The Maradona and child: Naples honours its hero with nativity figurine

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A new addition to the Christmas scene in artisan shops shows city’s love for footballer

A statuette by artist Genny Di Virgilio portraying Diego Maradona with angel’s wings next to a nativity scene in his shop in Naples, Italy.
A statuette by artist Genny Di Virgilio portraying Diego Maradona with angel’s wings next to a nativity scene in his shop in Naples, Italy. Photograph: Salvatore Laporta/AP
A statuette by artist Genny Di Virgilio portraying Diego Maradona with angel’s wings next to a nativity scene in his shop in Naples, Italy. Photograph: Salvatore Laporta/AP
Sun 13 Dec 2020 01.45 EST

The southern Italian city of Naples usually enjoys a fervent lead-up to Christmas, with one street in particular – Via San Gregorio Armeno – buzzing with people buying handcrafted cribs and terracotta figurines for their nativity scenes at home.

There is also much anticipation each year over which new figurine they can buy. Traditionally, it was a shepherd or an animal that would join baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph, but now it is usually a figurine of a personality of that year. Recently crafted statuettes include tributes to doctors and nurses who have worked throughout the pandemic as well as ones of the US president-elect Joe Biden and his deputy, Kamala Harris.

But among the star attractions is Diego Maradona, the Argentinian footballer adored by Neapolitans who died last month at the age of 60. A figurine of Maradona, with angel’s wings, was unveiled last week as the artisan shops in Via San Gregorio Armeno reopened after lockdown.

As a result of the pandemic the street doesn’t have anywhere near the footfall it would usually get and so craftspeople are hoping the Maradona figurine provides a bit of a pre-Christmas boon.

“Unfortunately, it’s been a very difficult year,” said Gabriele Casillo, president of the local craftspeople’s association, Corpo di Napoli. “Because the tourists aren’t coming, neither Italians or foreigners, we’ve had a very significant fall in business.”

Cribs are considered the most important feature of Christmas in Italy and adorn churches and squares as well as many households. They are put on display on 8 December, the day of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, with the figurine of baby Jesus not usually added until Christmas Eve. Figurines of famous personalities do not tend to take centre-stage in the manger.

The statue of Maradona was created by the artist Genny Di Virgilio. Maradona’s brother Hugo, who lives in Naples, attended its unveiling. “Everyday the Neapolitans’ love for my brother shows itself more and more,” he told the Italian media. “I’m here to boost the craftspeople who are going through a tough time.”

That enduring love began in 1984, when Maradona joined underdogs Napoli from Barcelona. The city was still recovering from the Irpinia earthquake of four years earlier, which killed more than 2,500. On top of lifting Napoli to footballing glory during the seven years he was there, Maradona also succeeded in restoring pride to a city that was often the target of derogatory attacks from those in Italy’s wealthier north.

Casillo watched Maradona in several matches during the 1980s. “We loved him and still love him very much for what he did for the city,” he said. “We were destroyed by the earthquake … and when Maradona arrived he was a light during that period. Watching him gave so much joy, it distracted us from our problems. He did so much, he defended the city everywhere he went, Naples was his second homeland.”

Now the city and its businesses are enduring another tough period . “We never give up. We just hope we manage to survive the pandemic,” said Casillo. The city’s council said the nativity craftspeople “are the symbol of many struggling categories” and urged Neapolitans to return to Via San Gregorio Armeno “in safety and security”.

The makers of Neapolitan nativity scenes have special Unesco heritage status, as does the art of pizza makers, or pizzaiuoli. The two came together last week in a nativity scene made completely of pizza dough. The scene, which sits on a huge pizza base, has been put on display at the city’s Basilica of Santa Chiara.