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18.12.2019. Naples & around
Marco Ferrigno is putting the finishing touches to a Christmas crib figurine in the cramped workshop above his tiny store in Via San Gregorio Armeno – the lane of the creche artisans, which in these weeks just before the festive season becomes a slow-moving, heaving mass of humanity, as locals and tourists flock to gawp, buy last-minute presents, and soak up the atmosphere.
There’s something a little unusual about this ten-inch-high statuette, however. The face, finely modelled in terracotta, and the long dark hair, are those of a recognizably modern woman. The figures in the Neapolitan crib, or presepe, are usually timeless, their faces and gestures harking back to the ancient setting of the Bible stories, as depicted by Renaissance and Baroque sculptors and painters.
In this case, however, the figurine represents a real, living woman, a client who wanted to give her husband a surprise Christmas present: a statuette of herself as a queen among the Three Kings, bearing gifts for the miraculous baby. She sent Marco a series of photos to allow him and his expert modellers to reproduce her features. It’s not an unusual request, Ferrigno explains. And it’s not that different, if you think about it, to those Renaissance altarpieces where the artist’s patrons and paymasters are painted in among the saints that kneel at the feet of the Virgin Mary or Christ on the cross.
In the shop window, alongside the exquisitely detailed nativity scenes, more incongruous figurines appear: of footballers, television personalities, politicians and other celebrities. I recognise Maradona, Cristiano Ronaldo, Angela Merkel, Donald Trump, and a host of local singers and quiz show presenters that non-Italians would be hard pressed to put a name to. This parallel activity was begun by Marco’s father, Giuseppe, in the early 1990s, when the Mani Pulite corruption scandal unleashed a wave of political satire. Though neither father nor son considered such topical statuettes to be anything but an amusing sideline, it not only attracts some useful media attention but also, Marco tells me, attracts a younger public who may not be in the market for a traditional figurine that can retail for several hundred euros.
But it’s these traditional crib figures, made in a style little changed since the 18th century, that is Marco’s greatest passion, and the core business of a workshop that has been in the Ferrigno family since 1836. As a kid, Marco would come home from elementary school to the shop, where he would watch his father work while doing his own homework, eventually trying his hand out at painting or clothing the figurines. “What can I say?” he says with a smile. “It’s like a virus, in the good sense, it becomes a part of you, and either you adapt or you die. It’s something I’ve always liked doing, I can spend hours making figurines and not even notice the time passing”.
The Ferrignos use no synthetic materials in their work. All the figurines are made with terracotta heads, glass eyes and wooden hands and feet fastened to bodies made of hemp woven around a wire core . The intricate costumes are made exclusively from silk, much of it from the Bourbon-era textile town of San Leucio, near Caserta, which is still a flourishing centre of the silk-weaver’s art. The cribs themselves are made from wood and finished with cork, moss, heather and other organic materials.
The figurines are expensive, typically in the 500 to 700 euro range, but the price, Marco insists, is a reflection of the hours of work, the costly materials, and the level of detail that goes into each piece. In the workshop I meet one long-standing client who has being buying one figurine a year for his crib ever since he was a university student; he now has around thirty. Many famous clients have caught the bug over the years, among them Riccardo Muti, Sophia Loren and Luciano Pavarotti.
Marco is uncertain whether his 16-year-old son will eventually take over the business as he did from his own father, but he’s not planning to force the issue. “The world has changed”, he says resignedly, “and everything goes much faster now. The difficult thing, today, is to meravigliarsi – to allow yourself to be amazed, to be filled with wonder”.
Giuseppe e Marco Ferrigno
Via San Gregorio Armeno 8, Naples
Photographs © Roberto Salomone