The yellow morning light brought Via San Gregorio Armeno to life shortly after 10 a.m., and the shopkeepers rolled up shutters noisily, as if the street were clearing a metallic throat.
It looked like any other street in the Spanish Quarter of Naples, with rusty balconies high up the walls of palaces almost kissing across the narrow alleys. But this place shelters not the usual commercial clutter of clothing and fruit and pizzas of old Naples.
The workshops and stores of San Gregorio reproduce Naples itself in miniature versions of the city and its people from centuries past.
The mock-ups are creches that set Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus against a Neapolitan backdrop. The holy family is in fact a bit player. A pageant of profane street characters overwhelms the sacred.
Rosario di Virgilio had rolled up his shutters to reveal hundreds of figures made of clay and painted by hand. It was October, the start of a season that by December will be a rush, with thousands of shoppers flooding the street looking to pick up a new piece for their creche -- presepe in Neapolitan dialect -- or to repair old ones.
In his store-workshop there were rows of vegetable vendors, musicians pounding tambourines, old men stirring vats of cheese, drunks gambling at cards, fishmongers, priests, carpenters, prostitutes and barbers.
His son Gennaro was placing clay heads on a narrow shelf -- they were replacement parts for broken pastori, which literally means shepherds but applies to all the picaresque characters of the presepe. He dusted off each head -- smiling ones, grimacing ones, ones that had their eyes open in awe. They were left over from last year.
"Good morning," di Virgilio called to passersby who peered into the shop at late morning. A man and woman entered to gaze at the rows of images. The images stared back. Some were less than an inch tall, others over a foot. "Would you like some coffee?" di Virgilio asked, coffee being the glue that Neapolitans use to attach buyers to their products.
One of the shoppers, Giuseppe Rosoni, had come from Munich, where he has lived for 27 years and runs an auto parts store. He hadn't put up a presepe since he emigrated. "You've come at a good time," said di Virgilio. "Only the old clients come at this time, when it is quiet. You have time to look around."
Gennaro, who is 23, went out to get the coffee. He has worked with his father since he was 11. Now he makes the figures. He styled the face of a recent one, a bread seller, after Disney's version of the Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Di Virgilio, who makes landscapes, warned against Chinese imitation presepes and noted also that American influence had infected Italy with Christmas trees. "The pines die every year, the presepe lives forever," di Virgilio said.
"We put up Christmas trees in Germany," said Rosoni.
"Of course, it is a noble tradition. Up there," said di Virgilio. He laid out a Mary-Joseph-Jesus set, a few shepherds, a goat and Wise Men riding elephants.
"And look at this," he said. He brought out a large piece from the back of the store. It was a woman selling lemonade at a stand. He pointed out the lemons on the mock counter and the clay pots all around.
"I saw a woman selling lemonade at the port," said Rosoni. "It's amazing these traditions live on in Naples," he added to no one in particular.
Di Virgilio told him that in the 16th century, artisans supplied the king of Naples with figurines to let him know about conditions in the city. "If there was an epidemic, they produced sick figurines," he explained.
As the proprietor spoke, the street outside seemed from time to time to replicate the figures inside the store. The clay peasant transporting tomatoes on a donkey was echoed by a motor scooter driver carrying crates of vegetables. A beggar figurine had his counterpart in a ragged man near the door with his hand out. The double of a miniature guitarist strummed nearby. "A Romanian," di Virgilio said of the live musician. "They've learned to sing 'O Sole Mio.' "
The customer pondered how he would transport the fragile figures. "We can ship," responded di Virgilio. He wrapped a shepherd in toilet paper to show how secure they would be.
Rosoni hesitated; he seemed not ready to buy. "I would like to see some structures," or miniature buildings, he said.
But he didn't stop when he walked by the shop where Lorenzo Mignola was constructing little houses on a model hill made of wood and bark. Mignola has been working at his uncle's business since he was 15. A client was with him, ordering replacement palaces. He wanted 18th-century style, with lots of staircases. "He's rich and he's upgrading," Mignola said later.
By noon, the street was full of tables holding figurines, houses and bark. One place specialized in satirical pieces. It had a butcher cutting off the head of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Pope John Paul II is making an appearance this year among the statuettes. If you look hard, you can find Sophia Loren. And Diego Maradona, the soccer star who brought Naples an Italian championship. It's okay to put contemporary characters in the old landscapes. "As long as it's Naples, it's all right," di Virgilio said.
"Would you like some coffee?" he asked a pair of browsers shortly before 2 p.m. He sent Gennaro out. And yes, two of the stock presepe characters are an old couple at rest sipping the brew. Right by a standing Mary and Joseph.