Christmas markets showcase Italian presepe, or nativity scenes

  • Presepe sellers line the street San Gregorio Armeno in Naples, December 2011. Photos by Margot Balboni
  • On Via San Gregorio Armeno, you can find presepe figurines in all sizes. Many are are styled after the 18th-century, the golden age of the Neapolitan presepe.
  • These beautifully crafted clay figurines are about three inches tall.
  • Three days before Christmas, a table on the street sells miniature baskets of bread for home nativity scenes.
  • Many presepe collectors add a public figure in the news each year. In December 2013, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge with baby Prince William, pose next to the recently deceased Nelson Mandela, who raises an arm over Barack Obama.
  • In 2013, Pope Francis was the most collectible new figurine. Behind him Steve Jobs holds up an iPad next to Angela Merkel, and in front soccer great Mario Balotelli strikes a pose.
  • In December 2011 Steve Jobs, who had passed away just two months before, was a must-have figure. Next to him Silvio Berlusconi sports vampire fangs.
  • At Ferrigno's workshop on Via San Gregorio Armeno, legs, feet and hands are made of wood and then painted. Photo by Margot Balboni.
  • A presepe artist upstairs at Ferrigno's makes a figurine to commission from a photo.
  • Marco Ferrigno teaches the trade to his son, who is making a superhero figurine.
  • Marco Ferrigno poses in front of a presepe commission. It took him six months to build.
  • Upstairs at the Ferrigno workshop
  • A basket of heads and legs, which can be attached to straw bodies
  • Eyes for these heads are made of glass, which gives them exceptional realism.

Presepe figurines, home décor, and construction materials are available at many Christmas markets. At the Piazza Navona in Rome, stalls lining the square between the great fountains attest to the vitality of the presepe as a Christmas practice. You can purchase figurines of the holy family, magi, shepherds, and accompanying animals, rolled-up cork for building houses and topography, and a vast array of furnishings — tiny pots and pans for the kitchen, terracotta eggplants and oranges — indeed, anything you might want for your nativity dollhouse. Some stalls specialize in “electromechanical” objects that move: sheep that raise and lower their heads, woodchoppers that raise and lower their axes. At lunch hour, you’re likely to find businessmen elbowing their way to the front of the line to buy new miniature eggplants for the family presepe’s vegetable basket.


Via San Gregorio Armeno

For the serious presepe enthusiast, San Gregorio Armeno, a street in the heart of old Naples, beckons with its dozens of workshops, many of which have been in operation for centuries. Here you can find presepe figurines in all sizes and for all wallets — and across the human spectrum, including popular and contemporary figures such as Pope Francis and soccer star Mario Balotelli. In most shops, the angels hang from ceiling wires, their pastel dresses billowing. Carlo, from Rome, likes to make an annual pilgrimage to San Gregorio Armeno to add a new figurine or landscape feature to his presepe. The workshops on San Gregorio Armeno represent an artisanal tradition that keeps the presepe uniquely tied to Italian ritual practices.

Photography by Margot Balboni, Videography by Sarah Stanbury