The tradition of nativity scenes - presepio in Italian - dates back to the 13th century and St. Francis of Assisi. Nativity scenes are associated with Naples, which turned them into an art form. The original presepi were crafted on a mannequin made of wire, with a terra-cotta head, arms and legs, and richly dressed in silk clothes embroidered with gold. Wealthy aristocrats used these figures as Christmas decorations. In the 17th century, Neapolitan presepi started to include scenes of daily life, street vendors, villagers, animals, and were a faithful rendition of society at the time.
During the 18th century, the presepi became elaborate, dramatic scenes, full of minor characters with their own conventions, and the art form reached its peak. Some of the best artists and craftsmen of their time: sculptors, goldsmiths and tailors created nativity sets staged in complex settings and turned them into first multimedia art. The golden age of Naples was also the golden age of presepio. Along with the traditional Christmas Eve dinner, it became the most meaningful Italian Christmas tradition and is loved for combining the sacred and the profane, the spiritual and the daily life, prayer and irony. And that's possible only in Naples, the city of contradictions.
The presepio tradition is still alive today, and Neapolitan presepi continue to go beyond traditional nativity representations to depict current historical and political events. The artisans who have carried on their craft from father to son have organized into a guild that protects their traditions. The construction of the Neapolitan presepio traditionally begins on the 8th of December when people visit the shops and stalls where artisans display their nativity creations. Most of the historic workshops and stores are located on Via San Gregorio Armeno near Naples' Duomo. This narrow street is lined with hundreds of artisan workshops with colorful window displays and stalls overflowing with nativity scenes.