Living or traditional, Neapolitan or standard, with orange branches or terracotta figurines, cribs are everywhere in Italy during Christmas time! Here is a little guide to the best nativities in Rome and surroundings.
We stress the word ‘surroundings’ because the nativity scene was for the first time invented and recreated in a village not far from Rome, Greccio, where St. Francis in 1223 set up the manger where Jesus was born with real people, the so called living nativity. The living crib is still a tradition in Greccio (on show on Dec. 24, 26, Jan. 1, 6, 7, 8), but this village now also boasts of a newly-inaugurated museum totally devoted to nativities from all over the world which is really worth visiting.
Living nativities around Rome will also be on display in Tarquinia (Dec. 26, Jan. 1, 6), Corchiano (Dec. 25, 26, Jan. 1, 6), Orte (Dec. 26, Jan. 1, 6) and in Villaregia, a few minutes out of Rome, by missionaries who operate in Africa. In Leonessa, you’ll find a still one, all made of polychrome terracotta, from the early 16th century.
Rome’s oldest crib is displayed in Santa Maria Maggiore, one of Rome’s four major Basilicas, and it was realized by the 13th-century sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio. If you wan to see a Neapolitan-style one (which consists of 3 parts: the grotto central scene, the wise men procession and the tavern) in downtown Rome, you should go Santi Cosma e Damiano, with its 18-th century pastors or to S. Gregorio VII, pretty close to the Vatican. If you love the Neapolitan style cribs so much to drive out of Rome then head for Monteporzio Catone – crib displayed in an old cistern – or Amatrice (where the amatriciana pasta sauce comes from).
Rome’s churches with the best nativities are, of course, St. Peter’s with the Vatican’s monumental crib in the square (this year it will be traditional and will feature some artistic statues of the mid-19th century) but also other smaller churches such as Chiesa del Cuore Immacolato in Euclide square, with 52 scenes of Jesus life and 18 of Palestine set on the steps leading to the church’s entrance. Or Chiesa della Santissima Concezione, in the central Via Veneto, with a nativity made of coloured chalk and decorated with mirrors. In the very central Chiesa di Santa Maria, looking at the crib you’ll be able to see the reproduction of disappeared corners of old Rome. While S. Maria in Aracoeli, next to the Capitol hill square, hosts a mid-19th century nativity with human-size statues.
An institution of Rome’s Christmas scene is the exposition 100 presepi, in Via D’Annunzio, next to piazza del Popolo, displaying around 200 nativites (twice as many as the name of the event might suggest!) from all over the world made with all kinds of different materials. There is also a workshop for kids (age: 4 to 11) who want to learn to make a crib (reservation required). Another nativities and cribs exhibit takes place a few hundred meters apart in the underground space of the Church of S. Ambrogio e Carlo al Corso, in Via del Corso 437 until January 6.
A permanent and historical nativity is hosted by Rome’s waste disposal company AMA at 5, Via dei Cavalleggeri, with stones and concrete from all over the world to recreate original Palestine houses of the time. Rome’s Crib museum, near the Fori, is also open all year-long. While a 19th-century Roman-style nativity is always on display in Trastevere’s Rome Museum. Two permanent cribs -18th century Neapolitan-style – is in the EUR area, in southern Rome at the Demo-ethno-anthropologic Museum where until January 29 there will also be on display other Italian nativites and some Polish ones, from the city of Cracow.
For technology-addicts, in the Torrespaccata borough, we also have a totally electronic nativity!
For art lovers, there is also a special route of nativity scenes in 5 Roman churches. Start in Santa Maria del Popolo, the Renaissance church in piazza del Popolo: in the first chapel on the right you’ll see Pinturicchio‘s version of the manger, very sweet and intimate. Take Via del Corso, and reach piazza San silvestro, in the omonym church there is nativity scene about 100 years younger than Pinturicchio’s by Morazzone. S. Marcello in Via del Corso has two monumental paintings of the wise men and the shepherds visiting Joseph, Mary and Jesus, in the Griffoni chapel. Continue and reach piazza San Marco, right next Piazza Venezia. In the church of San Marco there is a mid-17th century painting by Carlo Maratta with Mary, Jesus and one of the wise men. Finally go to Trastevere: in S. Maria in Trastevere there is a mosaic of the holy family by Piero Cavallini. Late 13-th century.