Sculpture is an important part of my work.  I have always been fascinated with the tactile and physical presence that sculpture alone possesses.  The Classical and Hellenistic examples of the Greeks have always been a point of reference for me.

Last year I had the opportunity to create a ‘Presepe,’ or Nativity scene, for the Florentine church of Sant’ Ambrogio.  The church is centerpiece of one of the few remaining active neighborhoods in Florence’s city center.  It is a bit off the beaten track of the average tourist.  Along with very active parish led by Padre Carlo, Sant’ Ambrogio has an important historic food market and an outdoor antiques market the last sunday of month in Piazza Ciompi.

The church of Sant' Ambrogio

The church itself is quite important as it houses the remains of many important Florentine artists: such as Verrochio, Granacci and others.

The use of figurative sculpture in the veneration of religious practice in the Italian peninsula goes back to the antique world.  The tradition of using Nativity scenes (Presepe) in the Catholic Church that date back to St. Francis of Assisi.

In collaboration with a group of active parishioners, I designed a 3 figure composition consisting of Joseph, Mary and the Christ Child.  The figures were life size and the theme of the scene was the ‘Sassi’ of Matera.  Padre Carlo graduated from the Accademia degli Belli Arte in Theatre design and he took charge of the design and execution of the backdrop and the environment surrounding the figures.  It was a wonderful experience.

Here are some images below:

Front view of Sant' Ambrogio presepe

A picture taken before Christmas.  In the back is a paper mache’ interpretation of the Sassi of Matera

Side view of presepe

The immediate surroundings of the figures was designed by Padre Carlo.

Presepe after Christmas

After the Christmas vigil, the infant Christ is taken in procession and placed in the presepe.

Detail of the Madonna

The heads, hands and the baby Christ were created in terracotta.  To get the polychrome effect I used a variety of clays.  The parts were modeled with a specially mixed clay that approximates flesh color.  I then literally painted on different colored clay slips to achieve the local tones.  The parts were then mounted onto a structure with the clothes already fitted.  (The clothes were made by a good friend Dorthy Serrin)

One of my main inspirations was the work of Antonio Begarelli. He was a Modenese  sculptor from the 16th century. He worked almost exclusively in terracotta.  Along the Guido Mazzoni, Begarelli created an important school of life size religious sculpture in Emilia Romagna.  Mazzoni, another Modenese artist, was born 50 years before Begarelli and has a very strong realism to his work.

Here are some of examples:

The Deposition by Begarelli

This group is made of almost life size figures and is located in the church of San Francesco in Modena.

Madonna della Pappa by Guido Mazzoni

This masterpiece by Mazzoni can be found in the Duomo of Modena.  It is called ‘della Pappa’ because the figure just to the left is presenting some ‘pappa'(baby food) to the Christ child.

The immediacy and naturalism that polychrome terracotta sculpture can produce only adds to the visceral quality of the religious experience.

Unfortunately, due to financial constraints the figures of the my Sant’ Ambrogio presepe could not be produced entirely in terracotta.   The work was done for free.  So I had to create a system that could be easily constructed within my very limited budget.

Although I am proud of the work that I did, the regrets of possibilities unfulfilled still persist.  It saddens me that real patronage with the Catholic Church no longer exists.  Artists can not be expected to self fund a renaissance in sacred art.