A superb antique crib in Malta
An Eighteenth-Century Neapolitan Crib In Malta
Edgar Vella, Midsea Bookspp144 (hardback)
Fr Edgar Vella’s “An Eighteenth-Century Neapolitan Crib in Malta” is primarily about a Neapolitan crib put together by the author.
Its scope, however, is more wide-ranging and sets out the context in which Neapolitan cribs generally came to be.
Far from being a dry history book for a handful of academics, it serves as a good general introduction for a wider audience of people who appreciate art.
It marries the passion of a collector with the outlook of an art historian who has specialised and worked in sacred art for decades.
Fr Vella started collecting antique Neapolitan figures in 1991 and has not looked back since, gradually expanding his collection to include examples of some of the most important artists associated with the creation of Neapolitan crib figures.
The collection currently encompasses work which spans five centuries, from the 17th century until contemporary times, but the bulk is 18th and early 19th-century when the crib making tradition was at its apogee. Once the crib is mounted a harmonious overall composition is acheived, which is as much about the unchanging tradition of the crib figures, particularly associated with the 18th century, as about the individual taste of the collector in putting together the various figures in a proper manner.
This is not incidental and can only come from a deep know-ledge and understanding of the crib tradition, knowledge which is now shared with the public in the book under review.
In the first part of the book, Fr Vella provides a useful brief overview of the origins of the crib and its iconography from early Christian times.
The earliest manifestation of the crib which formed the basis of the Neapolitan crib type actually occurred in the 15th century.
In subsequent centuries the life-size figures underwent a transformation: they were made in a far smaller size and were embellished with precious fabrics, gems and other realistic props which not only added to the visual aspect but echoed the mystery being displayed in material riches.
Scenography as an integral part of the crib was introduced in the early 17th century and soon evolved into an ephemeral structure which was dismantled and set up anew annually.
In the late 17th century wooden heads were substituted by more expressive modelled and painted terracotta heads which further emphasised the striking realism of the crib, appearing to the viewer as a reflection of their own life in miniature.
The inclusion of popular folk figures and secular street scenes reinforced this impression with the profusion of figures, set off by architectural ruins, almost eclipsing the Nativity scene itself.
Fr Vella discusses the various pastori (crib figure) artists, such as the famous sculptor Giuseppe Sanmartino, and the particular characteristics which distinguish their art.
He also analyses the various components that make up the typical Neapolitan crib such as the Nativity, the Glory of Angels and the Adoration of the Shepherds and Magi, but also the more secular scenes such as the tavern scene, that represent everyday life.
This analytical approach gives the reader essential tools to identify the characteristics which distinguish a Neapolitan crib and to unravel its meaning.
The second part of the book is a catalogue which features the individual figures Fr Vella has acquired for his crib and proposes attributions, approximate dates and other information about the particular figure being studied, grouping them in sections according to the artist they are attributed to.
This is one of the most significant features of the book from an art historical point of view.
It is also here that the reader can appreciate in fine detail the modelling of the faces, the plasticity of the figures and the rich fabrics and ornaments in miniature embellishing these sculptures.
The excellent photography of Joe P. Borg is an integral part of this book and helps the reader appreciate and compare the various crib figures included.
Overall the book is well laid out and the illustrations are clearly captioned and exhaustive.
It lacks an index but the detailed contents page somewhat makes up for this.
It should serve as an important tool for the collector and as a source of inspiration for the crib figure maker, and unlike the real thing will continue to delight its readers all year round.
• Ms Balzan is an art historian, curator at Palazzo Falson Historic House Museum and author of Jewellery in Malta: Treasures from the Island of the Knights, Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti, 2009.