The tradition of nativity scenes began with Saint Francis of Assisi who staged the first nativity in 1223 with people and live ox and lamb. Overtime this evolved to life-sized wooden figures placed in front of churches and then, into scenes made of small expressive terracotta figurines.
During the 1700s, crèche figures were an obsession in Naples. Wealthy families competed to create the most impressive ones. When Don Carlos of Bourbon (the future Charles III of Spain) ruled Naples and Sicily from 1734-1769, he reputedly owned a crèche with nearly 6,000 figures. Neapolitan crèches were often given as presents to royalty all over Europe so such figurines can appear on the antique market even today.
The 18th century crèche of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is the finest in the US and features over 200 figurines made by the Neapolitan artisan Giuseppe Sammartino and his pupils. All the figurines have finely painted terracotta heads; legs, arms, and wings carved from wood; and bodies of hemp and wire. No two are alike. The graceful angels decorating the tree all have different faces and clothing and carry different objects. The Nativity scene surrounding the majestic twenty-foot blue spruce features the three main elements characteristic of 18th-century Naples: adoring shepherds and their flocks, the Three Kings in procession, and colorful peasants and townspeople engaged in quotidian tasks. In the background are dozens of animals and architectural pieces including quaint houses, market stalls, Roman ruins, and even a typical Italian fountain.
The Neapolitan Crèche and Baroque Angel Tree located in the Met’s Medieval Courtyard are on display through the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6th (the 12th day of Christmas) marking the arrival of the Three Wise Man bringing their finest gifts for the new born King.
For centuries Venice has been a beacon for writers . . . Lord Byron, Robert Barrett Browning, Henry James, Marcel Proust and, later, Ernest Hemingway and Truman Capote, just to name a few. For 19th and 20th century painters, Venice was a siren that called like no other place on the planet. Perhaps one of the reasons for its irresistible allure is that it is really two cities — one of majesty and solidity above, and an ephemeral one echoed in the shifting waters below. Venice’s shimmering reflections tell you so much about the essence of this city of mirrors and mirages … at once substantial and fluid, with a past that reverberates in its architecture.
The romanticized, mythical Venice may be hard to grasp on a steamy day in midsummer when the city swells with tourists . . . but when the fog, la nebbia, settles in, it is easy to imagine that things can appear and disappear in its labyrinth of canals, or that you could turn the corner and walk into the past.
This slideshow was put together with the hope that in the aftermath of last month’s historic flooding, Venice will be restored and once again appear as it did in the magnificent paintings by the likes of J.M.W.Turner, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Signac, Raoul Dufy, Anders Zoran, Maurice Prendergast, John Singer Sargent, and James McNeil Whistler. (I am grateful to have seen and photographed so many of these wonderful paintings; photos I didn’t take myself are from Wikimedia Commons). Please consider donating Save Venice
Orvieto’s cathedral doesn’t have the global profile of Saint Peter’s in Rome, Saint Mark’s in Venice or the Duomo in Florence, and if the Catholic church were to do a survey of Italy’s most glorious churches it might even trail Milan’s cathedral or Siena’s stunner. But if you arrive in Orvieto on a blue-skied day and stroll up Via Nebbia, then turn the corner with all the tourist signs and cast your gaze heavenward, there’s a good chance that you’ll forget all the others, at least for a while. There before you is the Duomo, in all its grand Gothic glory. Construction began in 1290 but wasn’t completed until three hundred years later, and by that time, according to one historian’s count, it had become the collaborative product of 33 architects, 152 sculptors, 68 painters and 90 mosaic artisans.
Art historian Jacob Burckhardt called the Duomo “the greatest and richest polychrome monument in the world.” Pope Leo XIII suggested that on Judgment Day the Duomo’s beauty would levitate it straight to heaven … I think so too!