A nativity scene is known in Italian as a presepio or presepe and there is probably not a church in Rome that doesn't have one on display at this time of year. Some are small and simple affairs, others are grand and complex.
St Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first nativity scene in 1223. It was set up in a cave outside the village of Greccio, which lies about 60 miles to the north of Rome, and was made up of a live ox and ass and a carving of the Christ child. The display proved hugely popular and the tradition was born.
The oldest surviving presepio, which was created in 1291 by Arnolfo di Cambio at the behest of Pope Nicholas IV (r. 1288-92), is on permanent display in Santa Maria Maggiore. The church is home to several fragments of wood, which, it is claimed, were once part of the manger in which Jesus was laid.
There is beautiful presepio from the 18th century in Santi Cosma e Damiano and one from the 19th century in Santa Maria in Aracoeli.
Each year a new presepio is set up in Piazza San Pietro. This year the presepio comes from Chopcca, a village in the south of Peru.
My name is David Lown and I am an art historian from Cambridge, England. Since 2001 I have lived in Italy, where I run private and
small-group walking tours
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