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Fine art museums don’t usually put up Christmas trees or decorations. But when there’s a holiday exhibition created by some of the leading Italian sculptors of the late 18th century, the Kimbell Art Museum of Fort Worth will make an exception. Besides, the display fits the Kimbell’s new program of small-scale, free-admission, seasonal exhibitions — the better to let its permanent collection stay on view.
The Kimbell’s holiday treat is a nativity scene that should outdo just about any twinkling yard display – even though the exhibition is only four and a half feet tall.
It’s called a presepio – an Italian word derived from the Latin for ‘manger.’ This nativity scene from Naples is like a Mediterranean marketplace crowd of more than 70 figures: magi, shepherds, Muslims, servants, horses, camels.
And free-range parrots.
The biggest of the figures is only 15 inches tall, yet even the smallest have miniature necklaces made with real pearls and gemstones. They have embroidered capes and silverwork on sword handles. Their expressive faces have the tiniest of painted glass eyes.
Separately, figures like these have been auctioned for more than $50,000 because they have become highly valued by collectors. This presepio is actually an assembly from three different collections. In fact, most such figures today are ‘sold separately,’ to borrow the toy manufacturers’ line. The original Neapolitan family presepe have long since been broken up or dispersed — making the size and scale of the Kimbell exhibition a rarity. It required three days, twelve-hours each, for the crew of Italian specialists to install, to get the combinations of flowing gestures and tight groupings exactly right.
The compact exhibition is a smart seasonal choice for the Kimbell: It combines the sacred and the toylike with the splendor of Baroque technique. Giuseppe Sanmartino is one of the artists behind this presepio. His greatest work is the astonishing Veiled Christ in the Cappello Sansevero in Naples (detail, right). It’s a life-size marble figure of Jesus, wrapped in his burial shroud. The marble ‘cloth’ is seemingly so fine and sheer that individual tendons can be seen in Jesus’ fingers. It’s a masterpiece of late Baroque sculpture, a virtuosic (one might say almost fetishistic) display of marble transformed into fabric and flesh.
During the day, Sanmartino worked on the Veiled Christ. At night, he modeled and painted terracotta figures like the ones in the Kimbell’s presepio.
C. D. Dickerson is the museum’s associate curator for European art. He explains that these intricate little artworks were rooted in long-standing, medieval traditions. But in the Baroque era, they became something of a festive and competitive trend in Naples.
DICKERSON: “The late 18th century is when there was the real flourishing of the Neapolitan nativity scene. In 18th century Naples there was a period of economic boom, political stability, and the aristocracy really delighted in making these displays. There was a great interest in seeing which family could outdo the other.”
It’s the same holiday spirit we can see today — when we drive by a string of homes, each house decorated with a bigger inflatable Santa than the last one.
- Gaile Robinson’s review in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
image of the Veiled Christ from philipcoppens.com. All others from the Kimbell Art Museum