NATIVITY SCENES AND PRESEPE HUNTS FOR CHRISTMAS IN TUSCANY

I'm no friend of nativity scenes, but there is no Christmas in Italy without a presepe (I could also do without Christmas, but that's a different story). Tuscany's creches come in all shapes and materials and whilst the manger scene at my in-laws is made of plastic other households show off elaborately carved artisan figures under their Christmas tree. However, thmost exciting cribs are found outdoors or in former barns and pigsties, where real people freeze off their sandal wearing feet for their method acting performance of Mary or Joseph (the newborn is mostly fake though). 

Perhaps my Christmas crib aversion has to do with being a mother and knowing that the last thing you need right after having given birth is an incessant stream of strangers popping in to say hello. All the jolly men and rejoicing animals jamming it around the crib and everything Maria probably hoped for was a female friend to help her get up - unless immaculate conceptions not just lead to high-speed pregnancies but also culminate in pain free births as a reward for foregoing a sex life. 


Adoration of the Magi by Sandro Botticelli (today in the Uffizi)
It's a man's world 

As a mother I also know that kids love nativity scenes. Especially if they show off great lighting effects or are constructed with Lego. Years ago our children were glued to one of the creches exhibited at the monastery in Abbadia San Salvatore on southern Tuscany's mount Amiata. I had time to admire the 36 impressively sculpted columns in the abbey's crypt whilst the kids tried to stop a sheep on short circuit from eating up baby Jesus. It was a perfect Christmas day, most of it spent skiing on an empty Mount Amiata followed by a 21st century salvation of Gesù bambino.

After all these years in Italy (and after having been raised as a catholic in Switzerland) I must have seen millions of cribs. Whether artisan sculpted, assembled in China or painfully paper mached by the pupils of our Tuscan elementary school, the experience of admiring them doesn't foster kindness in me. In some occasions, the result is the exact opposite and my personal irritation levels hit peak scores when the artistic installations block out already scarce parking spots in medieval hilltop towns - just when everybody needed a last minute Christmas present. 


Nativity scene and road signs in Monticello Amiata


Nevertheless we've decided to look at a couple of manger scenes up close this holiday season to introduce our children to the gender issue. All the animals and gay looking angels don't make up for the fact that there is only one woman in the play; and she's obviously never been meant to say anything. Being eight and ten years old, my daughter and son are old enough to visit some of Italy's best known nativity scenes so as to reflect on the number of male and female actors in leading and supporting roles and to compare the result with the ratio encountered in the latest Hollywood productions (they can't wait!). 

Using a scientific approach we'll be starting at Siena's biblioteca degli Intronati, which exhibits the hand painted nativity scenes depicted in some of its oldest books (the beautiful public library also has a great children's book section). From the Middle Ages in Siena we're off to the Renaissance city to see one of the few Christmas parties I keep coming back to: Benozzo Gozzoli's extensive and colorful frescoes in the Magi chapel in Florence's palazzo Medici Riccardi (one of the must sees on my three days in Florence with kids and the Firenze card itinerary).

After that we'll drive to the sea to compare our Renaissance data with the cast of the presepi viventi performed in Porto Ercole and Porto Santo Stefano on the Monte Argentario peninsula. This stop will also give us the time to collect some drift wood to build our own presepe on my favorite Tuscan beach

Then it's back inland to Casole d'Elsa near Siena, which promotes itself miglior presepe vivente in Italia, Italy's best living nativity scene. I would have thought this title goes to Matera in the Basilicata where a good thousand people participate in a four day nativity enacting, but since Matera just left Siena empty handed after winning thtitle for European Capital of Culture 2019, I'm overjoyed to hear that the best live act of the holy family is still happening in down-town Tuscany. 

From Casole we might consider a pilgrimage along the 70 kilometers of the newly found 'Strada dei Presepi' between Florence and Pisa or head to Umbria, which is not just Italy's region with the highest number of saints but thanks to St. Francis also the birth place of presepe making. But by that time the kids will probably be ready to go back to school. 

  
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