Every year, the Vatican receives a nativity scene (or presepe), donated from a region of Italy, for their traditional Christmas display. In 2020, the Abruzzo region lent its Presepe Monumentale, a work of art produced from 1965 to 1975 by the Istituto d’Arte F.A. Grue—now the Liceo Artistico F.A. Grue—a high school in the Castelli municipality.
I contacted the Liceo Grue to talk to them for more information about the display. Their director kindly referred me to the art historian Dr. Lucia Arbace, who has collaborated with the school since 1998, curating some of their exhibitions.
Dr. Arbace was the director of all the main museums of the Abruzzo region until retiring a few months ago. She has also served as superintendent for cultural heritage in L’Aquila and as teacher in L’Aquila University. She has written more than 100 publications, including about 20 related to the famous ceramics of Castelli.
Dr. Arbace has graciously shared an article with me, entitled, “Il Presepe che gira il mondo” (“The Presepe that goes around the world”), published in the Winter 2020 edition of their local culture and tourism magazine D’Abruzzo Turismo Cultura Ambiente. This article provides some interesting historical context about the Presepe Monumentale (the official name of this nativity scene), as well as an explanation of its meaning and why it was created. You can access the article here (in Italian, though it has a summary in English).
Dr. Arbace also answered some of my questions. The interview was originally conducted in Italian. It has been translated into English and edited for clarity. (The final English text was approved by Dr. Arbace prior to publication at Where Peter Is.)
In this interview, Dr. Arbace describes the rich history of the Presepe Monumentale. She also solves a few mysteries that had previously been left unanswered, including the identities of the astronaut and the dark warrior statues.
Pedro Gabriel: Thank you for your article summarizing the history of the Presepe Monumentale. It seems that the history of this presepe is linked to the history of Liceo Grue. The Liceo’s official website has a whole section dedicated to it. Is the Presepe Monumentale an important part of the Liceo’s identity?
Lucia Arbace: Yes, indeed. As I explained briefly in my article, the Presepe Monumentale was a crucial stage in the process of cultural growth and engagement in new art language undertaken by Castelli’s Istituto d’Arte per la Ceramica “F.S. Grue” (later renamed Liceo Grue per il Design).
When it was founded in 1907, the school’s aim was to breathe new life into the struggling pottery craft. We should remember that this village, hidden deep in the Apennine mountains, can boast of a truly noble tradition, with its golden age lasting from the 1500s to the 1700s.
Castelli produced the famous Orsini–Colonna pharmacy pottery jars (1550–60) but also the dinner service for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, with gold decoration on a blue background (1574–89)—not to mention the historiated pottery by Carlo Antonio Grue (1655–1723), appreciated across Europe, even by the Hapsburg Emperor Leopold I. Portuguese aficionados may well remember the “A Maiolica no Reino de Napoles do século XV ao século XVIII” exhibition I curated for the Museu Nacional dos Azulejos, for Lisbon Capital of Culture 94.
PG: In your article, you say that the teachers behind this work of art “involved the entire community” in this initiative. How was the entire community involved? How were the students of the institute involved?
LA: It would be impossible to understand the Presepe Monumentale without considering the industrialization process that began in this part of Abruzzo during the 1900s. First, in Castelli, we had Giovanni Fuschi’s S.I.M.A.C. (1910–39). Then, in 1943, a talented Faenza businessman, named Potito Randi (1909–89), founded an industry called S.P.I.C.A.
By about 1974, Randi’s Castelli and Teramo companies were employing 1,500 people, producing from spark plugs to refractory bricks for pottery furnaces. He was chairman of the Castelli art school board from 1952 to 1973, and the relationship between the public and private domains became very close: the school’s teaching mission was to train students to work in the industry that created jobs for the entire village.
Fired in the S.P.I.C.A. tunnel furnaces, the Presepe Monumentale was also the result of new technologies being tried out at the time without setting aside tradition. The community at the time was engaged in the process of deciding what to display, and they chose a popular theme: the Nativity. It was exhibited during Christmas 1965 in the village square. They were also engaged in the decision to add to it in subsequent years, choosing several identifying figures who were at the forefront of current affairs and the school curricula, and were therefore easily understood by the general public.
Therefore, the Castelli Nativity Scene was the result of a scholastic “work in progress.” For a decade it attracted the attention and the reflections of an entire community on issues of world interest, considered from many perspectives.
PG: How did the traditional art of the Castelli region influence the artistic style of this Presepe?
LA: Mainly through expert use of Zero-Kilometre enamels made by the school itself, adopting the traditional Castelli palette’s five iconic mineral-based colors: orange, antimony yellow, copper green, cobalt blue, and manganese brown.
PG: Do other “traditional” elements or “traditional” art styles influence the way this nativity scene was designed?
LA: The decorative patterns developed out of the school’s teaching programs, which included the study of all ancient civilizations, freely draws upon and revisits these ornamental themes with a contemporary awareness.
