There’s something a little unusual about this ten-inch-high statuette, however. The face, finely modelled in terracotta, and the long dark hair, are those of a recognizably modern woman. The figures in the Neapolitan crib, or presepe, are usually timeless, their faces and gestures harking back to the ancient setting of the Bible stories, as depicted by Renaissance and Baroque sculptors and painters.
In the shop window, alongside the exquisitely detailed nativity scenes, more incongruous figurines appear: of footballers, television personalities, politicians and other celebrities. I recognise Maradona, Cristiano Ronaldo, Angela Merkel, Donald Trump, and a host of local singers and quiz show presenters that non-Italians would be hard pressed to put a name to. This parallel activity was begun by Marco’s father, Giuseppe, in the early 1990s, when the Mani Pulite corruption scandal unleashed a wave of political satire. Though neither father nor son considered such topical statuettes to be anything but an amusing sideline, it not only attracts some useful media attention but also, Marco tells me, attracts a younger public who may not be in the market for a traditional figurine that can retail for several hundred euros.
But it’s these traditional crib figures, made in a style little changed since the 18th century, that is Marco’s greatest passion, and the core business of a workshop that has been in the Ferrigno family since 1836. As a kid, Marco would come home from elementary school to the shop, where he would watch his father work while doing his own homework, eventually trying his hand out at painting or clothing the figurines. “What can I say?” he says with a smile. “It’s like a virus, in the good sense, it becomes a part of you, and either you adapt or you die. It’s something I’ve always liked doing, I can spend hours making figurines and not even notice the time passing”.
The figurines are expensive, typically in the 500 to 700 euro range, but the price, Marco insists, is a reflection of the hours of work, the costly materials, and the level of detail that goes into each piece. In the workshop I meet one long-standing client who has being buying one figurine a year for his crib ever since he was a university student; he now has around thirty. Many famous clients have caught the bug over the years, among them Riccardo Muti, Sophia Loren and Luciano Pavarotti.
Marco is uncertain whether his 16-year-old son will eventually take over the business as he did from his own father, but he’s not planning to force the issue. “The world has changed”, he says resignedly, “and everything goes much faster now. The difficult thing, today, is to meravigliarsi – to allow yourself to be amazed, to be filled with wonder”.
Giuseppe e Marco Ferrigno
Via San Gregorio Armeno 8, Naples
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