One of the delights of an Italian Christmas is going to churches to see the presepi, or Christmas cribs. Many of these are authentic works of art, with spectacular scenic effects reproducing picturesque corners of old Rome in the style of 19th-century romantic painter Ettore Roesler Franz. Some are very old, with precious handmade figurines in clay or carved wood. Most have water features, flickering fire effects and a comet that rises and sets. In addition to the key figures representing the holy family, the angel, shepherds and the three wise men (the latter, however, are not supposed to put in an appearance before Epiphany), there is usually a collection of farm animals, peasants and 18th-century street vendors – all going about their business against a backdrop of alleyways, ancient Roman columns and balconies hung with miniature strings of tomatoes and onions.

The Italian presepio, in fact, rarely tries to reproduce anything resembling Palestine. The setting tends to reflect something familiar and closer to home that people can identify with. This holds true for many of the nativity scenes from all over the world on display in the Museo del Presepio, tucked away in the crypt of the church of SS. Quirico and Giulitta, just behind Via dei Fori Imperiali. The museum, which is run on a voluntary basis by the Italian Association of the Friends of the Presepio, has a fascinating collection of hundreds of unique pieces, made from a great variety of materials including terracotta, tin, stone, ebony, coral, paper cutouts and maize leaves.

This year, the association is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its foundation by the late Angelo Stefanucci, who dedicated his entire life to the preservation and diffusion of this art form.

The Italian crib, which seemed at risk some 50 years ago when Santa Claus and the Christmas tree began to make an entrance into Italian homes, is now enjoying a renewed boom in popularity. “This is a particularly happy moment for the presepio,” says Ettore Formosa, who teaches presepio building at the association’s annual courses.

The popular legend that the first presepio was created by St Francis of Assisi is not quite exact, explains the association’s president Mario Mattia. “St Francis set up a sacred representation of the nativity, but there were no actual figures of people,” he clarifies. According to research done by association member Antonella Salvatori, the first crib was created in 1289, when Arnolfo di Cambio sculpted figures of the holy family for the Basilica of S. Maria Maggiore, which possesses a relic believed to come from the original crib of Bethlehem. However, the tradition was probably born in Naples around the middle of the 16th century. Legend has it that S. Gaetano da Thiene set up a grand nativity scene with clothed wooden figures in the Oratory of S. Maria della Stalletta in 1534. The custom soon caught on and became a recognised art form of some importance. It is documented that Bernini created a presepio for the Barberini family. By the 18th century, it was fashionable for noble Neapolitan families to vie for the grandest ones in their palaces. The Bourbon monarch Carlo III was an enthusiastic fan of the art. He worked with his court architects and theatre designers to build the monumental royal presepio, while the queen and her ladies sewed the clothes for the figurines.

At the Museo del Presepio, you can see some of these exquisite original Neapolitan figures dating back 200 years, as well as pieces by modern masters of the art, such as Mario Rumolo and the Sicilians Giuseppe Griscione and Paolo Bionda. The oldest piece in the collection is a tiny 18th-century crib from Trapani in Sicily, made entirely of hundreds of minute seashells. Among the curiosities are several examples of the Polish szopka, elaborate oriental castles with onion domes covered in silver sweet wrappers, the wooden magi (wise men) from Thailand represented as samurai warriors, a Masai crib with a black holy family in African costume and one with 150 figures all grouped inside a

walnut shell.

The association has 3,300 members in Italy, with 70 branches across the country. It is affiliated with the international organisation Universalis Foederatio Praesepistica, also founded by Stefanucci, which groups the Friends of the Presepio associations in various countries, including the United States and Australia.

The Rome association creates and sets up the Christmas crib in Piazza Navona each year, and the design is kept top secret until it is unveiled. Last year, mayor Walter Veltroni specifically requested an African theme, as a tribute to the city’s immigrant population from that continent. “This year, however, it will be something more traditional,” Mattia reveals.

The association publishes its own quarterly magazine and organises exhibitions and conferences throughout the world. Displays have been put on in Warsaw and Caracas, at the White House and at Orly Airport in Paris in the past. It runs courses on presepio-creating techniques each year, generally during October, and anyone is welcome to take part. Bear it in mind if you want to impress your friends with an authentic, traditional Italian presepio in your home next festive season.

Museo del Presepio, entrance in Via de’ Conti 31/a, tel. 066796146, www.presepio.it. Open Wed and Sat, 17.00-20.00. 25 Dec-6 Jan daily 16.00-20.00. Holidays (including 25 Dec) 10.00-13.00, 16.00-20.00.

Picture: John Fort and his wife Mary outside their apartment in Palazzo Doria Pamphilj.