Buon Natale

By Rebecca Smith '99

Sarah Stanbury, English professor at Holy Cross since 1992 and Monsignor Murray Professor of the Arts and Humanities, counts late medieval literature and visual culture among her areas of academic expertise. She had been interested in a new scholarly project when she heard from Margot Balboni, a longtime friend and colleague. Balboni wanted to discuss studying Italian nativity scenes, known as presepi.

Balboni encountered her first presepe as a visiting artist at the American Academy in Rome about 10 years ago. A professional photographer, she caught a nativity scene out of the corner of her eye in a piazza. "That could be interesting to look into," she recalls thinking. "That could make an interesting book." 

Stanbury, who has studied the representation of the Holy Family and medieval spirituality, was starting a  research leave made possible by a Guggenheim Fellowship and was intrigued by the idea of an entirely new approach to understanding religious practices. So, at Christmastime in 2011, the pair headed to Rome to start researching the history and current artistry of this exuberant native Italian art form. 

"It was something that neither of us really knew anything about," recalls Stanbury. 

"Which made it all the more fun," adds Balboni, a cultural landscape photographer whose projects have been as diverse as documenting the transformation of Boston with the Big Dig to flying in a helicopter back and forth across the country photographing the built environment. Nativity scenes promised a novel angle of view. Both Stanbury and Balboni have devoted their careers to writing about and recording artistic and material objects in the places that house them.

For many Italians, the most important symbol of Christmas is not the Christmas tree, but the presepe, or nativity scene. Displayed throughout the country at Christmastime-in private homes, churches, town squares, the Vatican-presepi date as least as far back as the 13th century, when Saint Francis of Assisi is said to have staged the first living nativity scene during a Christmas Eve Mass in the town of Greccio.

Although nativity scenes are popular throughout the world,  presepi in Italy have distinct regional variations, and none are more distinctive than those crafted in Naples. Described by Stanbury as "panoramic, operatic nativity scenes with hundreds of figures," Neapolitan presepi were popularized in the 1700s, when well-to-do citizens and royalty commissioned top artists to build sets and figurines for display in their homes. In addition to the traditional representation of Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus, these elaborate three-dimensional tableaux contain intricate details of 18th-century Neapolitan life-blacksmiths and bakers working, animals grazing, people eating and drinking-all displayed in a rustic, realistic setting (usually with Mount Vesuvius looming in the background). 

Today, presepi in many parts of Italy are still handcrafted by skilled artisans out of such indigenous materials as straw, terracotta, rock, paper and wood. The finest of presepi figures have the evocative power of fine art sculpture. With thousands of variations, many portray traditional village scenes-although some modern presepi might also include running water or an infamous contemporary figure. 

Two trips and almost two years into the project, Stanbury and Balboni realized that there was much more they wanted to know-and the language barrier was a problem.

"A great deal has been written about nativity scenes," explains Stanbury, "but mostly in Italian-and neither of us is a particularly good Italianist. We needed historical data. Who were the artists, who were their patrons, what was the symbolism of the scenes and figures in different parts of Italy? We needed basic research."

"In the United States, this is a form few people know anything about," adds Balboni. "Little has been written in English on the subject. Even Italian Americans, setting up the family nativity scene at Christmas, don't know the history." 

So before they embarked on their third trip to Italy, this time to meet with private collectors-most of whom did not speak English-they decided to find some translators. At Holy Cross, Stanbury contacted the Mellon Summer Research Program in the humanities, social sciences and arts, which funds student-faculty research projects. The program offers a stipend, a room on campus, and a travel and research supply budget to its 25-30 summer student interns. It also offers students an opportunity to work closely with a professor, learning how to do primary research through hands-on, intensive immersion in a project. Stanbury looked around for students who speak Italian-and who were interested in a two-week research trip to Rome, Naples and Apulia to study Italian nativity scenes-and found three summer Mellon interns who fit the bill: Helen Tucceri '15, a mathematics major with minors in Italian and computer science from Waltham, Mass., Olivia Vanni '13, an Italian major from Hamilton, Mass., and Mario Leiva '14, an anthropology major and visual arts minor from Lawrence, Mass. 

"I had no idea what to expect when I first signed on to the project," recalls Vanni, who now works as a news and content writer for a marketing firm in Boston. "But I figured, if it seemed important enough to write a book about it, it had to be interesting."

All three students came well recommended to Stanbury; Vanni and Leiva had even spent their junior years studying in Bologna. But Balboni, who had never worked with students, was dubious: "When Sarah told me that we were taking three students to Italy with us, I was alarmed," she recalls. She worried the students might get sick or in some way hamper their research schedule. "It turned out they were fantastic. Thank God they did come. They have been a huge help," she says.

Throughout the trip last June, the students not only served as "invaluable translators and native informants," according to Stanbury, but they also actively contributed to the research-and consumed their fair share of gelato. (It was Italy in June, after all.) 

Despite the season, the group had no problems finding and getting access to nativity scenes in churches, museums, workshops and private homes. In certain parts of Italy, presepi are on display year round. The group visited one presepe scene so large and complicated that when its creator, a retired public servant, made plans to move, he hired a building crane to take it out the window to transfer it to his new house. He had spent close to a year working 14-hour days to construct the elaborate set in his living room. 

