Monday, December 24, 2007

A Crib for the Bambinello

Visits to traditional presepi (nativity scenes) around Umbria fill many an afternoon and evening during the holidays. According to legend, it was an Umbrian, St Francis of Assisi, who inspired the creation of presepi in 1223 as a way to celebrate the birth of Christ. Some presepi are live action, featuring local newborns, donkeys and costumed villagers; others are life-sized exhibitions placed in hidden corners of narrow cobbled streets and tiny piazzas, such as in the town of Corciano. Still others are museum quality shows of religious art.

Our favorite in the presepe vivente (live action) category is Marcellano, a tiny medieval village near our house, where the whole town turns into old Bethlehem. We arrive just at dusk and wander past ancient churches and synagogues, costumed blacksmiths and bakers, stopping to buy a cake made in the old way. Just as night falls, Mary and Joseph appear with a donkey and begin their journey, stopping at doorways to ask for a room for the night; all the while Roman soldiers loiter about, looking sinister. Finally, as we stand in the crush along the walkway that edges the town, we see the holy couple enter the stone road leading down into a shallow valley. In the lantern light, we crane our necks to watch as they head slowly down the hill. Eventually, Mary and Joseph settle into the open stable. Minutes pass. It is now very dark. We stamp our feet in the cold. The crowd is still, then stirs. Oohs. Aahs. The baby Jesus has appeared in the crib far below and the three wise men have arrived at the top, riding their donkeys, richly dressed and carrying presents. Above them, a big, lighted star appears, sporting a long tail. As they progress down the hill, the star leads the way, sliding down a long wire, to show the path to the stable. We are thrilled and moved, standing for a few moments in the dark, the only light coming from the glowing star above the candlelit stable. We make our way down to view the live tableau, then go home to hot buttered rum and a blazing fire.

A few miles away in Massa Martana is the Presepi d'Italia exhibition of 150 creches made by artists from around Italy. A stopover for Romans traveling the Via Flaminia, which was built in 220 BC, Massa Martana became Christian as early as the first century AD. The center of this ancient town is different from many of the Umbrian hill towns because, instead of gray stone, the buildings are beautifully colored stucco -- deep red, butter yellow, salmon pink, pale green. In the main church, there are two nativity scenes, both with empty cribs on December 23. The baby Jesus, the bambinello, hasn't yet been born and will be tucked in his bed only at midnight on December 24.

The presepi exhibition is open between December 24 and January 6, located in various locations around the historic center. There are tiny carved wood nativities and a room-sized ice sculpture, complete with snow. There are paper presepi, presepi created from nuts and bolts, from popcorn, from crystal, and stone; there are presepi in miniature castles, within whole villages, in simulated mountains.

Tonight, December 24, we will go to Todi to visit the presepi in the restored Roman cisterns under the main piazza. The piazza is one of the most beautiful medieval squares in Italy, lined by the duomo (cathedral) and four palaces, and highlighted this season by a spectacular Christmas tree.
copyright Sharri Whiting Umbria Bella 2007

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