A tiny alley in Naples Centro Storico, Via San Gregorio Armeno is the heart and soul of the Neapolitan Christmas.
I met a friend at the station in Piazza Garibaldi from where we took off heading to the undisputed Christmas Alley, well known around the world for the unique Neapolitan Presepe.
It takes about 30 minutes walk along Corso Umberto, the straight road starting from the train station; arrived in Piazza Duomo, the most picturesque route is through Spaccanapoli . This Christmas Alley was the decumanus maior (main road) of ancient Neapolis, connecting Spaccanapoli with Via dei Tribunali.
You will find San Gregorio Armeno on your right: there is no way you can miss it!
Buzzing sounds, lively colors, crowded little workshops testimonials of an ancient artisan’s practice and local traditions engraved in the DNA of this population. You can se and feel the centuries old heritage of the artisans from the baroque period that elevated this art to new heights, taking shape in the Presepe….This art was then brought into modern life creating a bridge between past and present. You will not only see miniature figurines from the traditional Nativity, from the mythology ( i.e. the Gypsy, the shepherd Benino, or Bacchus, the ancient God of Wine) but also a tiny replicas of everyday life, shopkeepers and innkeepers, butchers and fishmongers, animated bakers and pizzaioli… with always new inductees into the presepe hall of fame with kitsch celebrity caricatures.
I am sure you have spotted some “familiar faces”: the ones of those playing a leading role in everyday’s news:
If you have grasped a little essence of the place, there is more to it: the unique feature of these Neapolitans artists consisting in the ironic and funny lens used to put their own stamp on this time honored craft. Nonetheless they also translate the spirit of an entire population that is represented in humorous details and even emotions that reflect the collectivity.
Let me explain: you surely are aware of the immense passion the Neapolitans have always had for football, being Maradona the idol since those times when the Napoli football team was riding high.
If you are a football fan, you are up to date with the ‘footballers market’ knowing that for three years, Napoli’s fans had adored Higuaín. He scored 91 goals in 146 games for the club, transforming the team into one of Italy’s deepest dreams of a first Serie A title since the days when Diego Maradona graced San Paolo. On 11 May 1987, Napoli became the first team from southern Italy to win Serie A. On 26 July 2016, Higuaín transferred to rivals Juventus for €90 million!!!!!! Moral of the story is that today Neapolitans think of Gonzalo Higuain as a “Marcio sporco traditore”, Rotten Dirty Traitor. You must be wondering why I am telling you all that:
It is because this is drawing a picture of the collective emotions and passions of Neapolitans, with Higuain flagging a message to Neapolitans’ feeling: CORE NGRAT!!!!….that in dialect literally literally UNGRATEFUL HEART.
Looking up and around from this tiny narrow crowded alley, you will notice tall, dark palazzos with endless temporary stalls carved into every alley, every palazzo, every conceivable open space adding another dimension to the shops opened all year round.
Curious eyes won’t miss other traditional Neapolitan crafts like the famed Pulcinella or the famous Toto’; and beautiful scenes of the Neapolitan seascape hand painted.
If this wasn’t enough, the other typical symbols of a timeless city are all there with the “cornetto napoletano”, the Christmas game, “la Tombola”, or “il dosaspaghetti”, used to dose the spaghetti.
As a proper Neapolitan, I bought 3 “little horns” or “hornlets” for my family. In fact, the most important rule is that you can’t buy a corno for yourself, someone has to donate to you. The tradition says that only the donated corno has his protective power; moreover it says that you must sting with the its end the inside of the receiver’s hand. Through that, the horn “recognises” the person to protect against the “evil eye”.
If you think that by now I would be at the end of the relatively short street, I have to disappoint you; in fact the best part of my tour in San Gregorio was a lovely and genuine story, one of the artisan told me about his passion for this art. I am referring to Aldo Vucai, a teacher in the art of the Presepe. He told me that he inherited this passion from his grandfather that also taught him the history behind this art, and its symbolism. He said that il Presepe is an expression of the soul, and as such he just listened to his soul when he started this adventure (as he calls it). He shared few details about the miniatures, that from the simplest to the most sophisticated ones can take up to few days to complete; especially in those cases of ‘the artist’s block’. While listening to him in admiration, I made another quite interesting discovery about him…..He was designed as the official artisan for the Presepe of the Royal Neo-borbonic family. The descendants of the Royalty that ruled the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.
WHAT A BLAST!!!!!!!! The whole experience was like having a treasure chest that hides simple but very precious stories reflecting genuine hearts: if you don’t pay attention to each little old workshop, don’t talk to the friendly people, and don’t let yourself be transported in the past by those unique snapshots, you will miss the true essence of San Gregorio Armeno; and you may wonder….. whats the fuzz is about…..