The City of Neapolis and The “Presepio” Tradition.

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It is impossible to say when the tradition of scenographically representing the birth of Christ was born, but it is likely that it was born from the faith of the first followers of the Redeemer, after his death. This custom has been handed down over the centuries up to the present day, but the “model” of the nativity scene we are referring to today is the one developed in Naples in the 1700s. This is because in that century the nativity scene passes from the personal improvisation of the devout Christian to true artistic expression, when the greatest artists and experts in scenography, sculpture and painting begin to dedicate all or part of their time to this aspect of culture, bringing thus the nativity scene at a level of artistic perfection such that it is still considered today as a reference “standard”.
The Neapolitan nativity scene of the ‘700 does not just represent the nativity scene, but frames this in the social fabric and lifestyle habits of the Neapolitans, and these two aspects, so far away, mix and integrate in such a perfect way that the procession of Oriental fits perfectly, for example, with the scenes of Neapolitan life, with the street musician or with the “Viggianesi” orchestra. The example of the musicians is not made by chance because in the 18th century crib these are always very numerous, and are often equipped with strange instruments, no longer in use today.

You need to know a bit of Neapolitan history to understand why the nativity scene reaches its maximum artistic expression in the 1700s, and why the musicians are so frequently represented in it. It is therefore appropriate to remember that, after centuries and centuries of wars, mourning and misery, at the beginning of the 1700s, and precisely in 1734, an episode took place that would change the history of the Neapolitan people, namely the coronation of Charles III of Bourbon as King of Naples and the Two Sicilies. This event marks an important economic and cultural turning point in the history of the city. In fact, shortly after his coronation, Charles of Bourbon issued an important decree that canceled the last privileges of the barons; founded the Supreme Magistrate of Commerce, to whom he attributed the coordination of all economic activities, established the General Cadastre of the Kingdom, a decisive instrument for the creation of a modern tax system, radically restructured the port facilities, and favored the development of a merchant fleet that sailed all the seas of the world.

He then endowed the kingdom with a war fleet that soon established itself as one of the most formidable in the Mediterranean. In 1738 he started work on the construction of the Royal Palace of Capodimonte and in the same year he ordered the construction of the Royal Villa of Portici, around which splendid aristocratic villas clustered along a path that was called “the golden mile”, and the “Hunting lodge” of S. Leucio, near Caserta and also in San Leucio favored the rise of silk craftsmanship, which was imported from China, and precious fabrics, still the pride of those areas today. In 1743 he founded the Capodimonte Ceramics Laboratory, whose pieces are now the pride of many collectors of works of art, and which survives to the present day. Also in that period a new impetus was given to the art of painting until the identification of the eighteenth-century Neapolitan school of painting.

In 1751 he ordered Ferdinando Fuga to build the mammoth Albergo dei Poveri, a colossal building (600 meters long by 138 wide) located in the center of the city and intended to accommodate the poor of the Kingdom, and in 1771 he entrusted Luigi Vanvitelli the construction of the Royal Palace of Caserta, considered the most beautiful in Europe after Versailles, and Naples, already the third European capital after Paris and London, with Charles of Bourbon also gave great impetus to the arts and music until the identification of a Neapolitan style in every field of art. Under his reign, the first great Opera House in Italy was inaugurated, the Teatro di San Carlo (La Scala in Milan was born only half a century later), a theater that soon became the “temple” of Italian and European music and which induced Stendhal to write: “There is nothing in all of Europe that I do not say comes close to this theater, but that gives the faintest idea”.

In addition to the San Carlo, all the “historical” theaters of the city were very active at the time: the Fiorentini Theater, the Teatro del Fondo (later named after Mercadante), the San Ferdinando Theater and, above all, the San Carlino Theater. They were very popular, testifying to the joie de vivre of the Neapolitan people.
Music, which has always been the cultural heritage of the city, particularly in this historical period became an integral part of the lifestyle of the Neapolitan people, and Neapolitan since then was universally accepted as a language, especially in singing. Singing was so deeply rooted in the Neapolitan spirit that the people used to communicate on many occasions with this expressive medium and those who still visit our city today will still be able to hear, in the most popular neighborhoods, the melodious verses that street vendors throw at the top of their lungs. on the streets to decant the goods for sale.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the orchestras of musicians were present in every district where, both day and night, they played popular music with typical instruments of the region such as the calascione, the battente guitar, the tammorra, and even more popular instruments such as putipù, triccaballacche, and scetavajasse that accompanied one or more voices. However, there was no shortage of classical repertoires, such as those performed by the orchestras of the Viggianesi, wandering musicians from Viggiano, a small town in Basilicata famous for its musical tradition and for making arm harps, the best of the time. The orchestras of the Viggianesi were generally composed of four elements who played harp, violin, clarinet and flute.

