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Santi Auguri!
You'll want to read every word — but you'll have to know Italian, or have access to an Italian dictionary or Web translator. But you'll buy this book so just so you could enjoy looking at all those beautiful nativities…
Santi Auguri!
Vittorio Pranzini
The pages of Santi Auguri! spring to life at the country Ravenna home of Co-Author Vittorio Pranzini. This soft-spoken, religious man—who has just retired as the Superintendent of Ravenna’s schools—shares his love of presepi di carta, a love he developed as a child, helping his father install his family’s Christmas crib...
Elisabetta Gulli Grigioni
Co-Author of Santi Auguri! philosopher, teacher, collector

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Elisabetta Gulli grigioni—author, teacher, philosopher, collector—lives surrounded by the hearts she adores. In her elegant salon, she holds a heart-shaped instrument, wears a gold heart on her neck chain, and is framed by a precious heart locket photographed on—what else?—a heart-shaped, glass-topped table.

Your train is heading to Ravenna, but you're not going there to see Justinian and Theodora, Emperor and Empress of Byzantium who, in their imperial finery, grace the church of San Vitale. You're about to meet Elisabetta Gulli Grigioni and Vittorio Pranzini, two extraordinary people who have adorned our crèche universe with their splendid book, "Santi Auguri!"

The heart symbol is a metaphor, Elisabetta says, for kindness, sensuality—but also pain.
In her elegant salon, Elisabetta Gulli Grigioni sits on a velvet arm chair. It's a large, bright room filled with art, antique furniture, and deep, richly-colored oriental carpets that cover the wood floors. There's also an unusual, heart-shaped table, a showcase full of heart-shaped treasures—a reminder of Elisabetta's affair with the heart.

Vittorio Pranzini sits nearby, quietly comfortable the couch. With his son Nicoló acting as our able translator, we begin our conversation.

"It's a great pleasure being here," you begin. "There's so much I'd like to ask… May I begin with you, Elisabetta? Can you tell us about your love of the heart?"

Her eyes sparkle, and you can see she has so much to say. Unfortunately, she does so in Italian, a language you don't understand. Thank God for Nicoló. "I was born in Bolzano, in the North of Italy," Elisabetta replies, "and in that city the symbol of the heart is a tradition. It is seen everywhere.

The curves of the heart," she goes on—tracing a heart outline in the air with her fingers—"denote sensuality, and also kindness. The point, intelligence—and also cruelty." She reinforces her statement by pointing to a picture on the wall. "This is 'The Heart of Damocles,' painted by my son," she says. "It depicts a man sitting below an elongated heart hanging—sword-like— from a string above him. If it falls, it can kill him."

"She likes the heart for three reasons," Nicoló elaborates. "When she was child, it was something she could not have—that heart-shaped purse for her confirmation that she told you about; she loves the form of the heart, as you can see from her collection; and there's the metaphor that is the heart, as she has explained."

Elisabetta refills her teacup, and it's now Vittorio's turn to speak. He has been nodding his head in agreement as Elisabetta spoke, and, sometimes, ever so politely, interjected to point out what a font of knowledge his friend, co-author, and fellow educator is.

A lovely heart locket from Elisabetta's collection showing St. Christopher carrying Baby Jesus. Flowers and fruits decorate its borders .
Vittorio begins talking about his love for presepi di carta, paper nativities: "You could say I love lots of different paper objects," he says. "I collect paper creches, santini, Christmas cards, Letterine di Natale, Christmas Letters… It's an Italian tradition for a child to write a letter to his or her father on Christmas Day," Vittorio says, as Elisabetta dashes out of the room. "These letters are richly decorated with small creches, drawings, and other die-cut art."

Elisabetta returns with a wicker basket full of Christmas letters protected by plastic sleeves. She takes one out to illustrate what Vittorio is talking about, and adds, "Look at the beautiful calligraphy!"

Vittorio, without missing a beat — it's a wonderful testament to his and Elisabetta's amicable collaboration — nods in agreement. "These letters," he says, "are usually written when a child first studies calligraphy. This first written communication, is usually also a child's first written document.

"I grew up in a religious family," Vittorio continues, and attended Catholic school. The…" Nicoló, our translator, is for the first time at a loss for words. Elisabetta to the rescue! She dashes out of the room once again to return triumphant: she's holding a framed, cut-paper picture of a nun! So that's the word Nicoló has been searching for, "nun."

"And the nuns," Vittorio says smiling, "would give us paper nativities and santini. I have been fascinated with these objects since I was four or five years old. But I had to leave this interest behind when I pursued higher studies and started to work. But about 25 years ago my fascination began anew."

You wonder, what was the cause for this return to his childhood fascination? You ask Vittorio—and Elisabetta, who's been listening attentively with her glasses on top of her head: did they feel as adults, as the writer Umberto Eco has said, the need to reconstruct their childhoods? At the mention of Umberto, Elisabetta once again leaves the room to quickly return with a book. She leafs through The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana and points to a page. "Here's the reference you've just spoke of," she says, reading in Italian. "In this book, Eco writes that you relive your past as an adult…"

Vittorio, as if concurring with Elisabetta's comments, talks about his past. "My father," he says, "since I was a child, was part of the world of Boy Scouts…" "Just like me!" Nicoló adds, then begins translating his father's words once again: "My father wrote lots of books about the Scouting movement," Vittorio says. "Scouting, I think, gave him the curiosity to study the world of childhood, and he began collecting children's books, toys, puzzles, games. And my own interest in this field has also been shaped by my role as an educator."

