In Rome, this year, the magic of Christmas has the scents of cedar and larch. The welcoming embrace of the Colonnato del Bernini is the backdrop for a wooden marvel created by 11 skillful artists and craftsmen, a Nativity in the typical style of the Alpi Carniche (Friuli Venezia-Giulia).
This year’s presepe in Saint Peter’s Square comes from Sutrio, a charming hamlet located at the feet of Monte Zoncolan, in Friuli, and will accompany Pope Francis’ Christmas prayers throughout the festivities. The small Carnia village, which is only a couple of hours away from the border with Austria, is known for its wood craftsmanship tradition. Once upon a time, there was a wood carver in every family.
Here, among narrow cobbled streets and traditional stone houses, you can find some of the most renowned wood carving workshops in the region. Skills are honed by working on the abundant materials coming from the luxuriant woods surrounding the village, and by using techniques developed through generations. Furniture with ancient, traditional decorations, homeware, statues and bas-reliefs. Creativity, here, develops under a blue Alpine sky, breathes the terse air of the mountains and follows slower rhythms. Sutrio – which is the most ancient human settlement in Friuli – has been, for more than fifty years, a “Nativity village,” a paese presepe. Among its attractions, we can find the Presepe di Teno, a finely carved, human-sized wooden Nativity whose statues fit perfectly into local architecture, with its courts, archways and windows filled with colorful geraniums. Even more special are the homes of the old “Cramars,” ancient traders of fabrics and spices who would travel and sell local Carnia products in other parts of the region. You can recognize their abodes thanks to the keystone on their door, which has the caduceus – symbol of trade – on it.
This monumental presepe represents Sutrio and its people, and it’s named after Gaudenzio Straulino, known as Teno, who worked on it for over 30 years. It’s so realistic, and it mirrors the life of the village so closely, that it could be almost considered an ethnographic museum. With the alternating of day and night, with its moving figures, and with water running in miniature streams, Straulino (1905-1988) reproduced the village’s traditional mores, life, arts and crafts: the customs and traditions of Carnia. He reproduced, in great detail and also using mechanics, haymaking on Mount Zoncolan and its transport to the village with baskets and sleighs; women weaving; the work at the mill and the sawmill; the trousseau transported to the bride’s new home; the coscritti, people who are born the same year, celebrating on a cart decorated with bows.
An extraordinary example of local craftsmanship, which is the result of patience and passion, local history and a profound respect for nature.
In name of such a well-established and practiced tradition, in 2020, Sutrio’s administration revealed the intention of donating a Holy Nativity, an intention that came to be this year, at the beginning of December, with the installation in Saint Peter’s Square of 18 statues over 116 square meters, illuminated by fifty points of light. The statues have been made in the past two years by wood sculptors and carvers working in Friuli Venezia-Giulia: Stefano Comelli, the project’s artistic director, Father Gianni Bordin, Andrea Caisutti, Corrado Clerici, Paolo Figar, Arianna Gasperina, Isaia Moro, Martha Muser, Hermann Plozzer, Renato Puntele and the Ukrainian artist Oleksander Shteyninher, who’s been living in Italy since 1999.
The project is intrinsically tied to the culture of wood craftsmanship and its relationship with history. But there is more because the presepe Sutrio donated to Rome was conceived with sustainability in mind: no tree was felled to produce it. Every statue has been made of cedarwood coming from already-felled trees, with only Baby Jesus being made in linden wood. The structure hosting all statues has been made with 24 cubic meters of Friuli larch wood, sourced from local garden centers. As mentioned, the statues are made of cedar, a tree that was commonly grown in Carnia one century ago. A significant detail bears witness to the attention the project dedicates to nature and the Alps: Baby Jesus’ crib, sculpted by Stefano Comelli and Martha Muser, has been made using old beams from a stable and the root of a fir felled by the Vaia storm, which hit the Dolomiti in 2018, with powerful winds never before seen in the area. 14 million trees hit the ground because of it, as if they were nothing more than toothpicks, swiped away by the hand of an angry giant.
