This Christmas season, the Kimbell plays host to an extraordinary loan from Naples, Italy: a magnificent, 18th-century Neapolitan Nativity scene—known in Italian as a presepe after the Latin word for “crib,” praesepium. The Kimbell presepe features more than 70 figures and animals (averaging about 15 inches tall) and will be displayed in the traditional manner with a realistic, rocky setting and a crumbling Roman arch.

During the Renaissance, presepe figures were generally large (often life-size) and installed in churches. The tradition of presepe took exceptionally strong root in Naples during the 18th century, a period of great political stability and economic boom. The Kimbell presepe showcases a form of art that today seems almost inseparable from the celebration of Christmas—the arrangement of movable figures, animals and props to represent the scene in the stable at Bethlehem after the birth of Christ.

The Kimbell is grateful to the private collectors in Naples—Roberto Catello Jr., Giuseppe Lembo, and Mauro Scarlato—who have agreed to lend examples of the highest quality. Other loans are coming from the foremost public collection of presepe, the Museo Nazionale di San Martino, Naples. The Kimbell is tremendously indebted to the Polo Museale Napoletano and its superintendent, Nicola Spinosa, for helping build the stage on which the spectacle works its magic.

A Nativity from Naples: Presepe Sculpture of the Eighteenth Century