During the 18th century the Kingdom of Naples exported to the major European capitals such a large number of composers and performers of its music, and of such great artistic level, that the Neapolitan style was considered as the yardstick of international musical taste (Tyler, 1989 ). In the eighteenth century Neapolitan, then as now, was the only dialect universally accepted as a language in music, and foreign tourists were struck, as well as by the beauty of the city, by the character of the Neapolitans and by the fact that the dances, singing and dance were a life custom of this people. Charles Burney (1771) reports in his diary, on 23 October 1770, that in the streets of Naples, at night, there were singers who, accompanied by calascione, mandolin and violin, filled the streets with sounds and songs, making it difficult to rest!
It is therefore clear that in a city where music has always been a way of life, the art of building instruments for making music has developed in parallel: mandolins, mandolas, lutes, calascioni, liras, violins, guitars, pianos, etc. Although the golden period of Neapolitan violin making was the 1700s, this ancient tradition has continued over the centuries to the present day. Neapolitan instruments, ancient and modern, are highly appreciated in the world and this does honor to our city.

Well, in the 1700s there were many famous luthiers who dedicated themselves in their free time to building musical instruments on a small scale for the “musicians” of the nativity scene. These instruments are masterpieces of art because having been made by real luthiers, they are perfect, faithful miniatures of real instruments, instruments built to scale but with attention to every detail and, theoretically, also able to play. However, if we observe the musical instruments present in the “Cuciniello” crib of the San Martino Museum, or those of various private collections, we can notice surprising differences in the creation of these objects. In fact, an attentive eye cannot escape that alongside extremely proportionate instruments in the different parts that compose it, there are instruments that have little or nothing in common with the real instrument. Consider, for example, that the miniatures of some flying guitars from the Cuciniello nativity scene were used by experts in musical organology to trace the characteristics of this instrument in the eighteenth-century Neapolitan area, as none of these instruments have survived to our days! These instruments are in fact the work of illustrious luthiers of the time such as various members of the Vinaccia family (who worked in our city building stringed musical instruments, and without interruption, from the 1700s to about 1950) of the Calace stringed musical instruments, and without interruptions, from the 1700s until about 1950) by the Calace (still operating in the city with the construction of Neapolitan mandolins), by Vincenzo D’aria (who built string instruments), and many others! Alongside the, actually few, well-made instruments (such as the “old mandolone player”, published in the book: “Il presepe Cuciniello”, Ed. Electa, Naples, 1990; or even the “guitar player battente “, Published in the book” The Neapolitan crib of the museum of San Martino “, ed. Electa Napoli, 1988), we find many other instruments probably built by non-experts and therefore do not respect the harmony of shapes! They are generally ugly and clumsy instruments, often not built with staves but hollowed out from solid, with huge handles and paddles that, at times, almost reach the size of the case! (see the “old battente guitar player” published in the book “Il presepe Cuciniello”, Ed. Electa Napoli, p. 107,1990). These ugly instruments are, and have been, produced in such large numbers, and in all ages, that the eye of many crib lovers, having no valid terms of comparison, and not being experts in the field, is currently so used to them to consider these “monsters” as “cribs”, and to accept them as valid and original of the time! Surely these are instruments built in the 19th century but also at the beginning of the 19th century by dishonest who. To take possession of the eighteenth-century original, they replaced these with “copies” made by amateurs, on the occasion of restorations or transfers of the models.

The purpose of this discussion is therefore to bring the crib enthusiast closer to crib lutherie with the aim of refining his tastes to the harmonies of shape of eighteenth-century classical instruments and to the lutherie construction technique, in order to be able to distinguish at first sight a crib musical instrument. original, made by a real luthier, by one made by an amateur, or by a counterfeit instrument!

