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A Tuscan Tradition: “il Presepe", the Christmas Nativity Scene

The true spirit of the Christmas season

The Christmas Family

This is a tradition that celebrates the very origins of the Christian holidays, the physical representation of the birth of “bambino Gesù". The Italian the word for nativity scene or crib is “presepe", and it is here in Italy that the tradition of representing the Holy Family at Christmas time became popular.

Though the nativity scenes in themselves vary as to the size, the material they are built with, even the number of elements, people, animals, dress, and activities that are figured - the main concept is always the same: la Madonna, Joseph and baby Jesus and though not mentioned in the original story, tradition will frequently add an angel presiding over everything, an ox and a donkey to the image. Sometimes it is located in a manger, sometimes a cave - sometimes with shepherds, and frequently with the three wise men.

Another common variation, is a "live presepe", a solemn event where real people dress and pose in “character and parade through the city streets before establishing themselves in a ready made stable or cave."

Both of these traditions are very much alive during the holiday season, especially in the period between the 25th of Dec and the 10th of January.

St Francis celebrated the first nativity scene in Italy in the town of Greccia

Where did it all Start? In Bethlehem.

The earliest re-enactment of the nativity scene we have on record is that of Saint Francis, who spent quite a bit of time in Tuscany. After having visited Bethlehem, he was compelled to ask the Pope for special permission to recreate the nativity scene, thus offering us the first “presepe vivente. It was set in a cave, with only a manger, straw, a cow and a donkey; San Francesco celebrated Christmas in 1223 in the small town of Greccio, and where they have built the Santuario di Greccio.

Shortly thereafter, we have a 3D representation by Arnolfo di Cambio, the man responsible for Palazzo Vecchio, the Castle of Poppi and many other artwork as can be seen in the Museo del Duomo and the Uffizi. The scene was commissioned by Pope Niccolò V with the idea to imitate that which San Francesco created in Greccio. It started as a “bas rilievo" (attached to a wall or stone slab) and over the years was re-worked by other artists to give it a “tutto tondo" look - meaning a stand alone sculpture look. It can now be seen at Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.

Arnolfo di Cambio and the first Nativity Scene in Italy

In 2014, the association “Terre di Presepe" (Land the Nativity Scenes) was inaugurated and organized a network of towns and cities then creating a database of sorts, uniting the prettiests creations of the nativity scene, incorporating them in an itinerary of art and culture from places all over Tuscany. The website is only in Italian, but it provides a more detailed list of places to visit and the types of Nativity Scenes you can expect to find.

Where to find these Amazing Scenes

In Tuscany, you are bound to find a presepe in every church you visit, many times though you will note that the manger or crib remains empty until the night of the 24th of December. However, some places go beyond the call of mere decoration and have poured heart and soul into creating an image that will express all their emotions during this very special time of the year.

Here is a list of some our favorite places to visit. We will be adding to it as the calendars start to open up (if you have any places special, just let us know we are always happy to share!)

Christmas in Florence, in front of the Duomo with its terracotta Presepe

Florence | TERRACOTTA DELLA SACRA FAMIGLIA | Dec & Jan, 2017

life size nativity scene

Where: in front of the Duomo


Mugello | 100 PRESEPI | 4 Dec - 11 Jan, 2017

vote for your favorite

Where: Palazzuolo sul Senio, in the city streets
Times: from 5:15 pm to 7:15 pm

Official link


San Miniato | PRESEPE ARTISTICO Cigoli | 6 Dec - 11 Jan

from the young at heart

Where: Cigoli
Times: TBA

Official link


A living nativity scene near Arezzo, a presepe which comes alive.

Arezzo | PRESEPE VIVENTE LE VILLE | 25 -26 Dec & 1 - 6 Jan, 2017

a live presepe

Where: Le Ville is a small hamlet between Arezzo and Monterchi
Times: from 5:15 pm to 7:15 pm

Official link


Stazzema | PRESEPI IN GROTTA | Dec, 2016 - Jan, 2017

Christmas in a cave

Where: in the province of Lucca at the Grotta Turistica Antro del Corchia
Times: see site
Ticket: Prices to be confirmed

Official link


San Giovanni Museum of International Nativity Scenes

San Giovanni Valdarno | NATALE NEL MONDO | Dec, 2016 - Jan, 2017

travelling the world’s nativity scenes

Where: Basilica di Maria SS.ma delle Grazie, Cappella del Pellegrino in Piazza Masaccio, in the province of Arezzo
Times: see site
Ticket: Prices to be confirmed

Official link


Rapolano Terme | MUSEO DI PRESEPI | Dec, 2016 - Jan, 2017

every year, a new collection

Where: Rapolano Terme
Times: Contact the museum directly for more information

Official link


The via di Presepe in the beautiful Castlefiorentino near Florence

Castelfiorentino | LA VIA DEI PRESEPI | 6 Dec - 6 Jan, 2017

if only it would snow...

Where: in the city streets
Times: TBA

Official link


Grosseto | PRESEPE DEL PAESE | Dec, 2016 - Jan, 2017

a special collection in terracotta

Where: Montorsaio, in the city streets


Pisa | MUSEO DEL PRESEPE | all year

a truly unique museum with a message of peace

Where: Usigliano - Lari
Times: Contact the museum directly for more information

Official link


Life size advent calendar in San Miniato near Pisa

Pisa | CALENDARIO DELL’AVVENTO | Dec, 2016

life size advent calendar in the city center

Where: San Miniato, Seminario Vescovile

Official link


Vinci | MADONNINA DI PETROIO | Dec 8 - 10 Jan, 2017

a mechanical stage for the nativity scene

Where: Santa Maria a Petroio, Via di Petroio, Vinci
Times: 9:30 am - 8:30 pm

Official link


Pistoia | PRESEPE, STILE TRADIZIONALE | Dec 8 - 10 Jan, 2017

classical display in the church wine cellar

Where: Piazza della Chiesa,10 Tizzana di Quarrata
Times: Sundays & Holidays 9:15 am - 11 am and 3 pm till 6 pm

Official link


Handmade presepe in Tuscany

Poggibonsi | IL PRESEPE DEI VECCHI MESTIERI | Dec 5 - Jan 10, 2017

an animated nativity scene depicting antique artisan figures

Where: Via Sant'Anna n°7 a Poggibonsi (SI) - in a warehouse
Times: everyday from 10 am to 8 pm

Official link


Poppi | PRESEPIO | Dec, 2016 - Jan, 2017

a tradition for more than 25 years

Where: Badia di San Fedele
Times: everyday when the church is open. There are several to visit in this little town within walking distance of one another: the Badia di San Fedele, the Church of Ponte a Poppi, the Church of Certomondo, Presepe dei Cappuccini di Ponte a Poppi, and with a short trip in the car, the church of Lierna


Bibbiena | PRESEPIO | Dec, 2016 - Jan, 2017

a live nativity scene within the castle walls

Where: Castello di Gressa,near Bibbiena
Times: TBA


A classical living nativity scene in Casentino


Author: Donna Scharnagl

It has been over 24 years since I took my first steps in Italy and I still haven’t found a good reason to leave.  Between the food, the culture, the history, the art, the landscapes … did I mention the food? I have become a lifelong student. And I soon learned that Italians all have stories that long to be told; stories that paint a picture of how hard work produces character, how life is made of ups and downs and how good it feels to laugh.



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