The Grotto has been realized using modern techniques: it’s 7 meters high and it protects the Nativity. An angel leads the viewer’s attention to Baby Jesus, swaddled and placed in a manger. Renato Puntel, who went to Val Gardena’s sculpture school, worked in the US, and was even part of Ermanno Olmi’s movie The Secret of the Old Woods, gave the Child a serene, blissful expression, a true image of what the He represents. Father Gianni Bordin, who’s been a Capuchin since 1985, shaped the Virgin Mary: she is kneeling, her head covered with her mantle, and her harms open showing the Savior. Father Bordin also made a child who, curious and innocent at the same time, looks into the Grotto while leaning on the comet’s tail. Saint Joseph stands on the Child’s right, with one hand on his chest and holding in the other a small lantern, a symbol of light and hope, with which he illuminates Jesus. Joseph has been created by Corrado Clerici, whose workshop is located deep into Friuli’s Dolomites: here, he also makes sculptures with snow and ice. A very realistic ox lies down beside Joseph, while a small donkey is beside Mary. Andrea Caisutti, who started carving wood when he was only 10, is the author.
Many characters of this presepe are directly associated with the territory it comes from: the carpenter, above all, a direct reference to the craftsmen who, in the Alpi Carniche, made wood their life vocation. Then, Corrado Clerici’s marangon, portrayed while he is busy planing wood, a symbol of Sutrio itself. We also find a weaver, a nod to a job that, traditionally, many women from Carnia practiced, and still practice today. The weaver was made by Caisutti, and looks at the Nativity while sitting behind a weaving loom.
Another figure, that of the “cramar,” is very representative of the Alpi Carniche and Sutrio: the ancient figure of a trader who would leave his village on foot with a large wooden box on his shoulders, to show and sells his community’s products and creations. During his long trips, he would often be hosted by people and families in their homes; they bought from him sometimes but they would more often barter objects and tools with him. The “cramar” was carved by Isaia Moro who learned the ropes, when he was a child, in the workshop of Gaudenzio Straulino “Teno,” in the very years he was working on his presepe.
Then we find a kneeling shepherdess, with a basket on one side and a sheep on the other, a traditional figure of the presepe. A figure with strong connections with the mountains, but also with the idea of nature that nurtures and protects. This statue has been made by Arianna Gasperina, who also portrayed, in the same fiery figurative style, a young girl, symbol of hope for the future. Next is a sculptural group formed by three figures, a man, a woman and a child, holding one another in front of the Nativity: it is Ermannno Plozzer’s family. Plozzer is known for his participation in a “land-art” project, an experiential-touristic itinerary created with natural materials salvaged after the Vaia storm.
Gorizia’s painter and sculptor Paolo Figar is the “father” of the Three Wise Kings who, carrying their worldly riches, bring respect to the Savior Child.
Finally, “Solidarity,” a sculptural group of two men, one helping the other standing up to continue his walk to the Grotto. A very evocative theme, especially considering the times we are living in: there are many people who, if not helped, supported and saved, may not make it. “Solidarity” has been created by artistic director Comelli, who was born in Trieste in 1968. Comelli, among others, was also awarded the Unesco Cities Art Prize.
The Presepe di Sutrio, will remain in Saint Peter’s Square until the 6th of January and will then find its permanent home back in Sutrio. The work truly mirrors the inspiration of every artist. Each of them used her or his sensitivity to recreate the mystery of the Holy Nativity and to metaphorically protect the uniqueness of each community. Their work reflects key feelings and emotions like humanity, fraternity, solidarity and inclusion, a choral theme that, every year, is proposed in the presepe di Piazza San Pietro, which has been taking center stage in the square for the 40th year – last year, we had the Nativity of the Chopcca Indios from Huancavelica, Peru, while next year, in the occasion of the 800 years of Saint Francis’ presepe, it will be Greccio’s turn.
Each statue has been created with traditional wood carving techniques, which involve using electric saws for the roughing out, and hand tools for the carving and sculpting.
Overall, the crib weighs 16.8 tons. The extension of the Grotto, under its 6.65 meters-high dome, is 41 square meters. The surface area of the stage is a further 75 square meters. The flooring in front of the crib is made with stones from Friuli Venezia-Giulia: from Carso to Carnia, from Cividale to the Friulian Dolomites, all the way to the Pordenone area. It is a scenographic and polychrome inlay dedicated to Peace, created by marble workers Giuliano and Massimo Borchi.
It’s time to let the beauty of these sculptures, never mind if we are there in the silence of night or surrounded by the noise of daily traffic, guide us. This Nativity that feels like the mountains, and is made with wholesome and humble materials, imbued with the scents of traditional craftsmanship, helps us rediscover the true meaning of Christmas. It cleanses us from the superfluous we surround ourselves with. Simple and familiar, the presepe di Sutrio reminds us of a Christmas very different from the consumeristic and commercial one we are used to, made of presents and shopping. It reminds us of the importance of going back to basics and listening, of being quiet for a moment and making space in our lives for what’s really important: love, solidarity and the beauty and fragility of a newborn who blissfully sleeps, despite it all.