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.
The markets of Sicily are brimming with the fish from the nearby seas, seasonal fruits and vegetables from orchards and fields just kilometers away, and spices from around the globe. Choruses from fish and meat vendors fill your ears; your eyes are inspired by colorful canopies shading a rainbow of purple eggplant, green zucchini, and canary-yellow melons; and your nose inhales the scents of cow and sheep cheeses seasoned with saffron, black pepper and olives. While you walk through the markets you can feast on a bounty of hand-held dishes that will challenge your palate: arancine (rice balls jammed with beef ragu and caciocavallo cheese), panelle (fried chickpea fritters), pane ca meusa (a bun stuffed with spleen and lung), stighiola (grilled, marinated sheep or goat entrails wrapped around green onions and fresh parsley), cazzilli (fried potato croquettes with mint), pastella (fried vegetables, sardines, and more), cannoli filled with sweet sheep’s milk ricotta, and brioche bursting with your favorite flavor of gelato.
From Palermo to Catania, from Trapani to Siracusa, Sicily not only offers travelers 3000 years of human history and sweeping landscapes but also a variety of tantalizing aromas, flavors and textures that will inspire your taste buds and lift your spirit.
Grazie Mille to Allison Scola, founder and curator of Experience Sicily for this appetizing post.
Part of Italian cultural DNA is to vacate the cities for the month of August and head for the beaches or mountains, with this tradition dating all the way back to 18 B.C.! This was the year Emperor Augustus, after whom the month of August is named (it was his favorite time of year), formally instituted the August ‘vaca’ by connecting various annual festivities celebrating the harvest to create an extended period of rest from the year’s labors. He filled this period with rituals, races, games and FUN. Known then as feriae augusti and today as Ferragosta, it later took on a Christian meaning as well coinciding with the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin into Heaven celebrated on August 15th. Today, August 15th is a national holiday and much like our 4th of July or Memorial Day culminates in dazzling displays of fireworks filling the night skies.
Good or bad for tourists? … that depends on where you’re headed. There’s a bit more breathing room in major cities, though shops and restaurants may by be closed, with concerts and other activities making up for it. If you’re headed to the beaches, you’ll be sharing the sun, the sea and the sand . . . but even then, there are over 5,000 miles of spectacular coastline to discover and savor.
Photos featured are from Sardinia, Elba, Capri, Lipari, Sicily, Procida, Ischia, and the Amalfi Coast.