Art & Culture

The Church of Madonna del Carmine keeps a unique nativity scene

A 19th century Christmas nativity that sees the local citizens as primary muses

By Saveria Fiore, photo by Vito Fusco

“Dollhouses hid between mountains and sea” would be the words used by Edoardo Colace, a celebrated photographer from Salerno, to describe Atrani. He presents us the perfect picture of a village that almost looks like a nativity scene which holds traditions inside. Retracing history, the idea of a nativity scene came first to Francis of Assisi, who had spiritual enlightenment during his journey back from Bethlehem; then, in 1233, he made it a reality in Greccio (Rieti) after being given the blessing from Pope Honorius III. From that moment on, the nativity scenes underwent various evolutions. One of the first and oldest representations that we have is the one by Arnolfo di Cambio, architect, and sculptor from Florence. By the 19th century, nativity cribs were utterly integrated into the popular culture and were displayed in local houses just like we do today. Turning Saints into figurines succeeded in bringing people closer to religion, something that the Church has always wanted, but at the same time opened the road for a mix of the sacred and the profane.

The vision of Vincenzo Amodio

The unique nativity scene in Atrani, the poetic village surrounded by the sea breeze, represents precisely this fusion of sacred and profane. We are talking about the paper-mâché nativity crib located in the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, built in 1604 by Scipione Crespella and Giambattista Vollaro, two representatives of influential local families. The creator of this remarkable piece of art was Vincenzo Amodio, known by the locals as “Vicienze e Catarina.” At that time, and even today, it was widespread to have a nickname that identified you through different features (family, appearance, job); it was some recognition that you were part of the community. It was essential, especially in small villages.

 

The Church of Santa Maria del Carmine at Atrani
Vincenzo Amodio places the statute of O'Filippetto
O'Filippetto
The remarkable character of O'Filippetto

 

Hidden secrets

These kinds of nicknames were such an integral part of the culture that even Amodio’s nativity figurines had their own. In the representation, the artisan wanted to have the figures of people that existed in his time, so he allegorically represented them. That’s why one of the most emblematic characters is “On Filippetto,” the figurine that represents Filippo Gambardella: the famous notary was presented with skimpy clothing that reminded a bagpiper. To describe him, people of that time would say that “he was full of arrogance and haughty because of his social and economic position, and that his citizens hated him for that.” Knowing this, Amodio decided deliberately to present him as a bald man of a low social class and put his figurine next to the cave. Another exciting story is the one behind the figurine of “Cristina e Catolla.” An elder woman with humble garments, an apron, a chicken in her hands, and her shoes hang behind her shoulders. She is represented barefoot not to symbolize her freedom or health, but because at that time, the poorer in the community would walk barefoot not to ruin the only pair of shoes they possessed.

Papier-mâché from Salento to Atrani

The papier-mâché is an old technique: in the IV century, the ancient Greeks used linen fiber mixed with stucco and colors to create their theatre masks and worship icons. It was passed from generation to generation, and history tells us that around the XVII century was a widely common craft in the Salento area. Vincenzo Amodio worked with a method of papier-mâché called in the South of Italy “forcheggiatura,” which consists of shaping the paper with hot irons and adding animal glue (or sometimes copper sulfate) to avoid woodworms. After creating a skeleton with wires stuffed with wood shavings or straw to make it thicker, the structural cast gets covered with waste paper, glue, and flour (a mixture called in the local dialect Ponnula). The following steps would variate according to the aesthetic that a person would want to give to the final product, but usually, the ends of the figurines were made of clay, and the final touch was coloring them.

 

A view of Atrani, It looks like a nativity scene which holds traditions inside

 

The art of the people

It has been said that Amodio probably made the nativity scene for some family from Atrani or the Amalfi Coast and that it was gifted to the Church only later on. Still, even today, we don’t know for sure what his real intentions were. The first examples of his nativity scene of the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel are dated back to the 20th century. However, a statue of Saint Blaise (dated the same year as the nativity crib) was registered among their assets in the second half of the 19th century. Amodio’s nativity scene is a peculiar form of art. His commitment to incorporate his fellow citizens from any social class with their characteristics has earned him a place in the local tradition.

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