There are 173 people, seven pigs, one rabbit, two monkeys, 42 angels, ten horses and over three hundred small decor items in the Cuciniello Nativity, on display in the National Museum of San Martino, Naples.
They make for a very crowded Christmas scene, created by an educated Neapolitan playwright, Michele Cuciniello (1823-1889), who in the last few years of the 19th century decided to make his 1700s’ collection figurines public, showcasing it from a nativity platform he had designed himself.
The heir of a long, local tradition with roots in the early 11th century, the Cuciniello Nativity is one of the most famous representations of the birth of Jesus ever set up in Naples. The 18th century was indeed the “golden age” of the genre, and the time when the traditional Christmas icons welcomed the company of a laic world made of taverns, markets, fishermen, wanderers, and farmers.
The Nativity is showcased between the ruins of a Roman temple, symbolizing the Christian faith born between the vestiges of paganism, with a hint to the then-recent archaeological sites in Pompeii and Ercolano; the episodes of the Annunciation to the shepherds and of Mary and Joseph being refused a room at the inn are both represented.
In an interview for the Jesuit’s magazine “La Civiltà Cattolica” a few years back, the president of the Neapolitan Nativity Association, Adriana Bezzi explained that Neapolitan 18th-century nativities are able to tell the story of the birth of Jesus
like a miracle, a glimpse of Heaven that appears in the dullness of daily life.
One look at the Cuciniello Nativity and you’ll agree.