The elaborately decorated Christmas trees at the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Hall of Architecture are a beloved 51-year-old tradition for the Pittsburgh region. We asked the museum’s Jonathan Gaugler to tell us more about the display and presepio, or Nativity scene. His reflections follow, as well as video from the museum’s David D’Agostino. Thanks to both of them!
“Here at Carnegie Museum of Art, the Carnegie Trees are a decades-old tradition carried out through the dedication of the museum’s Women’s Committee. The trees transform the Hall of Architecture – one of the grandest spaces in the city – into a special, festive display. Every year, the decorations and themes of the trees change, and curators set up the presepio differently (see if you can spot the bird’s nest!), but through it all, the museum’s displays remain a treasured Pittsburgh tradition.
“At the center of the display in the Hall of Architecture is the museum’s magnificent 18th-century Neapolitan presepio – a Nativity scene unlike most others. Just before Thanksgiving weekend, Associate Curator of Decorative Arts Rachel Delphia quietly begins the days-long process of installing the presepio, a scene that spills out beyond the crèche and portrays Italian village life of the 1700s, including merchants, farmers, mendicant beggars and musicians.
“Details in the presepio bear meanings that would be familiar to viewers in Italy during the 1700s but that might escape notice today. Certain styles of dress, for example, would be unmistakably Sicilian. The band of Turkish musicians playing in the streets would herald the arrival of a ship from the east. And, of course, the craftsmanship of the set is exquisite: the painted terracotta figures have sparkling glass eyes, and merchants’ wares are minutely detailed, right down to salami and hand-tied bunches of grapes. Overhead, angels in silk gowns cascade before the massive architectural cast facade of St. Giles, while other narrative elements from the Christmas story – shepherds, magi and fishermen – are interspersed among the everyday lives of the Neapolitans.
“After Thanksgiving weekend, the Hall of Architecture bustles, as Women’s Committee volunteers set to work with the Museum of Art workshop, employing winches, lifts and muscle to install seven 20-foot trees flanking the presepio. As Tara Safar, co-chair of the Carnegie Trees puts it, the committee is ‘a dedicated group of women who are passionate about the arts and raising awareness of Carnegie Museum of Art to promote its tremendous value in our community.’
“This year’s display takes the world’s fairs as inspiration, coinciding with the exhibition Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World’s Fairs, 1851–1939 right upstairs in the Heinz Galleries. Each tree features handmade ornaments crafted by organizations from around the city, including colorful “space-race” rocket ships made by Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh volunteers; architectural wonders, including the Eiffel Tower and Space Needle, crafted by Women’s Committee members; and historical hat styles, as presented by the Parks Conservancy. The opening reception to unveil the trees also offers a fundraising opportunity for the committee, which has contributed to significant projects for the museum over the years, most recently a $500,000 pledge toward endowing the position of the Richard Armstrong Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, now held by Dan Byers. This year’s Nov. 28 reception drew a rousing 500 attendees.
“With the Hall of Architecture fully decorated, the museum settles for the holiday crowds, especially in the week approaching New Year’s Eve. The building pulses with energy as families take in the decorations before scurrying off to enjoy the museum’s world-class art collection and the Museum of Natural History‘s huge, breathtaking display of dinosaur fossils. We hope to see you at the Carnegie Museums this season!”
Associate Curator of Decorative Arts Rachel Delphia on the presepio.
The Women’s Committee’s Melissa Ferrari on the Carnegie Trees
In 2011, ImaginePittsburghNow.com highlighted the sustainability of some of Pittsburgh’s most cherished holiday traditions. This year we’re calling attention to a few of our favorite seasonal things, with a bit of a twist toward greater diversity or international flair. Send your suggestions to us at Twitter.com/ImaginePgh, or Facebook.com/PittsburghRegion.