As remembered by Prof. Carla Marotta, who was principal of the Liceo Grue for nine years, “The Castelli School is the expression of an expert community, stern to judge yet willing to support the operational and technological needs that the creative thought processes required, such as the availability of industrial equipment for firing monobloc pieces. The role of the students was the real driver of the entire project; the transition from concept to thought process was conveyed by the creativity typical of their age, and it was always respected but guided with method. Just think of the angel’s hair, the “goosebumps” on the goose, the color of the turkey, the different nuances of the female clothing, which is always blue, but rendered in such a way as to convey a different weight of fabric. All this without forsaking the local identifying elements like the peasant girl offering cheese or the woodcutter bringing firewood.”
PG: This Presepe has been displayed in Rome in the past, and on the occasion of a G8 meeting. It has also been displayed in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Tel-Aviv. What was the response to the Presepe on those occasions?
LA: During that tour, the Presepe Monumentale (hosted by the Franciscan community for the 750th anniversary of the death of Saint Francis of Assisi, patron saint of Italy) was very well received and garnered good reviews from the press.
In Bethlehem, it was set up in the cloister of the Convent of San Girolamo, next to the Basilica of the Nativity. On that occasion, Israeli TV broadcasted images of the artwork during the 1975 solemn Christmas Mass, and considered the presence of the Castelli Presepe Monumentale in the Holy Land as a truly exceptional event.
Moreover, in Rome’s 1970 Mercate Traianei, it amazed visitors. The same reaction was found in 2009, for the G8 in L’Aquila, in the Far Bene Italiano exhibition (The Art of Italian Expertise).
PG: How was the Presepe Monumentale chosen for this year’s nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square? Was Pope Francis directly involved in that process?
LA: I learned that the idea came from Archbishop Michele Seccia, who preceded Bishop Lorenzo Leuzzi as bishop of the diocese of Teramo–Atri. The idea was then developed in the aftermath of the 2017 earthquake that aggravated the already precarious situation left by the terrible earthquake of 6th April 2009, which hit L’Aquila harder than anywhere, causing 309 casualties.
I do not think – but this is my personal opinion – that the Pope had a specific role other than accepting the request, which came from the Teramo–Atri diocese and from local entrepreneurs, the latter hoping that this would help to revive a society that was brought to its knees by these natural disasters, by shining a spotlight on a true gem of Abruzzo ceramic art.
I do not know if the Pope was aware of the positive 1975–6 experience in the Holy Land, but if he was aware, then it would have contributed to erasing any lingering doubt in the Pontiff’s mind.
PG: Some critics of the pope have been trying to find ways to question his orthodoxy. They have also criticized the Presepe Monumentale, because they claim it resembles “pagan idols.” What would you say to those who see “paganism” in these statues?
LA: This attack is absolutely unthinkable. In the last two centuries, artistic expression in Italy, as well as in the rest of Western Europe and overseas, has benefited from freedom of expression, with creative revisitations of traditional themes, including those regarding Christ and the Virgin Mary—the key figures of Christianity. In my mind, there is absolutely no pagan idolatry or blasphemous intention in the Castelli Presepe.
PG: Some people did not understand the art style of the Presepe. You said in your article that the circular shape of the nativity figures evoke tree trunks, firmly planted on the ground, and implicitly brings up the idea of roots. Do you have any other comments as to why the figures have this cylindrical shape?
LA: The choice of these cylindrical blocks is linked to the modularity of the project, which sought to provide a formal model that was easily replicable and simple to make, to apply to the production of large ceramic sculptures depicting figures. Using a circular plan module, it was then possible to add elements to create individual characters—and not only for the Presepe. Some forms were freely inspired by elements of industrial production of the time, like spark plugs, which have the screw-thread at the base (which is seen in the smallest of the angels). Remember, however, that to appreciate the 54 figures of the Presepe Monumentale in its entirety and complexity, visitors should go to the Liceo di Castelli exhibition venue.
PG: Two figures in the Presepe have gathered particular interest. One of them is an astronaut, holding what seems to be a gift. What is the meaning of this figure?
LA: THE ASTRONAUT is the result of the research project put in place to celebrate the remarkable event of July 1969, which was important to the entire school: the first man on the Moon. It is thus linked to the exploration of outer space, a tribute to the progress and the advancements in technology that enabled this exceptional feat.
PG: Another figure that also has sparked controversy seems to be a warrior or soldier. What does this figure mean?
LA: Equally the WARRIOR is linked to raising awareness of the atrocious wars that afflict the world. It is a pacifist message. The executioner’s block – an emblem of capital punishment – features an olive branch, a symbol of peace.
PG: What would you like to say to those who have mocked or criticized these statues?
LA: To come to Abruzzo, get to Castelli, and see the Presepe Monumentale after admiring the stunning Apennine mountainscape, which is an intensely emotional experience for the spirituality it transmits. These high mountains will then help you to understand ceramic production, and they are still cloaked in those luxuriant woods that provided the quality wood to fire furnaces. The mountains surrounding Castelli are also very rich with pure water and excellent clay, essential raw materials for the ceramic craft that developed over the centuries and became a great success.
[Photo credits: “Il Presepe che gira il mondo”, D’Abruzzo Turismo Cultura Ambiente, Winter 2020]
Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.