Heavenly Figures

Through one family’s passion and generosity, the art of Neapolitan crèche scenes lives on in New York.

Few people take the responsibility of decorating the fam­ily Christmas tree as seriously as Linn Howard. And for good rea­son. Hers isn’t located in some cozy nook of her homes in Manhattan or Wyoming. It resides in the Medieval Sculpture Hall at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The 20-foot imitation blue spruce—and the 200 or so 18th-century Neapolitan crèche figures that go with it—was a 1965 gift to the Met from Linn’s late mother, Loretta Hines Howard. Every year since, the Howard family has come to the museum to oversee the installation of the elaborate panorama, featuring the Holy Family surrounded by Magi, shepherds, and townspeople, with a host of angels and cherubs in the branches above. The Angel Tree, as it’s known, has become a landmark for New Yorkers, who come to enjoy special holiday concerts held around the tree.

Loretta Howard, an artist and the daugh­ter of a Chicago lumber millionaire, started assembling the collection during her honeymoon to Italy in 1925. Crèche figures were an obsession in Naples during the 1700s, and families staged spirited get-togethers each year to see who could create the most impressive scenes. When Don Carlos of Bour­bon (the future Charles III of Spain) ruled the port city from 1734 to 1759, he reputedly owned a collection that numbered almost 6,000.

Ranging in height from six to 20 inches, the figures have finely painted heads modeled in terracotta; arms, legs, and wings carved from wood; and bodies made of hemp and wire. "These are not decorations, they are art," stresses Linn Howard. "They were created by noted artists of the day." Many of the Met’s figures still wear the splendid outfits sewn by the daughters of the wealthy Nea­­politan families that commissioned them. The Magi, for example, are dressed in imitation ermine caps and silk cloaks embroidered with silver, gold, and sequins.

Linn developed her eye at her mother’s side on sojourns to Naples. "We’d see so many crèches and museums in a day," she recalls. "It wasn’t always fun. We couldn’t wait to get to Sorrento and swim."

Her first figure-hunting expedi­tion to Europe, in the fifties, almost ended in disappointment. She was about to re­­turn to the United States empty-handed when, one evening while shooting pool with the children of Eugenio Catello, her mother’s Neapolitan dealer, Eugenio’s daughter Marisa presented Linn with a gift. (Marisa was apparently moved by Linn’s Wyoming-bred pool prowess.) "Just as I was going to hit the last ball on the table," Linn recounts, "she surprised me with this beautiful shepherd in a shoebox."

Since her mother died in 1982, Linn has continued to acquire new figures—she is currently in the market for a dancing girl. Before Linn makes any purchases, they are vetted by the Met staff. The museum declines to discuss the collection’s value, but a curator, speaking anonymously, says that one figure in good condition, with original costumes, can bring as much as $12,000 to $16,000 at auction.

Each November Linn spends a couple of weeks decorating the tree with the help of family and friends. In the old days she was the one perched on the ladder while her mother stood below giving directions about precisely where each Magi, shepherd, and angel should go. These days Linn’s daughters, Andrea Selby Rossi and Stephanie Selby, mount the scaffolding with Linn issuing the orders.

The reward for all the hard work, says Linn, is slipping into the Met and listen­ing to the comments made during tree-lighting ceremonies, which occur daily through­out the holidays. And while the talk tends to be positive, some observers do question the placement of certain figures—for example, a fawn that ended up in the manger beside the more traditional ass and oxen.

"I’ve heard remarks like ’It’s not the place for a deer,’ " Linn says. " ’It should be in the woods somewhere.’ " Nonetheless, the deer is staying put.

The Angel Tree is on display in the Met­ropolitan Museum of Art’s Med­ieval Sculpture Hall from November 20 to Jan­uary 6 (1000 Fifth Ave.). For information and a hol­iday concert sched­ule, visit metmuseum.org.

Angels on High

The Neapolitan tradition of crèche figures lives on though artisan-made versions are rare. The city’s historic Via San Gregorio Armeno, which is to angels what Flor­ence’s Ponte Vecchio is to jew­elry, is studded with botteghe artigianali selling them. Among the few that haven’t outsourced to China, the fifth-generation Ferrigno (39-081/552-3148; arte ferrigno.it) still uses old-world techniques and materials. Its top terracotta-and-wood figures ($700) have crys­tal eyes and wear silks. Also of note are Capuano ($565; 39-081/551-9651) and Cesarini ($2,500; 39-081/420-3197). The leading importer in the States is Angeli Art ($1,400; angeliart.com), which com­missions arti­sans around Na­ples to create 1700s-style figures.—Elettra Fiumi