Instruments of the time

But now let’s see what instruments were in use at that time, because if we are inspired by the eighteenth-century nativity scene, every detail, and therefore also the instruments of the musicians, must be philologically correct. We have already mentioned many of them, but it is worth dwelling on some of them a little more.
It must be said that almost all the instruments of that era were instruments derived from two different ancestors: the lute (hence the word “lutherie” as the art of making stringed instruments), an instrument with a large oval case, short neck, and headstock bent at 90 degrees, originally equipped with seven strings, and the sas instrument with a small pear-shaped case and very long neck, equipped with only three strings, both imported from the Arab world. These instruments, over time, had already undergone several changes and many elaborations had been made. Thus in the eighteenth century, next to the lute, there were theorbo and chitarroni, derived from it, but which had, in addition to the classic feelable strings, also longer strings that hooked onto a second peg, called “drone” because they were not felt , but tune to certain bass tones and plucked as needed to enrich the sound with low tones.
Another class of instruments was that derived from the sas, and constituted by the Neapolitan colascione as ancestor, an instrument with a pear-shaped case formed by staves and a very long handle, equipped with three steel strings, whose dimensions were about 1 meter and 80 cm! From it soon derived the half colascione, of about 1 meter and 20 cm, and the calascioncino, of about 80 cm. And the calascioncino was precisely the instrument of the people, and not in the mandolin as is erroneously believed, which was born in Naples in the first half of the 1700s, but which became popular only a century later! The Neapolitan mandolin as we know it today, hardly fits the Neapolitan nativity scene, because in that century it was considered a noble and elegant instrument, and certainly not popular !, and therefore it was played mainly by girls from a good family who wanted to acquire a musical culture .
Another very popular instrument, and typical of southern Italy, was the battente guitar. Derived from the Baroque guitar, it had very little pronounced waist, very high bands made of parallel slats, rounded back made of slats, soundboard folded as in the subsequent Neapolitan mandolin, the mouth closed by a parchment rosette, and five double strings (or choirs) in steel. It was called a battente because it was used for beats, that is, it was an accompaniment instrument not suitable for playing melodies.
As for the violin, it was already at its maximum evolution in the 1700s, and has not undergone any changes since then. Therefore the one present on the crib is identical to the instrument we know today.

The construction of tools on a crib scale

To be able to reproduce a musical instrument on a crib scale it is essential to have real knowledge of violin making, because only using the same construction techniques will it be possible to obtain instruments of quality and artistic value on a scale. The main topics that can allow to face the work on the basis of a specific knowledge and culture will then be exposed.

In the construction of stringed musical instruments for the Neapolitan crib, it is essential to know the woods that the eighteenth-century luthiers had at their disposal in order not to commit anachronisms. For the construction of the soundboard (the upper one) there is not a great variety of choices because, always, the only woods used have been fir or, more rarely, the “capilline” cedar, so called for the particular choice of boards that must have thin fibers, spaced about 1 mm from each other, and as straight and parallel as possible for the entire surface. Fir and cedar are, therefore, to be considered the only two “harmonic” essences provided to us by nature which with their fibers, separated by softer material that holds them together, make the entire table vibrate, mechanically amplifying the weak ones. vibrations produced by the individual strings, and transmitted to the board by the bridge. All stringed instruments, from lute to piano, therefore have soundboards in spruce or cedar. Hard and resistant woods are instead used for the construction of the crates. Maple is, without a doubt, the most used essence. All the parts of the stringed instruments (violins, violas, cellos, double basses), with the exception of the soundboard and accessories, are in fact in maple. It is also widely used as a clear essence for the construction of the case of many other instruments with a rounded case, built with staves. The maple, in fact, sometimes presents a peculiarity called “marbling” consisting in a waving of the fibers that creates an alternation of light and dark bands with the particularity that, depending on the incidence of light, the light bands become dark and the dark ones become light, thus creating effects that remember the waves of the sea when it is rough. This type of maple, due to its particular beauty, is the preferred one for the construction of musical instruments. It is very rare and its price is in relation to the “depth” of the marbling; just think that a beautiful tablet from which only the bottom of a violin can be made can cost up to a million lire!

When, on the other hand, a dark essence is desired, the choice always falls preferentially on rosewood (reddish-brown), walnut (brown), snakewood (red-brown with black flecks), and ebony ( black); the latter widely used in the eighteenth century for the construction of cases of lutes and derivatives, alternating with light essences and sometimes with ivory (alternating black and white bands) with a chromatic result of great effect. Mahogany and “mahoganoids”, little used for the construction of the cases, have been and are widely used for the construction of the necks by virtue of their long and resistant fibers: Other essences, such as rosewood, boxwood, violet, the olive tree, are used for borders and various embellishments. These are just examples of the essences present on the market in the 1700s and therefore widely used in the construction of musical instruments. Today, of course, the choice of essences is far greater thanks to the vast importation of exotic essences.
For accessories (tuning pegs, keyboards, bridges, tailpieces) very hard woods such as ebony, rosewood and boxwood are always used. Many times these accessories, in the finest 18th century instruments, were made of ivory, a material that is now rare and no longer marketable due to the well-known protectionist laws in favor of the protection of the species from which they were made. Often today, ivory is replaced by bone. Noble materials such as tortoiseshell (also no longer marketable), mother of pearl, and ivory have always been used for borders, parapen, various embellishments of the table and headstock.

