The presepio, derived from the Latin word presepium, meaning manger, has been the defacto symbol of Christmas for Italian families for dozens of generations, and in the South, perhaps as long as a thousand years. Of course, most Italians also have a modern Christmas tree, but the presepio in its simplest form is a tradition of devotion representing the birth of the baby Jesus. These nativity scenes typically consist of a structure to represent the simple barn where Joseph and Mary were forced to give birth to the Son of God. An ox, donkey, angels and perhaps the three Wise Men are typically represented.
But the presepio is often much, much more, showing village scenes from every day life. Its components are mostly handmade from a variety of materials: wood, ceramic, cartapesta (Papier-mâché), terracotta and fabrics. Some scenes include small waterfalls or fountains, houses, buildings, mountains, trees, grottoes, livestock and vendors of all sorts. The details can be absolutely astounding.
There are some characters and elements that many deem essential to the tradition:
Most people watched the recent solar eclipse through pinholes projecting tiny images on a piece of paper. Or they wore very dark orange eclipse viewing filters, looking like they were about to watch a 1950s 3-D movie. My son and I built a large projector using a pair of binoculars that gave us a crisp 4" large image to view. But the most interest method is the way Italian Nonnas might have used in to view eclipses in the past... just go in the kitchen and grab a scolapasta--a common colander. You'll have to agree, the varied patterns of holes make for some great eclipse art... some of which look absolutely astronomical!
Between Venice and Padua you will find one of the most beautiful maze gardens in the world... the Villa Pisani in San Pietro di Stra. The villa and garden labyrinth was built on the banks of the Brenta river, by the rich and powerful Pisani family in 1722. Its nine concentric circles are formed by 900 boxwood hedges with a tower in the center with a confusing double helical external staircase. The labyrinth has an ancient origin in the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur being imprisoned in the labyrinth of the Knossos Palace on Crete. In the Middle Ages such labyrinths represented the struggle of life with Faith guiding us through. One can also look at the labyrinth at Pisani as getting oneself lost in Love...
When my father was a boy, he and his brothers swam in the Hudson River... brown on some days, green on others, always polluted from industries up river. He lived to be 86. Similarly, in Rome people often took a swim in the muddy, polluted Tiber River, even though it has been polluted and undrinkable for many centuries. Today, the river always runs green. The saying, "swimming the Tiber" or "crossing the Tiber" at one time became a metaphor for a Protestant converting to Catholicism. Today, it is illegal.... swimming, I mean.
As the rivers nears Tiber Island adjacent to Trastevere, fallen trees, debris and other flotsam don’t escape the pressures of a low-head dam. A swimmer drowning in the Tiber would more than likely be discovered stuck in the dam. Paddling or swimming the river nowadays is a fools game...
Isola Bella is found on Lago Maggiore in north Italy just 1500 feet from the town of Stresa. A mere thousand feet long, it contains a small fishing village, a grand palazzo and one of the most formal and beautiful Italianate gardens in all of Italy. Begun in 1632, the rocky islet was transformed with the construction of the palazzo and gardens. Forty-nine years later the gardens were completed. Isola Bella is a popular tourist attraction, with a regular ferry service from Stresa, Laveno, Pallanza and Intra. It plays host to the annual Stresa music festival.