenth century the practice had already extended beyond the enclosed dwellings of churches and private homes into the public spaces and piazzas of the city.

This tradition, now ever more ostentatious, had spread throughout the churches and homes of all the social classes of Italy, acquiring a typically popular characteristic with extravagant constructions aimed more at inciting competitive admiration rather than pious devotion. The presepio reached its highest artistic and cultural expression in the eighteenth century. Neopolitan artisans added candlelit lamps and floral arrangements, and the scale of individual scenes had now reached life-size proportions. The noted British professor of Latin, W. H. D. Rouse, commented of such scenes:

“These are very often life-size. Mary is usually robed in blue satin, with crimson scarf and white head-dress. Joseph stands near her dressed in the ordinary working-garb. The onlookers are got up like Italian contadini. The Magi are always very prominent in their grand clothes.”

Today the typical presepio, constructed with three-dimensional sculptural pieces set in a stage-like atmosphere, comprises three principal figures: the Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph, and the baby Jesus. Typically it displays Joseph and Mary in a barn or a cave beside the baby Jesus laying in a manger. They are attended to by secondary figures: the Magi (three kings from the Orient), a few shepherds, and some farm animals, usually a donkey, an ox, and some sheep. The crib itself is the focal point of the scene. It may also include some angels in the vicinity of the crib, although the archangel Gabriel is characteristically present and usually hovering above the crib proper just outside the barn. The star of Bethlehem is typically present as well in the distant sky. The traditional scene that shows the shepherds and Magi together is not proper to the Biblical story since the Magi arrive later (Matthew 2:1-12) than the shepherds (Luke 2:7-16), and Matthew indicates that the Holy Family was no longer in the stable at that time. Continuing this tradition today, the ritual of constructing the nativity scene comes close to what may be called “architectural drama,” an interface between architecture and theater.

Indeed, the construction of a presepio may be referred to as a type of religious architecture, or “micro-architecture,” a small-scale building of the most intricate type. Sometimes this kind of elaborate construction is not so small. The process of building such nativity scenes has come to take on a life of its own, involving the composition of various refined structural designs and architectural morphemes of large proportions. Not infrequently traditional nativity scenes throughout Rome at Christmastime comprise the building of monumental outdoor structures and landscapes. They can be as large as 280 m², and use materials such as sand, stone, and cork in their construction and include over eight hundred figurines. Sometimes the figurines are larger than life. Light effects, water streams, rain, music, and automatons are also used to give a realistic touch to the scene.

Many visitors have commented that viewing a presepio is not unlike going to the theater. Such an event may be classified as a type of “Christmas drama,” a performance fundamentally religious in nature, a festive theatrical occasion in which the entire setting becomes a kind of stage and the viewer becomes a participant in the event that again renders present the remote and spectacular episode of Christ’s birth. In this context the visitor becomes an ospite (guest) who is invited to renew the experience of the first Christmas by participating in the event.

A presepio in Rome. Photo: wikimedia.org/Howard Hudson

For some the experience is merely one of aesthetic religiosity, while for others it is more a practice of faith, although however experienced, it is always characteristic of a religious incident. Most people go to see how the artistic representation is rendered, although a religious experience is realized because the event has a sacramental quality. In achieving this effect the presepio manifests a kind of semiotic quality that directs the attention of the observer to the reality represented. Such an achievement affords a sacramental realization and in this context the religious component of the experience is accomplished.

Given these two perspectives—Christmas drama and religious architecture—both the process of constructing the presepio and the event of visiting and viewing it makes for what is in fact a hybrid of both theater and architecture, though still much more. The religious import, even to the non-sectarian visitor, cannot be undermined. A visit to a presepio, therefore, or the “presepio event,” becomes a fusion of architecture, drama and, on some level, faith. Some presepî are scenes for drama, while others themselves exhibit popular piety by providing the visitor with a setting in which both a social and religious ritual is experienced. The occasion becomes one in which deeper religious meaning, the very significance of Christmas, is afforded in a setting now designed for popular cultural entertainment.

A presepio at the Piazza of the Basilica of Saint Peter in Rome. Photo: wikimedia.org/Dguendel

In Rome today, as throughout the entire world, presepî have come to be celebrated in the context of dramatic small-scale architectural arrangements in piazzas and public spaces throughout the city. Every year, the Vatican constructs two nativity scenes for the Christmas season. The first is assembled inside the basilica of Saint Peter at the chapel of the Presentation, and the second is built in the Piazza di San Pietro in front of the obelisk. The city of Rome also erects a large presepio on the central landing of the Spanish Steps, comprising accretions not necessarily related to the Christmas story but rather associated with local popular culture. Sometimes even such large municipal nativity scenes have a caricature of a disliked public figure such as the caganer in the corner of the scene. On occasion life-size nativity scenes are erected with live animals, donkeys, oxen and camels, and people stand in for the kings and shepherds. Nearly all of Rome’s churches set up presepî for the Christmas season, although some presepî are left as permanent exhibits for the visitor to admire throughout the entire year. The church of the Scala Sancta next to Saint John Lateran, the church of the Gesù and Santa Maria in Via, near the junction of Via del Corso and Via Tritone, are among the latter. Among the many churches in Rome that build a nativity scene, three particular sites demonstrate the dramatic beauty and architectural grace of the presepio: the papal basilica of Saint Mary Major (Santa Maria Maggiore) on the summit of the Esquiline Hill, the basilica of Saints Cosmas and Damian at the Roman Forum, and the basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli on the Capitoline Hill.