Construction elements

When preparing to build a musical instrument “to scale”, the first step consists in drawing all its parts on graph paper. For example, considering the average height of a man equal to 1 meter and 70 cm, a chitarrone tall 190 cm must have a length of 33.5 cm for a 30cm shepherd, and 44.7cm for a 40 cm shepherd. We then move on to the creation of “shapes” for each individual part, cut out of thin and rigid material, preferably transparent (the 5/10 thick acetate is excellent for the purpose), and then to the realization of the form to build the case .
Completely different, and therefore to be treated separately, are the construction principles of the construction of the case of instruments with a flat bottom and those with a rounded bottom.

Flat bottom tools.

For the construction of the case of these instruments, you can follow the dictates of two different schools: the Italian one, which provides for the use of the “internal form”, and the Spanish one, which instead involves the use of the “external form”. Since rounded-bottom instruments can only be built starting from an internal form, and therefore this technique will be described later, we refer here to the use of the external or “Spanish” form.
Once the outline of the instrument has been traced, two solid wood or plywood jaws are cut, with a height equal to or slightly lower than that of the bands, reproducing the outline of the instrument. These are fixed by pins to a base of suitable size. At this point the neck is shaped, which will be extended at the bottom in what will become the front block of the instrument, making grooves on this that can accommodate the bands. The soundboard, ready-made and larger than the final size, is glued to the neck and the whole soundboard-neck is placed on the bottom of the last and locked in the exact position by the jaws reproducing the external shape of the case. The bands are then folded, just moistened, in the heat of a red-hot iron, arranged inside the form paying attention to their perfect verticality as well as to their perfect arrangement in the grooves made on the handle block, then blocked with clamps and glued to the top. harmonic and to the neck with a thin thread of glue. The union is then reinforced by a series of spruce gusset and by the positioning of the rear block. Once the glue is dry, remove the jaws thus releasing the handle-table-bands complex. Once the bands have been suitably shaped, bringing them to preset heights in the various points, the bottom is glued and the instrument is ready for finishing. The bottom can, more conveniently, be glued to the bands when these are still locked in the shape.

Round bottom instruments

As already mentioned, these are built on an internal form. This shape is made by appropriately and accurately shaping a block of wood, generally fir, considering that any errors in the shape will be reported in all the instruments built on that shape. The back and front of the form will be cut away and replaced by juxtaposed wooden dowels held in place by only a few drops of glue. These are then shaped according to the original shape and will become part of the instrument under construction. For instruments whose case is made with staves (lute, mandolin), the lines will be drawn on the shape that divide the shape equally into equal sectors (depending on the number of staves programmed), with the aid of a compass. These lines will guide the shaping of the slats which, one at a time, will be folded, adapted to the shape, and then glued only to the front and rear blocks. Generally the front block is obtained from an extension of the handle, or this is then arranged with a dovetail joint in the suitably prepared front block. The first solution is simpler to execute as well as providing greater strength to the structure. The first stave to be fixed is obviously the central one (remember, in fact, that they are always in odd numbers). The other slats are juxtaposed to it, one on the right, and one on the left, with the interposition of threads of different essence and color, in order to highlight the separation between the slats. The perfect juxtaposition of the slats is generally obtained with nails planted on the wooden form, which are removed before gluing the next one. We proceed in this way until the completion of the structure. At this point the front and rear blocks are detached from the shape by ungluing the anchor points with the help of a thin metal sheet, then the latter is extracted and proceeded to spread abundant organic glue throughout the internal part of the instrument and to cover it with paper, which will also be soaked in glue. It is precisely this wrapping of paper that, once the glue is completely dry (the organic one soon reaches a crystalline hardness), gives the necessary rigidity to the shell case. Once the counter-bands have been assembled, the soundboard is glued to the shell and the instrument is finished.

