by Melba Pearson, intern at Villa La Pietra NYU, Program in Museum Studies NYU,
with Francesca Baldry, Acton Collection Manager, NYU Florence
Weekly theme: The Sacred and The Profane
For centuries, humans have been fascinated with representations of daily life and meaningful events. This fascination manifests in many different ways, but historically it has manifested with the creation of small, shockingly realistic figures representing the human condition. These figures depict humans from every walk of life living ordinary lives. Most commonly, they also represent the Nativity of Jesus Christ. Small, detailed, narrative figures come traditionally from Naples, where their creation has been part of the cultural fabric for centuries. Captivating and pervading the human experience in many different ways – from museum collections to The Metropolitan Museum’s iconic Christmas Tree to department store holiday displays – these figures have a distinctly Christmas-y feel, and yet can be collected and admired beyond simply a representation of the significant Christian scene. They represent a magical look into the world of miniatures, the dollhouse mentality, and other imagination-captivating ideas.
In his book Il presepio. Antropologia e storia della cultura (Einaudi, Torino 2018), the philologist Maurizio Bettini relates the Christmas crèche to the mythological birth of a god or hero, stating that the extra figures (peasants, merchants, civilians, as well as the shepherds and magi) lend an air of mythology to the scenes. He argues that these figures represent the donors of the crèches in the same way that saints or other figures would be painted to represent donors in religious Renaissance paintings. While there is not a one-to-one correlation between the figures and the donors of any given crèche, the idea that the figures in a crèche represent the whole of humanity, individuals impacted by the mundane responsibilities of life as well as the importance of an occurrence such as the birth of the Messiah is not a difficult concept to embrace. According to the original intent of the Neapolitan tradition, the purpose of the varied additional figures was to embody the relationship between the sacred and profane, to represent the raw humanity in which the Christ Child found himself upon his birth. These figures represent those who are often venerated in the stories of the scriptures – the poor, the peasants, the working class, the merchants, and the children and elderly. «The domestic nativity scene celebrates the humility and poverty of the child from his birth, an event that requires acceptance and pity, joy and peace for the salvation received as a gift», as stated by Bettini. Ultimately, these figures represent the very visceral connection between Christ’s sacrifice and our own intimate humanity. However, these figures also were collected widely outside of that specific narrative, notably in the Actons’ own collection.
The history of these crèche figurines begins with the tradition of the nativity scene itself – according to legend, Saint Francis of Assisi was the first to represent the birth of Christ using humans and animals in the 13th Century 1. These scenes, a nativity or presepe in Italian, soon began to inhabit churches in Naples and elsewhere by the early 14th century, and by the mid-fourteenth century, sculptors in Naples were designing and creating elaborate figures and scenes for churches and private homes. These figures were originally created out of wood or terracotta, and by the 15th century, the figures had shrunk from life-sized to 12-18 inches tall, in order to accommodate smaller personal homes and more intimate spaces. Around this time, the sculptors also began making figures out of papier-mâché, or cartapesta in Italian, in order to offer a more affordable option for their customers.
The figures can commonly be divided into two types: presepi (from praesepium, or crib in Latin), a group of figures depicting the birth of Christ, and pastori, non-religious figures based on popular stereotypes, such as peasants, farmers, bakers, beggars, bar-maids, shepherds, and others. By the 17th century, most crèche collections incorporate both presepi and pastori in a unique blend of the sacred and the profane that reminds spectators of the intimate connection between Christ and the most marginalized members of society. The depiction of thoroughly ordinary people living thoroughly ordinary lives contrasts beautifully with the celebratory nature of Christmas and the birth of Christ, while simultaneously highlighting Christ’s humanity and the lowly circumstances of his birth.
These crèche figures were especially popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, which is the era from which the figures in the Actons’ collection date. At the time, a massive crèche was created for the Royal Palace of Caserta (fig. 1), which the Actons may have visited and seen during one of their several trips to Campania.2 Moreover, we know that there was a family relationship with Sir John Acton, Prime Minister of Naples under King Ferdinando IV (kingdom 1789-1804).3
In the 18th century the crèche scenes began to incorporate elaborate natural and architectural elements as well – caves, grottoes, and even Greek and Roman architecture (emphasizing Christ’s victory over paganism) provided the background for the figures, adding to the duel sense of realism and theatricality. Today, over 200,000 figures are created in Naples per year, using the largely unchanged techniques of the past centuries.
