Interview with Maestro Franco Artese, maker of the Nativity Scene to be exhibited in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York

ArteseHe was born in Basilicata, Southern Italy, where he lives and works. He received many important awards and made several Presepe-artworks that have been exhibited worldwide including the USA, Bethlehem on behalf of UNESCO, Goyana, Brasil, St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City, Rome, for Christmas 2012 as a gift to Pope Benedict XVI, and, for Christmas 2013, in Turku, Finland.


Making the “Presepe” is one of the most widespread traditions in Southern Italy, may be the

most important one, but why do you create Presepe artworks?

When I was a child, at Christmas, my family used to set up the Presepe all together. As my family was large –I’m the 7th of 8 children – I was always “overridden” by my big brothers who didn’t let me participate in the setting up. So I used to get up at night and move the figurines of the shepherds all around, already following some kind of artistic streak. Soon after the death of my father, the priest invited me to set up a Nativity Scene in the church and I said to him: “Why don’t we build a Presepe that represents our rural civilization through the Mystery of Nativity?” That was the first Presepe I built in Grassano, in 1976. 35 years have passed since then. After that, since 1980, I’ve started to exhibit the traditional Lucanian Presepe both in Italy and abroad and eventually, in 2012, the Year of Faith, at Christmas, the biggest dream of my life came true when I was commissioned to build and display my Nativity Scene in St. Peter’s Square, in Rome.

Why did you choose Basilicata’s landscapes, especially the unique scenery of the ‘Sassi di Matera’, as the backdrop for your Nativity Scene? What message do you want to convey?

At the beginning, the traditional Presepe – whose origins date back to Saint Francis – was usually faithful to the typical iconography of the Holy Land, as regards both the figurines and the landscape

features; however, over the years, different “schools of thought” – from Naples, Apulia and Sicily – have been developing, gradually starting to use their own regional landscapes as settings for the representation of Nativity.

As Lucanian, I felt the same need and decided to reenact the nativity drawing inspiration from some typical rural scenes. With my works of art I try to arouse emotions in the audience, to convey the typical rural values that until 40 or 50 years ago had belonged to our villages, but unfortunately have become so rare today, such as humility, simplicity, friendship and family. This is the message I want to convey by making our people, our places the main Presepe characters. In my Nativity Scene, the expressions on the figurines’ faces, the authenticity and naivety of peasants, are always more important than the backdrop. Of course the setting is catchy and fit for the purpose, but, in my view, the “Scene”  that unfolds, representing the Mystery of Nativity of Jesus, is essential. Being an artist – I work primarily as a painter – I’ve injected this passion of mine into the Presepe art, especially emphasizing the figurines’ look and expressions, trying to display scenes taken from the everyday life of Lucanian people. I was inspired by some photographs made by Cesare Zavattini and Mario Carbone, between 1950s and 1960s, which also left a mark on the artistic path of Carlo Levi: wonderful scenes of typical rural life, happening in little villages and neighborhoods. In these pictures, the peasants’ faces are resigned but, at the same time, proud and satisfied with the few things they need for living. Filled with humanity, indeed.

This year, one of your Nativity Scenes will be exhibited in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, New York. In your opinion, how will the American community be involved by your Nativity Scene and what feelings will they have towards it?

