In the US, all traces of Christmas have been put away, and the nativity scenes are wrapped in boxes awaiting the end of the year. Many have been stored away in Italy as well. But I overheard someone say that the official end of presepe (nativity scene) season isn’t until February 2, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple. So I wasn’t entirely surprised when a friend and I stumbled upon this lovingly built presepe in a church in Avigliana yesterday.
This is not the only elaborate model-of-an-entire-town presepe I have ever seen, of course. Almost every church in Italy seems to have some sort of presepe with surrounding village, as do many homes. And in the US, I used to make a point of going every year to see the Angel Tree at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which features an enormous 18th-century Neapolitan presepe. But that one is, well, literally a museum piece.
One thing I like about these local presepe is that they show the typically Italian talent for local craftsmanship. In the US, people decorate their yards with store-bought lights and inflatable Santas. Sometimes these displays approach work-of-art level in their own way. But in Italy, I am forever surprised at the almost-professional level of artisanship that ordinary people display. I suspect that one reason for this is that many people here treat their jobs as sustenance. Then they go home and do what they like, perhaps maintaining traditions that they inherited from their grandparents or other people in the town. I don’t know everything about how they manage their lives, of course, but I do notice the consistent ability to craft, even, and perhaps especially, among the men.
Things I liked about this particular presepe:
First of all, my friend and I had just come from the Santuario della Madonna dei Laghi, which is the yellow church in the first photo below. It’s just outside of the town, but here the view is compressed and representative, so you see it squashed up against the other buildings.
There’s a bit of everything going on around this building. The don is greeting visitors are the entrance to the church. On one side is an old man (not pictured) of the type you see in every town square. On the other is a group of musicians. The back of the church flows into a local scene with a woodworking shop, a chicken coop, neighbors visiting, a miller, women doing laundry in a field complete with one of the local persimmon, or caki, trees (note the fallen persimmon), and children playing on a playground (not pictured).
Moving on to the next group of buildings, which are very typical of the area if not exact copies of some block in Avigliana, we see a panetteria, or bread bakery (as opposed to pastry shop or pasticceria). It’s very typical for medieval buildings to have been stucco’ed over at some point, but frequently during subsequent renovations someone will excavate a bit of the original brickwork and leave it showing, as in the arched windows below.
Next to the panetteria block is the block of private houses which includes the medieval Torre dell’Orologio. We had just passed the (misnamed) clock tower on our way up the hill. It never included a clock, and in fact was entirely gutted by fire during some (no doubt French) invasion or other, but the tower and houses forming a courtyard still stand pretty much like you see them here, complete with traces of a fresco. The open holes at the top of the yellow building are very typical in the small towns around Turin. They allow air to circulate in the summer, and I think they may have been used for hay storage, if not animal storage, as well.
I was charmed both by the alleyway with lanterns in the following photo, as well as by the use of a bendable straw, sprayed with copper-colored paint, to make a drain pipe in the photo after that.
On the far side of the townscape is the Romanesque Chiesa di S. Pietro. The church which houses this presepe, S. Giovanni, was not included this year (we did see a photo of it from a past year). Surrounding the church are an artist, a shepherd, a friar standing at a side door, and most charming of all, the entire altar, complete with frescoes, visible from the front door of the church.
My friend and I had been marveling over this scene for quite some time before we discovered that you could push a button which animated it. The shepherds next to the Holy Family bowed, Mary rocked Baby Jesus, the streetlights came on all over town, smoked wafted from a chimney, Silent Night played to a chorus of lowing cattle and a crowing rooster, and best of all, gentle snow fell from above.
People here are always telling me that it used to snow a lot here, but now it doesn’t. Which is their way of, like the Narnians, saying that it’s always winter but never Christmas. Now I feel like it has finally been Christmas. Happy 2016!