When Eric and I were in Amalfi on the southern coast of Italy this August, we chanced upon a charming little fountain just off the town’s main street in Piazza dello Spirito Santo. Built during the eighteenth century in stone, with two marble faces that spout water, it is known, in local dialect, as the Fontana de Cape ’e Ciucci (Donkey’s Head Fountain), since the donkeys arriving from the nearby mountain village of Pogerola with heavy loads would stop here for water.
What makes the fountain unique, though, is the elaborate presepe (nativity scene) sited inside, an addition made in 1974 by Giuseppe Buonocore, Vincenzo Livano, and Nicola Pepe, who placed various small figurines on and around the rocky outcrop. Over the years, several of these figurines have become submerged by the flowing water. But a local family, the Infantes, takes care of maintaining the presepe, keeping it in decent condition.
Handmade presepi are a living tradition in and around Naples, and they are notable for their blending of the sacred and profane: biblical figures like the Holy Family, the shepherds, and the magi are set alongside vignettes of Neapolitan life in the eighteenth century (when the making of presepi was at its peak). Shoemakers and innkeepers, bakers and pizzaioli (pizza makers), fishmongers and butchers, carpenters and blacksmiths, bricklayers and fruit vendors and tailors—just ordinary people going about their everyday lives, with Jesus right in their midst (though in this case, it appears that he is missing from the manger!). And in addition to the traditional ox and ass, there are geese, rabbits, ducks, chickens, and other native animal life present.
Photos by Victoria Emily Jones/ArtandTheology.org.