Construction of a Sorrentine “tammorra”

Since this aspect of the “nativity scene” falls into the “accessories” category, and therefore of rather limited interest, obviously the time available to us is also limited. This has always been the fate of minorities! And therefore we must be satisfied, and try to make a musical instrument anyway, even if simple, with the time and equipment available. A not very complex tool but of great effect if made taking care of the details, (and which in any case involves the acquisition of the wood bending technique which is the basis of the construction of all stringed instruments), is the “tammorra sorrentina “. Next to the tambourine, about 40 cm long and with a high band, there was the tammorra, about 60 cm long and low, which was, in the 1700s, the most popular for the low tones emitted.
Therefore, for its realization we start from a modeling walnut wood strip of 1 cm in height (12 mm for the tambourine), and about 30 cm in length. After having drawn on graph paper the exact positioning of the holes for the insertion of the cymbals, that for the “handle”, and that of any embellishment holes or for the insertion of bells, we proceed to report these distances on the wood with the help of a fine-tipped permanent marker (photo 1). The terminal parts of the strip, for a length of 1 cm, are shelled in a “slope” and in the opposite direction to allow the two ends to be glued without a variation in thickness in this area which would lead to a possible deformation of the tammorra , then proceed to hot bending (photo 2). We will use for the purpose a “bending iron” for bowed instruments or even a very banal soldering iron. Probably, a “bender” of those used for hobby work is just fine, but I have no experience with this tool, so I will achieve the same goal with a more familiar tool. Once the iron has been brought to the desired temperature (the tool is equipped with a thermostat), i.e. the one capable of bending the strip in question without burning it, the strip is soaked in water for a few minutes, then the excess water is drained and is forced against one of the sharpest curves of hot iron with the help of a glove, after placing an aluminum sheet between the hand and the strip. In this way the strip will bend without problems and we can easily give it a 360 degree curve and glue the two ends with the help of a clamp (photo 3-4). The same curve will be given to another 2x1mm walnut strip which will serve as a “counterbeam”. If there are any imperfections in the curve of the strip, these can be easily corrected by rewetting the strip and forcing it around a bottle where it will be blocked with an elastic band for at least 24 hours. Once freed from the bottleneck, the two ends of the slat already shelled are glued with the aid of a clamp and, once the glue is dry, it is glued, to what will become the upper edge, the “counter-band” strip to increase the thickness of the gluing surface to the membrane with the help of adhesive tape or clamps (photo5-6). Once the glue is completely dry, the upper face is flattened by passing it on thin sandpaper spread on a flat surface, until the strip and counter-strip form a single surface. We then proceed to the drilling. For the “handle” we will use a 5 mm tip, a 4 mm tip for the cymbal holes, and a 3 mm tip for any embellishment holes. It is better to use “wood bits”; these, unlike the drills for drilling metals, which have a conical point, have a flat point but have, at the center of the cutting surface, a very small conical point which serves to maintain the drilling point in a stable way, that is, the tip it cannot deviate during its run. With a pencil, mark the center line so that the holes are exactly in the center of the strip and begin to drill the beginning and end of the “windows” (photo 7), then make intermediate holes, quite close together so to be able then with a cutter to eliminate the separation diaphragms and to rectify the surfaces with a file and then with sandpaper (photo 8-9). After the holes have been rectified, a coat of “sealer” is applied and when the paint is perfectly dry (2-4 hours) the holes are rectified and the surfaces are properly sanded with sandpaper or metal mesh.

At this point you can proceed with the finishing. Having used a walnut batten, which is a very nice looking dark wood, the finish can be achieved by passing a simple coat of clear gloss varnish. If, on the other hand, you want to obtain a more refined look of the tammorra, you can paint it with colors, preferably acrylics because they are opaque when dry, giving vent to your creative flair for the choice of colors and for any embellishment borders.
When the paint is completely dry, the membrane can be applied. A piece of “goatskin”, residue from the preparation of real tammorre, slightly moistened and well stretched with the help of nails on a 10 mm plywood board is the optimal solution. After having passed a thin layer of glue on the prepared edge of the tammorra, it is placed on the goat skin and everything is put under pressure with the help of clamps overlapping a second 10mm plywood strip, practically forming the one that is used call “a sandwich” that has our tammorra inside. In the absence of goatskin, even parchment paper (which can be purchased in any stationery shop) can be used for the purpose (photo 10). After 24 hours, the clamps are removed, the excess edge of the leather or parchment is trimmed and the surface can, if desired, be painted with scenes from Neapolitan life (common practice in the 1700s).
The last phase of construction involves the construction of the “cymbals” and their housing in the holes provided in the strip. The cymbals can be cut, with the help of a pair of scissors, from a normal thin sheet of iron (the one that can be obtained from cans of preserves is the most suitable for the purpose and the one that is still used today for popular tammorre. today). Once drilled in the center, the cymbals are placed in pairs in the holes and held in place with a thin wire. Fig. 10 illustrates the final result.

Ernesto de Angelis

   Naples, 2001