'No retreat, even when broken': classical architecture in the Presepe Napoletano

Hughes, Jessica (2015). 'No retreat, even when broken': classical architecture in the Presepe Napoletano. In: Hughes, Jessica and Buongiovanni, Claudio eds. Remembering Parthenope: Receptions of Classical Naples from Antiquity to the Present. Classical Presences. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 284–309.

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This chapter focuses on the small-scale models of classical ruins sold by vendors in the historic centre of Naples. These models, which normally represent columns, arches and aqueducts, are destined for display in the Neapolitan presepi – the elaborate and complex nativity scenes constructed by local families as part of their Christmas celebrations. The chapter locates these Neapolitan models within the longer artistic tradition of representing Christ’s birth at the site of ancient ruins. However, it also emphasises the unique meanings behind the use of classical ruins in the context of the presepe Napoletano. It explores, but moves beyond, the traditional interpretation of these scenes, which read the classical ruins in (all) nativities as a symbol of the triumph of Christianity over paganism. While this interpretation certainly has currency today, here it will be shown that the meanings of the Neapolitan miniature ruins are much richer and more varied than such a universalising reading would suggest. The discussion will draw attention to the overall aesthetic of temporal and spatial collapse in the presepe, and to the other, more esoteric classical references that can be detected in its figures and landscapes. It will also look at examples of individual presepe which appropriate classical ruins for very specific purposes. Particular attention will be paid to the 2009 ‘Presepe for L’Aquila’, which was made in S. Gregorio Armeno by Marco Ferrigno. This impressive creation substituted the usual ancient columns and aqueducts with the shattered buildings of the post-earthquake town, which were at the same time given a new, redemptive meaning (Nec Recisa Recedit - ‘No retreat, even when broken’). The Presepe for Aquila serves to exemplify the symbolic richness of ruins in the presepe Napoletano, and the continued relevance and dynamism of classical receptions in the modern city.

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