The Cantor Art Gallery Presents ‘The Italian Presepe: Cultural Landscapes of the Soul’

Photographer Margot Balboni and Holy Cross professor Sarah Stanbury explore the cultural significance of the Italian presepe
August 27th, 2014 by 

Artist working in Mario Di Donfrancesco’s workshop, Cartapesta Statuary and Restoration, Lecce. Image by Margot Balboni

The Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Art Gallery at the College of the Holy Cross will host the exhibition “The Italian Presepe: Cultural Landscapes of the Soul.” The exhibit showcases a collaborative project by Margot Balboni, an independent curator and photographer, and Sarah Stanbury, a medievalist and the Monsignor Murray Professor in the Arts and Humanities in the English department, on an important form of Italian installation art: the nativity scene, or the “presepe.” The exhibition will be on view Sept. 3 – Dec. 17. An opening reception will be held Thursday, Sept. 18, 5 – 7 p.m.

Italians date their rich history of the presepe to 1223, when St. Francis reenacted the Nativity in Greccio. Through the centuries the presepe has developed a history deeply entwined with Italian art and culture. The Italian presepe is a vibrant form of installation art practiced all over Italy by everyone from school children to the most highly trained artists. The story is always the same, but the personal act of making a presepe continuously re-energizes the story. This exhibition, while not presuming to present the definitive statement on the Italian presepe, offers a series of encounters in three regions:  Rome, Naples and Puglia.

The exhibit will include more than 50 of Balboni’s photographs of nativity scenes from the 13th-century to today, along with photographs of artists at work in contemporary workshops in Rome, Naples, and Puglia, where the presepe has developed distinct regional styles. Each presepe, a miniature “cabinet of memory,” is a palimpsest of Italian art and culture. Balboni uses antique frames to move the images beyond documentation into memory, and has juxtaposed them with historic maps and etchings that draw out their inner themes.

The golden age of the presepe was in 18th-century Naples when the Bourbon court commissioned the great artists of the day to create startlingly realistic figures.  In addition to Balboni’s photographs, the exhibit will include 18th century presepe figures on loan from the Carnegie Museum of Art and a private collection, a selection of Piranesi prints from the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, as well materials from the Houghton Library, Harvard University, the Knights of Columbus Museum, and the Fitchburg Art Museum.

An inventive presepe set created by Barbara Craig, assistant professor of theatre at Holy Cross, with assistance from Savannah Plante ’16, will also be showcased in the exhibit. This presepe set, which brings the heart of the Italian presepe home to Holy Cross, utilizes figures summer Mellon students, Olivia Vanni ’13, Mario Leiva ’14, and Helen Tucceri ’15, acquired on a 2013 research trip.

The interest in the Italian presepe stems back to 2005, when Balboni stumbled into a room at Cosma Damiano in Rome to find a dramatic 18th-century Neapolitan presepe, crowded with elaborately clothed gesticulating figures. While Stanbury was on leave in 2011, she and Balboni began a three-year journey of research and discovery that was driven by the artists, collectors, historians and curators they met along the way.

Stanbury has been a faculty member in the English department since 1992. Her scholarship interests include Chaucer and late medieval literature, medieval visual culture, and the life and work of Margery Kempe, a 15th-century English spiritual woman and mystic.

Balboni is a cultural landscape photographer who works on independent projects and assignment. Her work has been exhibited nationally and is in many private and public collections such as the Farnsworth Museum and the Boston Athenaeum. From her work on the “Big Dig” and the transformation of Boston to her aerial alphabet of the “American Made Landscape,” Balboni has been photographing “time and place” for the past 25 years.

The Cantor Gallery is publishing an 80-page color catalogue that will include photographs by Balboni and an essay by Stanbury, and will be available for sale at the Gallery. Numerous events scheduled throughout the fall semester, including “tableaux vivants” by the theatre department and a craft demonstration by Refugee Artisans of Worcester, will be open to the public.


Wednesday, September 3, 10 a.m.
Exhibit opens: “The Italian Presepe: Cultural Landscapes of the Soul”

Thursday, September 18, 5 – 7 p.m.
Opening reception in the Cantor Art Gallery

Thursday, September 25, 4:30 – 5:30 p.m.
Talk by Rachel Delphia, curator, Carnegie Mellon Art Museum, “‘Most Wonderfully Deceitful to the Eye’: The Art and History of the Neapolitan Presepe.” Co-sponsored by the McFarland Center for Religion, Ethics and Culture, Rehm Library

Tuesday, October 7, 4:30 – 5:30 p.m.
Talk by curator Margot Balboni, Sarah Stanbury, Murray Professor of the Arts and Humanities at the College of the Holy Cross, “The Italian Presepe: the Inside Story,” Rehm Library

Friday, October 24, 3 – 4 p.m. and Saturday, October 25, 11 a.m. – noon
Tableaux Vivants in the Cantor Art Gallery
The Italian nativity comes to life at the Cantor Art Gallery through a “tableau vivant” theatrical presentation, featuring students enacting the presepe’s surprising mix of high and low, angels and demons, with  costumes by Holy Cross designer Kurt Hultgren.

Saturday, October 25, 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.
Craft demonstrations by members of Refugee Artisans of Worcester, Hogan Campus Center, 1st floor
Refugees who have relocated to the U.S. from around the globe will showcase the practice of traditional crafts, brought with them from in their native countries, that they continue to produce here in Worcester as a means of support and community.

Please visit the Gallery’s website for a listing of noontime Gallery Talks.

Gallery Information

Founded in 1983 through the generosity of Iris & B. Gerald Cantor, the Cantor Art Gallery serves both as a venue for a changing series of historical and contemporary public exhibitions, as well as a vital resource for Holy Cross faculty and students, linking exhibitions to the broader liberal arts curriculum.

The hours for the Cantor Art Gallery are Monday – Friday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays 2 – 5 p.m. Located in O’Kane Hall, 1st Floor, College of the Holy Cross, 1 College Street, Worcester, Mass., 01610.  Visitors needing assistance with handicap accessibility should contact Public Safety at 508-793-2011. Admission to the gallery is free.

For additional information please call 508-793-3356 or visit the Gallery’s website.

Media Coverage

For additional information, please contact Cristal Steuer at 508-793-2419.

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