Installing the Presepio


Art handler Matt Cummings takes on the delicate task of installing figures in the middle of the scene for the Neapolitan presepio.

Every year on the Monday—Wednesday prior to Thanksgiving, Carnegie Museum of Art staff installs the museum’s remarkable Neapolitan presepio. Beloved by Pittsburghers as an annual holiday tradition the presepio is an incredible multi-media work of art, created by 18th-century artisans in Naples.

Monday

We install the stage set within the steps of St. Gilles in the Hall of Architecture. The set is made up of dozens of platforms topped with miniature buildings, bridges, roads, rocks, and a stream. The various pieces are unified by the application of conservation-safe moss cloth.

A member of the so-called “Turkish band,” a common sight in the bustling Mediterranean port of 18th-century Naples.
Watch out—his sheep has a wild look in his eye.

Tuesday

In come the figures on rolling metal carts. More than 100 human and angelic characters, plus another dozen animals, and countless finimenti or finishing touches (tiny props like walking sticks, assorted foods for the marketplace, and tiny ceramic and silver jars and platters. If all goes well, we finish the day by suspending the host of angels overhead.

Museum staff place figures in the foreground, while the yellow ladder at back will help us install the angels overhead.
During the rest of the year the presepio figures rest in carefully padded and outfitted drawers like this one.

Wednesday

We polish off the installation with a green velvet skirt, gold stanchions, and didactic panels, as well as a special display case that provides an opportunity to see one figure up close.

The Moorish King Balthazar
This lady even has carefully crafted miniature earrings.
Work in progress: this is the cheese seller’s stand, which is ultimately set up with dozens of tempting hard and soft cheeses for his customers. As we place figures it looks like he is keeping an eye on our vegetables and fruit.
The fisherman is the oldest figure in the presepio, dating to 1700. A natural fit for a streamside spot, he also serves as an allegory for Christ, who was called the “fisher of men.”

This begging dog is quite a character with his upward gaze and wagging tail.
Art handler Steve Russ arranges items based on photographs from a previous year.