A Nativity from Naples: Presepe Sculpture of the Eighteenth Century

A Nativity from Naples: Presepe Sculpture of the Eighteenth Century

November 25, 2008 to January 25, 2009

During the Christmas season of 2008, the Kimbell played host to an extraordinary loan from Naples, Italy: a magnificent, 18th-century Neapolitan Nativity scene—known in Italian as a presepe after the Latin word for “crib,” praesepium. The Kimbell presepe featured more than 70 figures and animals (averaging about 15 inches tall) and was displayed in the traditional manner with a realistic, rocky setting and a crumbling Roman arch.

During the Renaissance, presepe figures were generally large (often life-size) and installed in churches. The tradition of presepe took exceptionally strong root in Naples during the 18th century, a period of great political stability and economic boom. The Kimbell presepe showcased a form of art that today seems almost inseparable from the celebration of Christmas—the arrangement of movable figures, animals, and props to represent the scene in the stable at Bethlehem after the birth of Christ.

Supervising the installation was the leading expert on presepi, Elio Catello, whose family has collected and installed presepi since the early 19th century. He learned the art from his grandfather, Vincenzo, and his father, Roberto, and has passed it on to his daughter, Roberta, who also accompanied the presepe to the Kimbell.

The Kimbell is grateful to the private collectors in Naples—Roberto Catello Jr., Giuseppe Lembo, and Mauro Scarlato—who agreed to lend examples of the highest quality. Other loans came from the foremost public collection of presepe, the Museo Nazionale di San Martino, Naples. The Kimbell is tremendously indebted to the Polo Museale Napoletano and its superintendent, Nicola Spinosa, for helping build the stage on which the spectacle worked its magic.

Caption: Felice Bottigliero and Francesco Gallo, Young African Page with a Pair of Parrots (detail), late 18th century, painted terracotta and fabric. Collection of the Catello family, Naples