In December most households in Italy set up their presepe, or nativity scene. The basic parts are the stable or manger, with figures of Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, the donkey and the ox. Many people expand the scene with depictions of village life, the shepherds and the three wise men. Traditionally the presepe is set up on December 8th and taken down after the feast of the Epiphany on January 6th. The first recreations of nativity scenes date back to early medieval times with the “father” of the presepe commonly considered St. Francis of Assisi who set up such a nativity scene in 1223 in order to represent the Christmas story visually for the great majority of people who could not read. There are many carved nativity scenes that are famous in art history such as the one by Arnolfo da Cambio (1289) in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. The city often associated with the presepe is Naples where artists and artisans have a history dating to Baroque times of creating detailed and fantastical carved representations of the nativity. Some examples of Neapolitan nativity figures can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum until January 7th.
Maurizio De Giovanni, an author from Naples, has written many well-received gialli (mystery novels). He is known for a series set in the 1930s featuring Commissario Ricciardi, a diligent investigator cursed with the supernatural ability to see the last moments of the dead. This strange, loner detective and his faithful sidekick Maione are brilliantly depicted as is the fascist era in its menace and limitations. Also playing a vivid role is the city of Naples itself. Fans of noir fiction should like this bleak series – which has been translated into English. De Giovanni has also started a new Neapolitan series, this time, set in the present. The “prequel” Il metodo del coccodrillo (available in English) introduces Ispettore Lojacono, a Sicilian detective transferred to Naples. The following two novels feature Lojacono and his colleagues at the precinct of Pizzofalcone – a precinct which has a last chance to validate itself to the authorities and is staffed by people with “issues.” I like this series better: it’s an Italian police procedural, there are no paranormal phenomena, while grim the plot lines are slightly less dire – there’s even (a little) comedy – and the characters are developing and becoming more three-dimensional. As always, it’s great to be immersed in the wonderful chaos that is Naples.
I was amused by the kerfuffle over Mayor De Blasio’s use of a knife and fork while eating pizza in Staten Island. New Yorkers seemed to be universally appalled by this odd behavior – after all New Yorkers (and maybe Americans in general) use only hands to devour pizza. The mayor defended himself by saying that by using utensils he was being true to his roots because in Italy pizza is eaten that way. He’s right: Italians who visit or live in New York often comment on the odd custom Americans have of eating pizza with their hands… In an informal survey of Italian friends here in NYC, all (from Romani to Torinesi to Perugini to Napoletani) eat pizza with a knife and fork. That is, pizza al piatto (an individual pizza on a plate eaten in a pizzeria) is eaten with a knife and fork. The typical Roman pizza al taglio (fast food pizza, cut into rectangles and wrapped in paper, eaten as a snack or at lunch) is eaten with the hands, usually while standing or walking. So, is there one true way to eat pizza? Not really: it all comes down to culture, habit and preference.
Italians are supposed to be voluble, excitable and incapable of talking without using their hands. This last, although a stereotype, seems to be particularly true: neither I nor any of my friends are capable of talking while sitting on our hands. The New York Times dedicates an article, accompanied by a video and an interactive “tutorial,” to Italian hand gestures and body language. Beyond the amusement factor, gestures are readily recognizable forms of non-verbal communication that are used for emphasis and to highlight emotions about the topic of conversation. Italians use gestures not simply as signals but to add inflection to what they are saying. Look at the interactive feature: it’s fun!