It is true that the Presepe is a typical Italian tradition and practice, especially in the south, though it is increasingly disappearing, as the Christian values underlying the Presepe as a Christmas ritual are now less cherished than in the past. But I believe that the message conveyed by the Presepe, and especially the Nativity, has a universal meaning of peace, joy and can reinforce the values of family, solidarity, strengthening bonds between people from different countries, regardless of their religion and the faith of those who see the Presepe as simple visitors. That’s why I’m convinced that it is important to create works that encourage the visitor to feel, strongest than ever, the Mystery of Christmas. To me, building a Presepe means, more than everything else, to give people’s hearts some peace and happiness. And I also believe that displaying a Nativity Scene in New York can help the many generations of Italians, who emigrated to New York many years ago, looking for a better future, strengthen their roots. And as a respectful tribute to this community of emigrants, I decided to dedicate to them a scene of my Presepe. Speaking of which, I remember that in 1983 – I was 26 and that was my first visit to the USA – I set up, on behalf of the Italian Government, a Nativity Scene of 100 square meters in Our Lady of Pompeii Church, in the Green Village, New York. More than eight hundred thousand visitors came to see it, but the strongest emotion for me – I was  very  young  –  was  to  see  the  crowds  of  Italians  who  got  to  see  their  native  places  and landscapes, left many years before and, feeling “home” again, came to hug me. That hug meant everything: warmth, sharing with other people, homesickness, gratitude for me, and it made me suddenly feel an emigrant like them. I was especially moved by the look on the face of one American black girl, who told me how “unexpected” it was, for her, to find in New York a corner of such simplicity and humility as my Presepe was. That’s why for me, going back to New York today

– after 32 years, with many more life experiences and a recognized artistic career – is without any doubt a great opportunity to build again that corner of simplicity and humility that people still need.

How much of Basilicata is there in your Nativity Scene?

In my artworks I always use settings filled with several “pieces of Basilicata”. Every year, I wander around the region’s village, trying to discover alleys, palaces, roofs and other elements that are part of our cultural and architectonical heritage. But one of the most important landscapes, which I really fell in love with, is Matera, because the city’s structure resembles the typical Bethlehem’s houses, recalling the place where Jesus was born, and also because the landscape of the Sassi is a continuous source of inspiration for me. An entire life would not be enough to represent all of its magic and splendor.

Let’s talk about Franco Artese. How much faith is there in your work?

For me, the Presepe is not only a work of art. I’m a believer, I go to Church, and in my own small way I try to reenact what happened that night in Bethlehem, following St. Francis message, hoping that peoples’ numb hearts could wake up again and they could start the ritual practice of the Presepe in their own homes.

Is there a recurring figurine in your Nativity Scene, acting as a good luck charm?

I always get emotional when I talk about this. There is one character that I do put in each Presepe I build: it is a little old lady, who is with me and somehow is guided by me to the Presepe. She symbolizes my mother, whose death was extremely painful to me. In the most difficult moments of the work, I always feel that she is close to me and supports me.

Of all the Presepe artworks that you have created until today, which one is your best and dearest memory?

My best memory is related without any doubt to one moment occurred last year, at Christmas Eve, in St. Peter’s Square, when I was asked to “unveil” my monumental Presepe in front of the entire world, who was following the celebration in worldwide vision, and especially in front of Pope Benedict XVI. The emotion was even stronger and my heart was filled with joy when Pope Benedict XVI, praying in front of my Nativity Scene, asked me to illustrate my work. I really think that my one life’s dream came true, announced by an actual dream I made some months before, in a cold night.

Do you want to talk about it?

Well, in February of that year – a snow storm had literally buried my village, forcing us into our house, as I was stuck in bed with a bad bronchitis, half-asleep, I dreamt that Pope John Paul II hold my hand in St. Peter’s Square and said: “Come with me, I get you to the Vatican”. I remember of how happy I was at those words but, at the same time, the disappointment I felt when I woke up and realized that it was just a dream. That dream made me hope, when several, still remote opportunities came up, that one day I would set up my Nativity Scene in one of the rooms of the Vatican palaces. Who would have guessed that I would have set up my Nativity Scene in the very St. Peter’s Square!

 What  does  it  mean,  for  you,  to  exhibit  your  Nativity  Scene  in  New York,  after  having displayed it in Rome, at the heart of Christianity?

Thanks to the setting up of my Presepe artwork in St. Peter’s Square, my message of faith was heard by so many people, and I had the opportunity of reaching so many families, getting them to rediscover the human values on which the faith is based. With my Nativity Scene in New York – a town of a thousand facets, the ideal example of metropolis – I wish to continue to arouse emotions and touch the heart of many people, even those of different religions and faiths. The creation of Presepe artworks is, to me, a bit like a mission, and I’m convinced that, in my own small way, I can contribute to spread, during the magic Christmas night, the message of peace and joy that the world needs today.