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Four figurines – (from left to right) Barack Obama, John McCain, Hillary Clinton, and Rudolph Giuliani, make up “Il presepe delle primarie USA” – the U.S. primaries nativity.
Four figurines – (from left to right) Barack Obama, John McCain, Hillary Clinton, and Rudolph Giuliani, make up “Il presepe delle primarie USA” – the U.S. primaries nativity. (Sandra Jontz/S&S)
Four figurines – (from left to right) Barack Obama, John McCain, Hillary Clinton, and Rudolph Giuliani, make up “Il presepe delle primarie USA” – the U.S. primaries nativity.
Four figurines – (from left to right) Barack Obama, John McCain, Hillary Clinton, and Rudolph Giuliani, make up “Il presepe delle primarie USA” – the U.S. primaries nativity. (Sandra Jontz/S&S)
Gennaro di Virgilio crafts a figurine in the likeness of a long-time client. The 25-year-old Neapolitan artist has gained popularity for creating nativity scene figurines in the likeness of celebrities.
Gennaro di Virgilio crafts a figurine in the likeness of a long-time client. The 25-year-old Neapolitan artist has gained popularity for creating nativity scene figurines in the likeness of celebrities. ()

NAPLES, Italy

Gennaro di Virgilio does his best work late in the evening.

When the bustle of holiday shoppers dies down, a hush envelops the cramped shop cluttered with thousands of figurines of shepherds and angels, of the Virgin Mary and Joseph, and of baby Jesus.

It’s then that di Virgilio painstakingly sculpts the intricate facial features of the figurines that make up the ever-popular Christmas nativity scenes Neapolitans use to decorate their homes.

But Neapolitans have a quirky sense of humor, he said grinning. And he’s all Neapolitan.

Look closely at the shop’s entrance: This year among the angels and the magi you’ll also find the mugs of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John McCain and Rudolph Giuliani.

“American politics is very popular for us, and yes, we follow them, too,” said the 25-year-old artist, who has been crafting Christmas nativity figurines since he was 9.

Di Virgilio spends 10 months out of the year, the “dead months” as he calls them, producing the serious and sacred figurines for an Italian tradition of building the nativity, or presepe, a practice that dates to the 11th century.

“I like to have a little fun, when all the serious work is done,” he said, as he molded a dollop of gray clay into an arm.

The foursome of figurines — for now, at least — are not for sale.

“I didn’t make them for the money, but to bring attention to Via San Gregorio Armeno, to bring people here. I thought people would see them and tell others, that they would come by word of mouth. I never expected this,” he said of the media attention his handiwork has drawn.

But he’s not really all that surprised by the public notice.

Last year, when Italy was hit by an alleged soccer-fixing scandal, he crafted figurines of the key players involved in calciopoli (soccergate). He’s crafted famous Italian personalities, from opera legend Luciano Pavarotti, to Hollywood diva Sophia Loren and World Cup soccer star Fabio Cannavaro.

And when Pope Benedict XVI visited Naples this October, he shaped a figurine in the pontiff’s likeness and presented his handiwork to the pope in person.

“I think I’m doing pretty good, in spite of my youth,” he said. “All summed up, I’m doing pretty good in this life.”

The di Virgilio practice goes back three generations. His grandfather was a master at angels and the holy family — the Virgin Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus, said the artist’s father, Rosario di Virgilio. “It’s in our blood,” he said.

Passers-by at the shop on Via San Gregorio Armeno — what Americans here like to call “Christmas Alley” — seem to appreciate di Virgilio’s handiwork displayed out front. Most chuckle and giggle at the il presepe delle primarie USA — the U.S. primaries nativity.

The younger di Virgilio has a favored among the four candidates vying for U.S. political office.

“I like the Hillary. I think her husband was a good president. I think she’ll be the same.”

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