You are currently viewing The history of the Neapolitan nativity scene

The history of the Neapolitan nativity scene

The Neapolitan nativity scene is one of the most important symbols of Christmas and represents a moment of union in families and communities. It is a scene that has its origins in Italy. Every year we gather in homes and places of worship to give shape to small. And significant representations accompanying us up to the Epiphany.

Today we would like to talk to you about the Neapolitan nativity scene, its strong tradition, and how it represents a reference for the faithful worldwide.

The origins of the Neapolitan crib

The representation of the birth of Jesus has its origins in the eighteenth century. And is still handled today with strength and dedication. Neapolitan crib art is among the most traditional and consolidated in Italy. And every year, it never ceases to amaze us, even if we are far away from the Italian streets. Not only at Christmas, all year round, but it is also possible to walk in via San Gregorio Armeno, the road of the cribs, which offers stalls and shop windows that showcase local crafts with all kinds of figurines. In Italian cities, several museums preserve historical pieces and entire scenes representing the birth of Jesus.

When was the passion for the nativity scene born, and why is it still so famous today?

In 1021 the crib of Naples was mentioned for the first time in a notarial deed that says the church of Santa Maria ad Praesepe. Therefore, in another text, in 1324, reference is made to the chapel of the crib of the house of Alagna in Amalfi. In 1340, Queen Sancia d’Aragona gave a statue of the Madonna to the new church of the Poor Clares. They are now preserved in the National Museum of San Martino. Only in the 15th century do these statues’ first true sculptors appear. Pietro and Giovanni Alemanno, in 1470, created wooden sculptures to represent Nativity.

Pietro Belverte sculpted in Naples in 1532 28 statues for the friars of the Church of San Domenico Maggiore. Who set the nativity scene in a cave of genuine stones for the first time. The first to create terracotta statuettes for proven use was Domenico Impicciati. In 1532, they also inserted in the collection a statue with the likeness of the client—a noble from Sorrento of the Aragonese court.

Representation of the Neapolitan Nativity scene

neapolitean nativity scene

Source: Italy magazine

The birth of the Neapolitan nativity scene with San Gaetano da Thiene

San Gaetano da Thiene is considered the father of the Neapolitan crib. When he moved to Naples in 1534, he was known for his skills and great love for the nativity scene. One of his most appreciated works was created for the Hospital of the Incurables. He was responsible for the birth of the tradition of setting up the nativity scene in churches and homes on Christmas.

The Piarist priests gave rise to the Baroque nativity scene, with articulated wooden figurines covered with clothes and fabrics. The first Neapolitan mannequins had life-size; only later were they reduced to about seventy centimeters in height. Every year the Piarist church set up its nativity scene on the occasion of Christmas, and this represented another great novelty since, before then, the nativity scenes were fixed.

With Michele Perrone, in 1640, the statuettes kept the head and limbs of wood. But began to be made with an iron wire core covered with tow. This made it possible to create mannequins with more plastic poses. 

During the eighteenth century, the Neapolitan crib lived its best season. It left the churches, was seen as an object of devotion, and entered the aristocratic houses. The wealthiest families challenge each other to set up the largest and most spectacular nativity scenes. Over the years, the scene moves more and more outside the Holy Family. And begins to embrace the Magi, shepherds, street vendors, and animals.

The Museum of the Certosa in San Martino

In this case, if you visit Italy during the Christmas period. In that case, the Museum of the Certosa di San Martino is a reference point for those who want to know more about the origins of the Neapolitan crib. Here it is possible to find still intact some of the actual examples from Naples and other parts of the world.

The most famous is perhaps the Cuciniello crib, made between 1887 and 1889, or the crib of the Banco di Napoli with eighteenth-century statuettes, both exhibited in the Museum in San Marino.

The Neapolitan nativity scene and its symbolism

Some typical figures of the Neapolitan nativity scene figurines must be included since each represents a significant meaning. Let’s start with Benino, or Benito, a point of reference as stated in the Holy Scriptures (“And the angels gave the announcement to the sleeping shepherds”). Then we find the winemaker and Cicci Bacchus, symbols of the religious revolution that will take place with the death of Jesus. The bread and wine are the gifts with which Jesus will find the sacrament of the Eucharist, transmitting the message of death and resurrection. 

The fisherman, which symbolizes the fisher of souls, is another symbol full of meanings. We remember that the fish was one of the symbols of Christians persecuted during the Roman Empire. And was used to allude to Divinity without depicting God. The gypsy, with her gifts of predicting the future. And indicates the moment of the drama in that Jesus will live. He is also symbolized by the basket he carries with him, full of iron tools and nails used for crucifixion.

Not only the characters but even the places also have precise meanings. The market, for example, changes its clothes according to the time of the year, constantly acquiring new symbols: the butcher or delicatessen in January. In April, the egg seller, and in August, the watermelon seller. In October, the vintner, and so on. 


The Neapolitan nativity scene is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful to admire, and we can recreate it at home and in churches by choosing suitable figurines. Are you looking for new nativity figures to represent the nativity scene? On Amazon, you can find all kinds of nativity figurines!