What’s a Neapolitan Presepio?

The winter holiday season is a really fun time to visit Pittsburgh. There’s so many spots to check out Christmas lights and a ton of our favorite places to visit throughout the year really deck the halls with holiday decorations.

One hall that is truly decked out this year is the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Hall of Architecture. Not only are there five giant Christmas trees (this year’s theme is all about Scotland thanks to one of its hometown hero’s birthplace) but the Neapolitan Presepio is a true wonder. First displayed at the museum in 1957, the presepio was generously donated by Eugenio Catello. Now through January 5, 2016, the presepio will be on display and is included with paid museum admission.

Constructed from around 1700 in Italy, a presepi reflects the 18th Century Neopolitan take on a traditional Christmas nativity scene. The Holy Family is given reverence and surrounded by the daily life events in Naples. Placed under a Roman ruin, the location is meant to convey the religious change from pagan to Christianity.

And this one is truly a wonder. With over 100 separately created pieces made from painted and gessoed wood, terracotta, silk and other fabrics, and mixed media and covering 250 square feet, the museum’s presepio has a vibrancy that captures a life in the figures and scenes, each one playing an important role

The first known scenes depicting Christ’s birth have been noted since 1223 by Saint Francis, and the Neopolitan Presepi with secular components really became of interest around 1700. They flourished through Naples’ Golden Age (early to mid 1700’s through early 1800’s).


The vibrant expressions were very intentional and meant to convey the momentary convergence of the religious and secular worlds.

Notice how many of the figures seem to go about their daily lives, while others are simply awestruck by the heavenly angels.

 Angels are held by delicate, invisible wires and placed above the presepio.

Such detail and, from the clothing and even the vendors’ objects, the paint and other mediums used give a lively feel.

A close up of the Roman ruin. 

My daughter was really struck by the details and care in each piece’s construction. For the angels, the garments were meant to look breezy and billowy, so thin wires were added to each robe and sash.

If you’re in or around Pittsburgh this holiday season and want to see the presepio on display, you’ve got until January 5th.

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2 Thoughts to “What’s a Neapolitan Presepio?”

  1. I've lived in Pittsburgh for years (and worked for the Carnegie for quite some time). I've always loved this too. Your photos are beautiful!

    1. Thank you so much for the compliment! We are so in love with the Carnegie Museums and love to visit as much as possible, but visiting during the holiday season seems extra special. Which museum do you work for?

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