Bethlehem at Passignano

A Christmas Story from Umbria

Harp sounds are floating over the roofs, finding their way through the enchanted narrow lanes, mingling with the manyfold voices of the crowd, winding slowly through the old town center.

Torches fixed to the walls by iron rings are rather concealing the night than illuminating it. Their smoke is uniting with those of the braziers in front of the roman governors palace. In scarcely lighted small shops on both sides of the lane craftsmen and merchants attend to their work not at all troubled by the crowd watching them. Quite to the contrary: words are flying to and fro. Laughter about a coarse joke or a snappish remark. People here know each other.

Curious passers-by with elegant coats and winter suits offer a remarkable contrast to the “calzolaio”, the sandal maker and cobbler, the tinker, the sievemaker, the basketmakers and potters in their colourful, roughly spun capes and headscarfes or turbans, their broad belts often barely hiding richly decorated daggers.

Out of a sudden the stream of people is breaking up. A Roman patrol is forcing its way through the crowd. The legionaries with horsetail decorated helmets and shining leather armour, with grim faces and terrifiying long spears. Surely it is better to get out of their way. A little further, on a terrace with a wide view over the lake, fishermen have stretched out their nets to dry and offer their day’s catch in shallow baskets.

In the neighbouring lane peasants are spreading out their goods on large blankets. Big and small pumpkins, apples, walnuts, all thinkable sorts of beans, lentils and many other tings. Somewhat uphill two farmhands are threshing grain. Out of Herod´s palace one can hear the sounds of flutes and tambourins. Who succeeds to get a short glimpse inside in spite of the armoured guards, will see lightly dressed bellydancers swaying to the musicians playing. The king, more lying than sitting on his throne, is watching the scenery with a slightly bored glance.

Behind the next corner the sound of hammerstrokes. Marble chips flying all around. A sculptor, the blue cape powdered with white dust, the turban deep in the face, is working on a relief, probably for the villa of a rich Roman. A thief, bound to a yoke, loudly crying for mercy, is escorted to the gaol by two legionaries. High up on the castle hill, not far from a den where some shady figures eagerly are playing at dice, we come across a stable, rather the ruins of a stable. In a pen at its entrance some sheep and goats are bustling about, at once coming near tamely. Nearby veiled farmwives are making cheese in willow baskets. Inside the stable an inquisitive donkey tries to nibble the visitors´ clothes, meanwhile an ox, or is it a cow ?, with soft dark eyes is watching the doings rather indifferently. At a small fire a young couple is warming up. The Holy family? The woman is breastfeeding a baby and we are pretty astonished as we recognize “Mary” as the nice saleswoman from the local supermarket, whose belly grew ever bigger during the past months. Also the “Joseph” isn´t an unknown. Under a brown headscarf the eyes of Signor Luculli are meeting our gaze. A neighbour, who has a stable and pastures next to our house “La Rogaia”. A recognizing nod, the touch of an almost embarrassed smile. We exchange a few quick words. We will not disturb the silence of this holy place too long with profane twaddle. And from behind others are already pushing, to show their reverence to the Holy family. There is still a lot to see on the way downhill: A potter is forming a vase on a potter´s wheel, three ropemakers are working at a cable, an old gentleman wearing a red head scarf is sewing together strands of braided reeds, thus creating bags. On the other side of the street by the light of an oil lantern an adolescent is combing flax and his father is spinning yarn out if it. Out of a court one can hear carpenters hammering and sawing. In the imperial mint a square-built Roman official with leather doublet and top-boots changes our silver coins against some with Cesar´s portrait. A bearded farmer offers us a sip of homemade wine and some “bruschette”(toasted white bread) with olive oil, roasted over a charcoal fire, while our daughter Amira begs a cob of corn from his wives. The women are enthusiastic about her blonde hair: “Ma che bella che sei!”, - “Che bionda!”, - “Che bambola!”. Then finally we leave the old town behind us. On our way home we are passing, of course completely accidentally, our favourite “Bar” (coffee shop). Of course we must pop in to wish “Auguri” and “Buone Feste.” Certainly we do not want to be unpolite... And apart from that: at this time of the year here you get thick hot chocolate, rather a liquid pudding, with cinnamon, sugar and almonds for the younger ones, with an extra dash of Amaretto for those, who have stayed young.

About a year later. A car stops in front of my studio. Who is this? I don´t expect anybody. The “Polizia Municipale”, the town police. What are they coming for? I can figure out nothing I´ve done wrong. A small, wiry and in spite of his white hair still young looking policeman gets out of the car and presents himself as Signor Gatti. He is looking curiously and increasingly approving over the sculptures in front of my studio. He had heard, I was a “scultore” ( a sculptor) and, could he take a look at my work? What? The police wants to buy some of my works? Unfortunately not, as I realise quickly. Signor Gatti is the organiser of the “Presepe Vivente”, the living nativity scene. Whether it would be possible to borrow some of my sculptures as decoration for the sculptors’ workshop there. ”Come no?”, (why not?) I answer spontaneously. To my surprise this causes a worried expression on Signor Gattis face. He gives me a wry smile, then he lets the cat out of the bag. It might be a little risky, to have my sculptures in the workshop without me. He would watch them well, no question. But with such a lot of people coming, there would be always the possibility, that something could happen.He would like it best, if I could take over the role of the sculptor. Now I´m dumbfound! And the guy who did the sculptor before? ... Oh, he was only ”finto”( he only pretended to be a sculptor), Signor Gatti remarks. A real “scultore” would be something completely different! Apart of that, the other one had had the role already so often, that he´d like to do something else.What you say to this. An offer that is difficult to refuse. In a few days I have to go to Germany, to set up an artshow. But if everything works out well, at Christmas I will be back again. Okay then. Va bene.

Then we start to choose the sculptures for “our” Bethlehem ...

If you want to get a closer view of the living nativity scene at Passignano please watch this video. At minute 4:30 you can see Wolfgang as biblical stone mason.

Living nativity scene at Passignano sul Trasimeno

Go back