Italian nativity: Joseph, Mary, and Michael Jackson?

Italian craftsmen carve wooden nativity figures that offer a window on the top stories and public figures of 2009. This year, the figures include Italian prime minster Silvio Berlusconi, George Clooney, and Michael Jackson.

Salvatore Laporta/AP
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi as part of the nativity crowd.

Italians are adding a distinctly worldly note to their Christmas nativity scenes this year – carved wooden figurines of their prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, and Hollywood heartthrob George Clooney, among others.

Miniature likenesses of the late prince of pop, Michael Jackson, are also featured in scenes that traditionally depict Joseph and Mary in a straw-lined barn looking lovingly at the Baby Jesus.

Wooden nativity figures, known as presepe, have been carved by Italian craftsmen for centuries. The craftsmen congregate in workshops along narrow, cobbled Via San Gregorio Armeno, in the heart of Naples, Italy’s third-largest city, carving and painting figurines for the festive season – from donkeys and sheep to angels and the Three Wise Men.

But in recent years the artisans have given the tradition a modern twist, producing likenesses of politicians, actors, and celebrities who have been in the public eye over the preceding 12 months.

Last year it was Barack Obama, whose election as America’s first black president came just a few weeks before Christmas and ensured that he was a bestseller.
Italy’s most deadly natural disaster in years has also lent inspiration for this year’s nativity figurines. In April, an earthquake rocked the town of L’Aquila in the central Abruzzo region, flattening villages, killing 300 people, and leaving 60,000 homeless.

In a nativity scene created by one of the best-known of Naples’s craftsmen, Marco Ferrigno, the Three Wise Men are represented by Mr. Berlusconi, who personally directed rescue and relief efforts, and two senior officials, whose efforts were praised by survivors.

“These three characters did all they could for the drama that struck the city of L’Aquila,” Mr. Ferrigno said – and for that reason they deserved a place alongside the donkeys and doves.

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