In the Carnegie Museum’s holiday presepio, a mingling of the sacred and profane

By Ed Simon

Inside the Carnegie Museum there is a vaulted room that contains eternity. Entering that stolid gray building in chill winter, a skeleton of Pittsburgh steel and glass encased in Berea sandstone, inscribed with the names of dead worthies stained black from mill exhaust, and you must first walk past the bus stop where people try to keep warm in their Steelers scarves—the whole scene guarded by guano-bedecked bronze statues of Bach, Galileo, Shakespeare, and Michelangelo, who forever watch the 67 make its way down Forbes Avenue. Moving through hallways of French marble, you reach the intimidating chamber unceremoniously named the Hall of Architecture.

This cavernous space, the exact size of the decayed Mausoleum at Halicarnassus’s inner sanctum and lit by skylight, is a dimension independent of space and time where a visitor can find the Venus de Milo, the Apollo Belvedere, the Nike of Samothrace. For a few weeks annually in December, the museum exhibits a more panoramic type of eternity in front of a massive red-hued caste of the gothic west portal of St. Giles’s Abbey Church, a representation of when the infinite dwelled in a virgin’s womb for a bit.

“Great little one, whose all-embracing birth/Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heav’n to earth,” wrote the English poet Richard Crashaw in 1646. Son of a Puritan divine, Crashaw converted to Catholicism two years before he wrote this poem, and he spent the last four months of his life in Loreto, Italy, where the pious believe that the Basilica della Santa Casa contains the Virgin Mary’s house. Only five decades after Crashaw died, and across the peninsula in Naples, where my maternal grandmother’s family is from, artisans crafted the earliest figurines that would make up the Presepio, which is exhibited every Christmas in the Hall of Architecture. It’s an elaborate, baroque, Neapolitan Nativity scene, composed of all the figures you would expect—shepherds and sheep, magi and angels, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus—but also a tableau of regular urban scenes from eighteenth-century Naples.

The Carnegie’s presepio is the most complete in the United States, with some eighty-eight figures, each hand-made between 1700 and 1830, most of whom have nothing to do with Christ’s birth. People groggily look out the windows of their stone homes, merchants hawk cheese and bread while a dog steals sausages, couples fight, vagrants beg, children cry. Occasionally, there is the appearance of recognition concerning Christ’s birth, masterfully conveyed in delicately painted brown eyes, but on the whole most seem unaware. The anonymous hands who crafted these figurines made them look like family and neighbors not because they thought that’s what first-century Judeans looked like, but because the Nativity is always happening, and the Nativity is always different.

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I always feel the most Italian in December. Christmas seems the prototypical Italian holiday to me, all those red and green lights the color of the flag, strung in front of plain, red brick row-houses that predominate in ethnic neighborhoods from South Philly to North Boston, pots of frosted barren soil on the stoop where tomatoes grew a few months before, possibly a Mary-on-the-half-shell if there’s enough space for a bit of yard, shots of sambuca and sugar sprinkled pizzelles. Driving down Liberty Avenue, which used to be lined with red sauce joints, is my preferred way to getting to the wholesale grocers of the Strip District, and where my family would go on Christmas Eve to the much-missed Benkovitz’s to gather materials for that night’s traditional feast of the seven fishes. Why seven? I’ve heard it represents the sins and virtues or the sacraments; some opt for nine after the months of Mary’s pregnancy, or twelve for the apostles. It doesn’t really matter, the most sacred things are always incidental.

What matters is spaghetti with fatty tuna, salty anchovies, and briny capers; delicately fried smelts eaten head, bones, and all; crab tossed with olive oil and cracked black pepper; rings of calamari dipped in Arrabbiata; iced shrimp ringing a bowl of cocktail sauce; canned oysters gritty with silt and smokey with olive oil. Like me, Benkovitz’s has a Jewish name but it was mostly Italian, at least on Christmas Eve—packed with Pittsburghers crowding into the store with its aquarium of ill-fated lobsters and the monger selling Canadian salmon and Maryland crab, the fry station where cod was served up under a foot of breading and whose best business still awaited the Fridays of Lent, the whole scene fit for a presepio.

There are, of course, fishermen plying their trade in that Nativity, though their catch wasn’t all that impressive: a few sad trout flopping on their nets, the infant Christ not yet in the business of multiplying loaves and fishes. Still, in the presepio there is food to be eaten, and nothing is more Italian to me than that—Christ is born, and now it’s time for dinner. If there is any of a distinctly Italian spirituality, as separate even from Catholicism, it’s this sense of the sacred and the profane mingling together, where the numinous is rendered in marble and concrete, brick and stone, terracotta and plaster.

Maria Laurino describes the Carnegie presipio’s fundamentals, writing in Where You Always an Italian?: Ancestors and Icons of Italian America that this is the commitment to a “loving but imperfect God, whose heaven is as easy or as difficult to comprehends as the deeply flawed earth.” In the Mezogiorno, labor was long, comfort was rare, and food was often meager—which was all the more reason to delight when you can. You don’t even pause life for the messiah. Advent isn’t the millennium. Excluding Joachim of Fiore, Italians don’t do millennium; ignoring Tomaso de Campanella, we don’t reside in utopia. Ours is the religion of Pietro di Donato’s “granule of earth… beneath the footsteps of the living,” from his unjustly forgotten novel Christ in Concrete, and the presepio expresses that.

Christ is in his crib, but there are still debts to be paid, food to be purchased, meals to be prepared, diapers to be changed, aching backs that must rest, calloused feet that must heal. Our world is always combustible and imperfect, but that’s what’s beautiful about it. Here is the secret: if you search for sabbath, for millennium, for utopia, it’s already here. If Crashaw was right about anything, it’s that heaven and earth can’t help but intermingle. December is cold but Christmas is warm; the solstice is dark but Advent is bright; the presepio shows ugliness but it is beautiful. Paradise isn’t a place, it’s a moment—you find it in a dinner with your family, you find it in the filth of a manger. Behind the bus stop with its smell of stale cigarette smoke, you can see the calloused face of Christ; beyond the limestone façade stained black from exhaust, you can hear the infant God still crying for His Mother. ■



Ed Simon is a staff writer for The Millions and author of An Alternative History of Pittsburgh, forthcoming from Belt Publishing.

Cover image of the Carnegie Museum’s presepio by John Brighenti (creative commons).

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