Handmade figurines for the Neapolitan Christmas

Visiting Nativity scene artisans and workshops in Naples

It is Christmas time and in Italy there’s the tradition to recreate the Nativity scene next to the Christmas tree, so I decided to visit Naples where there are the grandest and most peculiar artifacts.

The Nativity scene representation has a long history, the interesting part is that in Naples around ‘700 the scene has been enlarged and enriched by different elements reinterpreting and contextualizing the little hut in that time. Great artists and sculptors worked on the wood and terracotta representations and the best artworks are on display in museums around the world.

Then the Nativity scene representation became more popular and every family wanted to have its own scene during Christmas time, the need to respond at the increasing request put the entire neighborhood of San Gregorio Armeno, in the center of Naples, at work.

And this is where I found myself strolling around. Looking for workshops in the most noisy, colorful and busy streets of Naples.

There is obviously the commercial side of this business with ‘millions’ of shops and stalls selling Nativity scene objects, but I was struck by the vibrating feeling of how the entire neighborhood is busy in this period.

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First I have to mention Artigiani Castiello for their nice hospitality and reception. They are not terracotta artisans but hand makers of metal miniatures and objects used in the Nativity scene. They make detailed little swords, railings, musical instruments, crowns, kitchen tools and more.

They are incredible at their work, story and passion. Salvatore Castiello brought me in their workshops in the little alleys behind the bustling streets, his grandfather and family lived in one of those rooms and you can still see his and his wife picture on the wall to remember them.

In the workshops they melt, shape and work the iron and copper, he showed me some of the phases of an object creation and the making of a made to measure object.

He also introduced me to his father, uncle and cousin, all working in the workshops. And he told me the fascinating story of his family starting with his grandfather at the beginning of ‘900, who made horseshoes and then his sons reinvented the family business through the after WWII from iron jewelry to the objects for the nativity scene that it has been always a family passion.

Today they supply the Nativity scene artisans in the neighborhood and abroad with their products.

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After leaving them I started my walk in the San Gregorio Armeno neighborhood with its bustling and cheerful streets.

It is difficult to mention all the workshops I saw and here I will mention the ones where I stopped fascinated by their handiwork and objects.

In the little shop and workshop of Vincenzo Gambardella I’ve learned a lot on the Neapolitan Nativity scene history and handmade building techniques. Vincenzo comes from a family of artisans of Pastori (Shepherds) as are called the terracotta figurines of the Nativity scene, and since he was a kid he learned the artwork of modeling figurines. He is still young and passionate in his work, he hopes to hand down this tradition to his future children and he wishes the handwork will continue to stay in Naples and done by Neapolitan artisans.

He showed me how to build a proper Nativity scene in all its elements, the Nativity has been moved to Naples and the tradition says that the original hut has been replaced by the ruins of an old temple and in the figurative fight between good and bad is next to a inn, all enriched by characters dressed in the 1700 fashion.

The figurines are made in part of terracotta while the central body core is realized in straw and metal to allow different positions, the scene surroundings are built using wood, terracotta and wax, everything is hand painted to details. There’s so much work to make the figurines as much as real as possible in all their facial expressions (the eyes are even made by little handmade glass pieces to make them real), the hands and the hair movements and so much more.

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After Vincenzo I continued my stroll and I visited the Ferrigno shop or better say showroom with its grand exhibition of works and scenes where Marco Ferrigno showed me their busy workshop and told me about their fourth generation work and passion.

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I entered then in the courtyard of Fratelli Capuano workshop and showroom where I admired the actual beginning of building a scene with the wood structure.

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The last but not least of my visit has been the shop and workshop of Ulderico Pinfildi, where I entered by curiosity, attracted more by the refined exhibition compared to all the other shops around. Ulderico was sat at a big table working on the hair of a figurine that brought my attention in the way on how precise and beautiful he was making it. And his sister was working on such an amazing horse sculpture that I was stunned by it. He is possibly the best mix between an artisan and an artist at work, there is a very thin line between the two here. He told me how his passion is to create Pastori inspired by the Nativity scenes made by artists for the richest families of ‘700 and paintings and sculptures of the time. He comes from a family of pottery and earthenware makers and maybe this has made him more slick at doing his work.

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At this point I completed my tour of the Neapolitan Nativity scene artisans and I hope I have been able to inject the enthusiasm I felt talking with those people and admiring their work to the reader.

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