At the center of the Italian peninsula, Umbria has long been known as the “green heart of Italy.” Without a seacoast and off the main rail lines and highways, the Umbrian countryside remains unspoiled, often unseen, by outsiders. Yet this region boasts its own special attractions, including its strong ties to rural life, a deep religious spirit, fertile valleys, and looming hills crowned by ancient towns, monasteries, or ruined castles. More intimate and less flamboyant than Tuscany or Rome, Umbria has recently begun to draw more adventurous and contemplative visitors. They are welcomed by warm people, who offer old traditions of community and cuisine, enlivened with festivals, customs, and delicacies unique to this part of the country.
Umbria Past and Present Bob Davis
The Creche and Its Origins
With the coming of December and Advent, village manger scenes begin popping up in many Italian cities and towns. People in Umbria have a positive passion for the Christmas creche, known simply as the presepio, or “manger.” This is no surprise, since legend has it that the creche was the inspired creation of Umbria’s most famous native son, Francis of Assisi.
Supposedly, Francis returned from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with especially fond memories of Bethlehem, where the town with its Nativity story evoked for him Jesus’s humble, even pathetic origins, at a time when many Christians worshiped Christ as the Lord of all Creation. Later, when Francis wandered into the modest little Umbrian hill town of Greccio, he was strongly reminded of Bethlehem’s modest simplicity.
Francis asked the local lord and townspeople for help in reenacting a “living nativity” in this evocative spot, and they responded by installing a wooden manger, some farm animals, and a carved image of the Christ Child in a nearby grotto. As a priest said mass and his followers chanted, Francis placed the Christ Child in the manger and forever enshrined the notion of Jesus’s simple, homey origins.
This living presepio provided medieval Christians with an expressive way to re-imagine what the Holy Family might have experienced.
Shrine of the Grotto of the Presepio
Fresco in the grotto showing both the presepio and nativity
Subsequently, these pantomimes grew steadily more elaborate and dramatic, as performers added Mary and Joseph, shepherds, the Three Wise Men, and the guiding star. Eventually, eager participants created new roles for themselves, filling village stages, churches, or squares as costumed milkmaids, fishmongers, bartenders, peasant musicians, fortune-tellers, soldiers, nobles, Turks, and every other occupation imaginable – some dressed up and some just doing their ordinary jobs.
In Umbria such sprawling tableaux vivants have recently begun flourishing again, not only for religious reasons, but also to nurture civic pride and lure tourists. Entire towns now present themselves as “presepio villages,” filling their medieval streets with costumed citizens and full-scale mannequins, all going about their business in medieval or biblical costume. In other Umbrian squares and churches, as well as elsewhere in Italy, a counter-tendency has been to retain this whole cacophonous, polyglot format, but in miniature, using little figurini measuring anywhere from two inches to two feet tall. These are placed within elaborate, fanciful village-stages, the buildings, fountains, lights, and trees of which are, like the tiny inhabitants, still available to buy at seasonal markets, beginning as early as All Saints’ Day.
Some people say that such figurini crowding these crooked streets are symbolic of all humanity going about its business, blissfully unaware of the miracle taking place in its midst (and it can sometimes be difficult to spot the Holy Family, stuck off in a secluded corner). Others counter that these fantasy villages and villagers offer viewers a nostalgic return to the simpler, communitarian life that most Italians experienced until after World War II. Either way, these meticulously crafted scenes, living or static, whether featuring just the Holy Family or mobs of villagers, are one of the great attractions of Italy and especially of Umbria – for those who can make it there in the off-off season that starts with the first days of December.
We have our own small collection of Neapolitan terracotta figurines that grace our Christmas dinnertable.