Another year-round locale is Via San Gregorio Armeno, a street in Naples famous worldwide for its presepe workshops. Alongside natives and tourists admiring sculptors at work and browsing figurines to add to their personal presepi, the team was able to talk to and gather information from authentic Italian artisans. "Wherever we went, we had excellent translators," says Stanbury. 

In viewing some of the contemporary presepe figures for sale-the late co-founder of Apple Inc., Steve Jobs, the late Libyan revolutionary and politician, Moammar Gadhafi, and the embattled Italian ex-prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi in vampire fangs, to name a few-they also got a firsthand view of the country's current cultural climate-and its distinctive sense of humor. 

"One thing you have to know about Italians is they're not into political correctness whatsoever," says Vanni. 

"Whoever has garnered significant public notice-good or bad-might end up as a presepe figure," adds Stanbury. 

During a visit to the Presepe Museum in Rome, the students' assistance really came through.

"The interview with the curator went on for hours," Balboni recalls. "He was so excited to have us there he showed us absolutely everything. But Olivia was translating, and Mario and Helen were taking notes, so it freed Sarah and me to think and look while he was talking. We weren't multi-tasking."

Likewise, Stanbury credits the students with assisting Balboni and her with meaningful access to some of the most significant artisans and collectors in the field, including a visit to Franco Artese, the artist who designed the 2012 nativity scene for the Vatican. 

"The only reason we were able to meet designers like Artese was because of contacts we made before the trip," she says. "Students translated our email letters of invitation into Italian, and that way we were able to do a lot of crucial advance planning." 

In addition to honing their language skills and broadening their cultural knowledge, the students enjoyed a quick yet intense introduction to this unique art form. Back at Holy Cross for the rest of the internship they continued their research, translating and taking notes from Italian books and articles on the topic.

After just two weeks, Vanni-who knew nothing at all about Italian nativity scenes before this summer-could expertly point out the three principal scenes in a Neapolitan presepe

"Over here is the Annunciation to the shepherds ... Some of the shepherds are acknowledging the angels; some of them are not. Over here, you have the Holy Family, which you can barely see; they're hidden by the Magi and their Oriental caravan with lots of musicians, exotic animals, all of that. And, then, over here is the tavern which has just turned away the Holy Family," she describes with quick precision. 

Leiva notes that the regional differences among Italian presepi include the materials used. "Some regions, like Lucania, have used stone primarily," he says. "Others have used paper, as they do in the Salento area." 

Tucceri, who is currently studying in Bologna through the College's Study Abroad program, particularly liked learning about the presepe tradition in Lecce, in the south of Italy. 

"I loved Lecce a lot," says Tucceri. "It's a beautiful city; I loved the culture. Also, I enjoyed learning about how they make the figurines out of cartapesta, which is papier-mâché." 

There, the group met a cartapesta artist and acquired for Holy Cross some figurines for the College's permanent collection, as well as for the upcoming presepe exhibit at the Cantor Art Gallery.

Curated by Balboni, the fall 2014 exhibition will contain Balboni's photographs, objects the team acquired on their trip and some they are borrowing from private collections. As part of the Mellon Summer Research Program, the students contributed to the detailed exhibit text boxes that will accompany the pieces they helped acquire. 

What's more, the students presented their research materials on presepi at the International Word and Image conference, held at the College in June. Maurice Géracht, the Stephen J. Prior Professor of Humanities in the English department at the College, is the principal organizer of the conference, which invites scholars and researchers from around the world to explore connections between language and the image.

Vanni, Tucceri and Leiva also participated in the College's 20th annual Undergraduate Summer Research Symposium, held in September, during which Vanni shared "Evolution of Presepio Art in Naples, Italy"; Tucceri presented "Il Presepio Romano: A Christmas Tradition"; and Leiva discussed "Presepe Medium: Variants Across Time and Regions." And they helped develop materials for the McFarland Center's "Catholics and Cultures" website, which is aimed at understanding the religious lives and practices of Catholics worldwide.

Vanni, who studied French and German at Holy Cross, says the presepe experience added another dimension to her understanding of Italian culture and history. "Even though I studied in Bologna for a year, and I keep in touch with close family members living in Italy," she says, "this endeavor made me realize that I had only known a slight fragment of the country's heritage-my own roots, really." 

Leiva, who also studied in Bologna, says the presepe trip allowed him to stay in the country he was not quite ready to leave when his year-long study abroad time came to a close. "It was also interesting," he notes, "because I had always considered becoming a researcher as a career, and I was able to get some real hands-on experience in the field."

"Looking back, this project has been a fascinating journey," reflects Stanbury. "After our trip in June and with the research that the students contributed from their work over the summer, we've built up our knowledge base considerably. It's also been a huge amount of fun. The more we learn the more intriguing this art form becomes," she concludes. 

"Partnering with the Mellon Foundation has enabled Margot and me to deepen our understanding of the presepe in the context of Italy's artistic and social history. It was terrific to watch the students hone their skills as translators and to develop the tools necessary to assist us with rigorous research."  ■


Rebecca Smith '99 is the owner of the freelance writing firm SmithWriting (smithwriting.com).