NAPLES, Italy: Nativity scene artisans in Italy have taken Pope Francis’ social message to heart this Christmas, giving a bigger role to ordinary people in their work and reviving the tradition’s simple origins.
Statuettes of disgraced former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi are less and less popular at the bustling San Gregorio Armeno market in Naples, where the new pope is now all the rage.
“It’s about simplicity,” said Antonio Cantone, one of the city’s most prestigious artists, who sells fine statuettes in the ramshackle courtyard of a 16th-century palazzo near the market.
Cantone has been commissioned to make the giant Nativity scene that will be unveiled on St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on Christmas Eve this year – the first Neapolitan artist to have the honor.
“I have based the scene on the message of Pope Francis,” he said, adding that it would feature prominently a pauper dressed in rags and a peasant and shepherd bearing humble gifts.
“There are no noblemen, except for the three kings,” Cantone said, adding: “The first to arrive when Jesus was born were ordinary people, that is the core of the message I wanted.”
Elaborate Nativity scenes began in Naples churches in the 18th century to make religious teachings more accessible by including snapshots of daily life that people could relate to.
The custom was then adopted by the aristocracy and spread to ordinary people, becoming a yearly and much-loved tradition for millions of Italians.
The most traditional statuettes are painstakingly handcrafted out of terra-cotta, given glass eyes and painted – each one a unique work of folk art.
“Nativity scenes are a serious thing. They can transmit a message,” Cantone said, adding that many popular additions – like a tavern setting – were intended as a warning against the perils of sin.
More recently, some artists have begun crafting more unorthodox statuettes – from football legend Diego Maradona to famous tenor Luciano Pavarotti – in a bid to raise their profile.
But Cantone, who started out as an art restorer and took up making Nativity figures later in life, has a more academic approach to the craft.
He said his inspiration for the Vatican Nativity came from the oldest, purest historical tradition “with no contamination, no excesses.”
Shoppers thronging the tiny street of San Gregorio Armeno, which is visited by tens of thousands of people a day in the Christmas season, echoed the idea of going back to basics.
“I like the classic Nativity scene. ... No Berlusconi, no!” said Bianca, a pensioner out shopping with her husband for a Nativity scene for their son, who has had to leave Naples because of the city’s rampant economic crisis.
“The tradition had fallen away, but now it’s back in fashion,” she said.
Following multiple sex scandals and trials and his eviction from the Italian parliament last month, Berlusconi is very much out of favor at San Gregorio Armeno, but the statuettes of Pope Francis are selling like hotcakes.
Artisan Genny Di Virgilio, whose family has been in the business since 1830, said the pope was his top seller but noted that “current affairs statuettes” should not be confused with the traditional Nativity, which he said would be a “blasphemy.”
Demand is so high for the pope that Di Virgilio cannot make the terra-cotta figures fast enough.
“Yesterday, I had 80 of them, and I sold them all by 11 in the morning! I had one guy from Florence who bought the raw terra-cotta model and took it just like that, unpainted!” Di Virgilio said.
The artist met with the pope during a general audience and handed him a statue of himself.
“You made this? Good, good, you made me look thinner!” Di Virgilio said the pope told him.
The pope’s statue was “definitely” more popular than that of his predecessor, Benedict XVI, because “all the generations like him,” Di Virgilio said.
Giorgio Sannino, 26, out Christmas shopping with his girlfriend, is one fan.
“We have to get one! We like this pope a lot because he is close to people,” he said.
“I think it is an important statue to have for any self-respecting family.”