Presepio scene sculpted by Arnolfo di Cambio, 13th century sculptor and architect. Photo: wikimedia.org/Stefano Bolognini

At Santa Maria Maggiore one may still visit the site intended to provide a special place for the innovative Christmas festivities introduced by Pope Liberius (352-366). At this location splendid Christmas rituals and liturgical celebrations still revolve around the relic of Christ’s crib. During Midnight Mass, for example, an impressive ceremony occurs comprising a solemn procession and the unveiling of a rich reliquary designed by Giuseppe Valadier and adorned with bas-reliefs and statuettes to enshrine the sacra culla. The relic is then solemnly exposed for veneration by the faithful until the Octave of the Epiphany. Santa Maria Maggiore also boasts one of the world’s finest and most antique presepî made by the thirteenth-century sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio (ca. 1245-1310). Di Cambio sculptured this masterpiece in white Carrara marble between the years 1285-1291. It portrays an artistic warmth and gracefulness typical of the late medieval style, a sort of prelude to fine Renaissance art. Conforming to the criteria of full visibility, nothing in this nativity is more striking than the sumptuous corporeality of its figurines. The Virgin Mary with the baby Jesus in her arms, Saint Joseph and the three Magi, and an ox and ass convey a delicate naturalism comprising the most attractive and refined of medieval art. The faces are elegant and marked by a formal beauty. It is no understatement to say that this presepio is the most “sacred” of all.

The Sacra Culla, or Holy Crib, is reserved for veneration in a silver reliquary by Giuseppe Valladier in the crypt of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. Photo: wikimedia.org/it.Utente.Riccardov

A visit to the basilica of Saints Cosmas and Damian at Christmastime is most worthwhile. Adjacent to the basilica’s cloister is a famous Neapolitan presepio, a monumental eighteenth-century nativity scene with exquisitely carved figurines. The artistic finesse of this presepio intricately portrays the life and culture in Naples revolving around the sacred event of Christ’s birth. In a triumph of Christmas atmosphere stand precious statuettes representing the entirety of humankind. Beautiful figurines delicately carved from wood and sumptuously clothed in costumes of velvet, silk, satin, and leather decorate the scene in a typically Neapolitan style. There are over fifty angels and scores of animals as well. The presepio abounds with life and colorful details that recreate the nativity spirit within a vibrant and detailed panorama of eighteenth-century Neapolitan life. It is particularly interesting to observe here how those who visit this presepio do so in a manner similar to going to the theater. Admiring a presepio of this scale is not unlike going on a tour of Naples in the 1700s, viewing the craftsmen, farmers, street vendors, and all the respective dwellings, inns, and landscapes. Of particular importance is the extraordinary care given by the craftsmen who reproduce the dresses, using the textiles available only at that time.

Another precious presepio lies not too far from “caput mundi” on the Capitoline Hill. Here sits the imposing basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli (Altar of Heaven) that boasts of one of Rome’s most celebrated life-size presepi. The scene is a cultural and devotional masterpiece of the central Italian tradition enriched with a number of ancient wooden figurines that belonged to an older Roman nativity from the church of San Francesco a Ripa. A particular feature of this presepio is the colorfully painted three-dimensional illustration of the “Gloria in excelsis Deo.” Here hierarchies of angels descend from heaven to earth, “singing on high.” This basilica is usually crowded at Christmastime, especially with children who come to recite festive poems at the chapel of the presepio.

The Santo Bambino at the basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli. Photo: wikimedia.org/MatthiasKabel

This site is also home of the famous Santo Bambino (Holy Child), a strange though comely little statuette of the new-born Savior that attracts the visitor on account of the odd beauty in the bizarrely mature and sapient baby’s face, and the pilgrim on account of the miraculous activity associated with its curing powers. Clement A. Miles, the Christmas-stories author, describes this child as: “a flesh-colored doll, tightly swathed in gold and silver tissue, crowned, and sparkling with jewels.” An inscription outside its chapel states that the Santo Bambino was made of wood from the Mount of Olives by a devout Minorite monk and given a flesh-color by the interposition of God Himself. Before Christmas Midnight Mass the statue is taken from its chapel and ceremoniously enthroned under a veil before the basilica’s high altar. During the Mass, upon the intonation of the “Gloria”, the veil is lifted and the Holy Child is paraded to the Nativity crib where it is venerated until the Octave of the feast of the Epiphany. At that time another procession sees the doll brought to the landing at the top of the marble stairs that lead to the basilica’s main entrance where the celebrant raises it on high and solemnly blesses the Eternal City.

Still today in the city of Rome, the tradition of the Italian presepio, and all the Christmas festive ritualism that encompasses it, remains a spectacular theatrical experience and an opportunity to enjoy small-scale religious art and architecture. Along with the singing of carols and other church events, the presepio plays a vital role in Roman culture and religion when celebrating the birth of Christ. Visiting these sites at Christmastime to celebrate their respective presepî, admiring the scenes and participating in the nativity makes for a most meaningful Christmas pastime.