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Italian Language, one of the Romance group of languages of the Indo-European language family. It is spoken principally in the Italian peninsula, southern Switzerland, San Marino, Sicily, Corsica, northern Sardinia, and on the northeastern shore of the Adriatic Sea, as well as in North and South America. Of all the major Romance languages, Italian retains the closest resemblance to the Latin spoken by the Romans.

During the long period of Italian's evolution, many dialects were created. South and central Sardinian dialects are so distinct that they constitute a separate branch of the Romance languages, and an Italian dialect of the Eastern Alps, Friulian, is considered by most linguists to be a Rhaeto-Romanic dialect. The large number of dialects presented a difficulty in the evolution of a form of Italian that would reflect the cultural unity of the entire peninsula. During the 14th century the Tuscan dialect began to predominate, because of the central position of Tuscany (Toscana) in Italy, and because of the aggressive commerce of its most important city, Florence. Moreover, of all the Italian dialects, Tuscan was most similar to classical Latin. In modern Italian, the Latin qualities of the Tuscan dialect are preserved, but vocabulary has developed to meet the changing conditions of Italian life.


Italian Language Resources
--This guide to selective library and internet resources is designed for use by students at Middlebury College.
Italian Online Dictionaries

Il Presepe: The Tradition Of Crèches
Michael San Filippo; 12/08/99

Multinational Linguistic Roots
Christmas in Italy has many traditions, one of them being the crèche. Though now primarily used to denote the Nativity scene, "crèche" originally had the same limited meaning as "manger." Manger in strict usage--though today also used for the Nativity scene-- actually refers to the trough or open box used for livestock feed in which the Infant Jesus rests.

Both crèche and manger entered English from the French, but beyond that, their ancestries differ, reflecting something of the history of the French language as a whole. French, a Roman-derived language, is descended from the popular Latin of ancient Roman soldiers and settlers who dominated the area now known as France. Mandeoire--the present form of the French word for manger--derives from the Latin verb, mandere, to chew.

In contrast the word crèche springs from a German cousin. In the vocabularies of some Romance languages, there are a number of words of Germanic origin. These words, many having to do with agriculture, descended from the languages of the Germanic tribes who conquered much of the Roman territory, including France. Crèche is one such word. Were its first letter not "c" but "k," its German forebears would be more evident.

During the Middle Ages, the words crèche and manger spread from France to England. In its turn, English, a language of Anglo-Saxon or Germanic tribes, contributed its own relative, crib, to the terms, crèche and manger. As expected, all three words have come to describe the Nativity scene.

Interestingly, although Italian, another Romance language, includes the words, mangiatoia and greppia-- relatives of manger and crèche/crib respectively, Italians use neither word to denote the Nativity model. They use instead "il presepe", a descendent of the Latin praesaepe (the form "il presepio" also exists; in both cases the plural is "i presepi"). Despite the seemingly different word, presepio has some equivalence with the others. In the ancient word, a combination of prae, "in front," and saepire, "to enclose," meant, among other things, a manger or stall.

History and Tradition in Italy
During the early stages of Christianity the portrayal of Nativity scenes had a varied presentation. The tradition of sculpting nativity scenes for churches goes back to the 13th-century. Although not the first to create a crèche, St. Francis of Assisi helped popularize the tradition. In mid-December 1223, in a natural cave in the town of Greccio, he prepared a straw-filled manger complete with animals. Accompanied by others he celebrated Christmas Eve mass. There were many claims of miraculous healings following this depiction of the birth of Jesus, and reenactment of the Christmas story spread.

From Bethlehem to Greccio: The creche before St. Francis
St. Francis' inspired embrace of the Nativity actually marked not so much the initiation of a tradition as the preservation of one.

The Roman Emperor Hadrian, who ruled early in what we now call the second century A.D., is said to have deliberately established a pagan temple upon the reputed site of Christ's birth, in an attempt to quash Christianity. Origen, who wrote as an outlaw Christian in Roman North Africa during the third century, spoke of having visited the grotto site of Christ's birth and having seen the actual manger in which the newborn Savior had been laid.

In the fourth century, with Christianity's legalization and, ultimately, its establishment as the official religion of the Roman Empire, attention to the Nativity waxed. St. Jerome and St. Augustine said that Christ's birthplace was drawing pilgrims from the entire Roman world.

Within Rome itself, an early Christian church, first known as Sancta Maria ad Praesepe, subsequently rebuilt as the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, became closely associated with the presepio. Tradition holds that at one time, the church included a separate chapel built with stones from the Nativity grotto in Bethlehem. The chapel came to be known as the Praesepe, the Latin word for a manger or stall. It was thought also that relics of the Bethlehem manger found their way to the church.

Through the Early Middle Ages, images of the Nativity were frequently rendered by artists, many of them Byzantine, or Eastern Roman. In church services in the West, the Nativity was the subject of elaborate homilies, including singing and recitations. Since drama was still associated with the pagan theater, these presentations stopped just short of enactment of the Nativity; however, by the twelfth century, they had grown to be part of the Mystery Plays, elaborate public dramatizations of Biblical events. By that time, the elements of the Nativity scene as we know it today had been established.

Much of the buffoonery of the ancient pagan theater eventually re-emerged in the Mystery Plays, drawing denunciation by Pope Innocent III in the year 1207. It was within that context that St. Francis offered his seminal Nativity memorial on an Advent evening in Greccio in the year 1223. Visually, he distilled the presentation to a single element: a manger. And in so doing, re-established an air of reverence about the Nativity, an enduring triumph.

In Italy the style and materials used in creating the manger was characterized by geographical origin and historical periods. The Sicilian presepe, for instance, featured materials such as coral, ivory, bone, mother-of-pearl, alabaster, and other sea materials, while the Roman presepe reproduced the typical landscape of the Roman country, including pine and olive trees and the ancient aqueducts.

San Gregorio Armeno - Crib Street, Napoli
In Napoli «fare il presepe», that is, the representation of the Holy Family, became a true art. In 18th-century Naples, for instance, the presepe became an elaborate, dramatic scene, full of minor characters with its own conventions that have little to do with the Biblical story. These intricate scenes, with figures in wood or terracotta made by leading sculptors, were destined not for churches but for the houses of wealthy patrons.

Today that tradition lives on in Via San Gregorio Armeno. In the center of Naples, this narrow street, which runs past the 16th century Benedictine convent of the same name, is crowded with hundreds of artisan workshops with colorful window displays and stalls overflowing with Nativity scenes. Also in Naples at the Museo Nazionale di San Martino is "Il Presepe Cuciniello", a monumental collection from the 1700's that includes shepherds, angels, and animals.

Modern Nativity Celebrations
In Italy there are living presepe, in which actors and animals recreate the Nativity scene, exhibitions with hundreds of crèches and mechanized figurines, and museums devoted solely to presepe. In Vatican City there is an enormous nativity scene in Piazza San Pietro erected for the Christmas season. If collecting nativity figurines is your passion, there are plenty of online specialty stores. Consider constructing your own crèche, or, in the spirit of the season, help a youngster build his first presepe.

The tradition of crèches in Italy exemplifies a culture rich in artistic patrimony, and provides insight into Italian religious, linguistic, and storytelling history.

--  A photo gallery of Italian presepi, from the Italian web site <<>>.