The Actons’ collection has a substantial group of these Neopolitan figures, all dating from the 18th and 19th centuries (fig. 2). Although nothing is known about why the Actons acquired these figurines, it is likely that they were collected during the first twenty years of the century, when the collection at Villa La Pietra was formed and collecting such figures was a fashionable and interesting practice. The Actons’ figures all range from around 5 inches tall to around 17 inches tall, and are made of polychrome wood or cartapesta, some with additional textile components as well. The collection of around 50 figures includes several women with children (though surprisingly not a true Madonna and Child), many animals (horses, bulls, donkeys, and a ram), a hunting scene, at least two Saint Joseph’s, the group of the Virgin Mary with the babies Jesus and John the Baptist, children, soldiers, peasants, fishermen, old women, and people interacting with animals. Because of the lack of Madonna and Child, as well as the lack of the baby Jesus in the manger, it seems the Actons were not specifically interested in the religious message of the figures – if they were collecting in order to be able to set up a true nativity set, we would assume they would have collected a Madonna and Child or the Baby Jesus in the manger relatively early in the collecting process. Instead, the figures in the Actons’ collection seem to be an eclectic grouping of otherwise unrelated figures – a hunting scene (fig. 3), a Moor with a horse (fig. 4), and a figure of St. Joseph (fig. 5) seem to have no narrative connection, but all the figures represent excellent examples of the artistry and skill of Neapolitan figure artisans.
The Actons’ figures, rather than being arranged in any sort of narrative style, are displayed in various rooms in the villa in glass cases (fig. 6), further emphasizing the idea that these figures were collected simply because they are beautifully made in all their details, charming and interesting, a worthy contribution to the Actons’ “cabinet of curiosities” of Italian art and cultural heritage (from the Quattrocento Studioli onwards).
These attributes can be seen in great detail in the Madonna with Jesus and John the Baptist (fig. 7) – the Madonna’s robe is a beautiful flurry of gilded detail, and her face as she gazes at a book is calm and serene, apparently unbothered by the baby in her arms, straining down to embrace his cousin.
In addition to museum collections world-wide, these beautiful presepi and pastori are staples of popular culture, especially around Christmas time. One of the most striking examples of this cultural significance is the display of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s crèche figures collection, which is displayed as part of their Christmas tree exhibition every holiday season (fig. 8) 4 . The Met’s collection of Neapolitan crèche figures includes over 250 figures, all arranged painstakingly each year in order to depict the hustle and bustle of mundane life surrounding the glorious birth of the Christ Child. The figures are the collection of Loretta Hines Howard and were given to the museum in 1964 – they represent nearly 40 years of careful collecting, and have been displayed annually at The Met since 1957. The twenty-foot tall Christmas tree is decorated with 80 angels and cherubs, and a representation of Naples and its society is arranged at the base around the Holy Family. In the display animals, peasants, merchants, the Magi, and the humble civilians of Naples remind us of the figures in the Actons’ collection – a touching representation of the work, traditions, and daily existence of the Neapolitan people.
Another iconic (but sadly now lost) presentation of these pastori figures was the Christmas Windows at the Lord&Taylor New York City Flagship Store5 . For nearly 100 years, the staple of New York City retail was a leader in Christmas window displays, creating magical, touching, funny, and captivating scenes with the miniature figures. Although unrelated to the store’s holiday merchandise, the scenes drew large crowds of spectators eager to see what new stories and moments the store had created from year to year. Each elaborate scene featured figures of wood, porcelain, papier-mâché, and terracotta, with minute detail, beautiful textile clothing and elaborate accessories (figure 9).
The Neapolitan figures in the Actons’ collection are a beautiful representation of the cultural significance the crèche tradition holds for art collectors and story-lovers alike. The variety of figures in the cases at Villa La Pietra emphasize the contrast of the sacred and the profane; the figures paint a picture of the unique collecting habits and interests of the family, and the mix of religious figures and mundane figures, as we can see in many rooms at Villa La Pietra, emphasizes the importance of both aspects of reality. These figures are yet another example of the ways in which the Actons’ collection is unique, special, and fascinating, with so many different narrative threads.
1. Laura Morelli, “Neapolitan Nativities”, Italy Magazine, 12/10/2019.
“The Art of Nativity Scenes in Naples”, Napoli Artigianato Artistico, Bonnie Alberts, “The Neapolitan Creche – The Art of the Presepio”, 12/3/2010.
3. Peter Gunn, The Actons, Hamish Hamilton, London, 1978, pp. 51-114.
4. “Celebrating the Holidays at the Met: Five Things to Know”, 12/13/2018.
5. Verena Dobnick, “Lord & Taylor’s Christmas windows soon to be part of New York’s past”, November 26, 2018.