Elisabetta and Vittorio may have been speaking, but Nicoló was doing all the talking — translator, music band leader, and writer of songs in English, Nicoló Pranzini.
Vittorio, Nicoló explains, holds a Ph.D. in Education, and before retiring five years ago he was the Superintendent of Secondary Education in Ravenna. "Elisabetta, was a teacher as well," Nicoló says. "She taught Italian Literature, History, and Latin. Elisabetta loves the concept, the philosophy of an object; my father's dedication is of a more practical nature."

How did Elisabetta and Vittorio decide to write a book together?

"First," Nicoló replies, "they would like to let you know how they met, because that's how the book was born."

"When I first started my santini collection," Vittorio says, "I was interested to know all about the material I was studying, the history, the technique. I looked for books on this subject, and I discovered that there was a collector of santini, right here in Ravenna!"

Elisabetta laughs again remembering the first time Vittorio got in touch with her. "He was so very shy," she says, "when he first called me!"

"I had asked mutual friends to get me in touch with her," Vittorio says—and Nicoló editorializes, smiling—"but just like in your case, they never did! So my father had to pick up the phone himself—just as you did. 'Hello?' my father said, 'this is Vittorio Pranzini, as in 'little lunch.' Pranzo is lunch in Italian. That's how they met, in 1988, and their great friendship began. They have since collaborated on many books and exhibitions."

Amused by the coincidence of Vittorio trying to find Elisabetta—just as you tried to find them, through a third party—you recount your trip last year to Ravenna. You had come to see Justinian and Theodora, you tell them —but all you could think of was "Vittorio and Elisabetta." "But we're not a King and a Queen," Vittorio jokes. Elisabetta teases back: "You may not be a king, Vittorio, but I am a queen!" And just like two school kids, they break out in peels of laughter. You can see why they get along so well.

"When I lived in Bolzano, after the Second World War" Elisabetta says, "my father, an artist and artisan—he was very good with his hands—would create large 3-dimensional nativities for Christmas. I have had a passion for creches since then: for the figures, the little houses, the buildings, the mountains, and the grass that my father used to complete his scenes. And it goes whiteout saying that I loved Christmas trees as well: all those lovely bows and ornaments, especially the ones shaped like hearts! I've always had a passion for hearts, and sometimes, before I'd open a book, for example, or a box for that matter, I had a feeling I'd find a heart in it. Often, there it was."

Piccolo presepio a sorpresa, "Small surprise crèche," a delightful pop-up nativity from Vittorio's collection. Mouseover the image above to get "surprised."
Vittorio remembers his childhood Christmas: "As Elisabetta just said, when I was a child my family also had a tradition of building a large creche. And every year, the setting was added to or changed. This tradition continues with my family, and now Nicoló," he points to your translator, "is my assistant. Building our family presepe with my father and my five brothers was a special time, and I have tried to recreate that with Nicoló. For me, building a presepe, was—still is—magical. It produces such marvelous sentiments, such wonderful memories of family life, especially when you look back, as the years go by, at your childhood. These creches of my childhood were three dimensional ones. presepi di carta, [paper nativities] entered my life much later."

Does Vittorio remember his first Presepe di carta?

But it's Elisabetta who's first to answer. "Like Scrooge McDuck," she joins in, "who remembers his first dime, I remember my first paper heart! Because when you buy something you love, you know it will start a collection! I bought it in Tunisia in 1971, and it was heart pendant." And with that, she's off to find it and show it to us.

"Twice a month," Vittorio resumes his story, "there are flea markets in the area selling ephemera."

"And you're going to like this," Nicoló interjects before going on with his translation, "The first thing that he bought in such a fair was the creche that appears on the cover of Santi Auguri!. My father says he was very lucky, because it was very rare, antique." Nicoló picks up my copy of Santi Auguri! that I've brought with me, and says, "Here it is; when we go to our house, you'll be able to see the real thing."

Our fascination with paper nativities, Vittorio Pranzini says, is enhanced not by only by art, but faith—a lovely German theater (fold-out) creche. (Vittorio Pranzini Collection.)
Their book reminds you to share with Elisabetta and Vittorio what Santi Auguri! has meant to you, explain its role in rekindling, after so many years, your love for paper creches. "This day is very special to me," you say, "because I've been wanting to meet and thank you for some time."

Elisabetta's response to your words is touching. "She says," Nicoló translates, "that you are saying the things that she has thought of as well. There are some books that are very important to her, whose authors she does not know—but she would welcome the opportunity to thank them in person for what they have done for her." Then, turning to you, Nicoló adds, "it's just exactly what you are doing."

"Nicoló," you ask, "did you tell your father and Elisabetta that at the end of their book review on I say that I owe them a plate of mousaka?"

"Yes, yes," Vittorio says, laughing, as soon as Nicoló translates. "That's what I read!"

Elisabetta speaks again, and before Nicoló translates her words he adds, "You'll like what she's saying now. Elisabetta says she would love to thank the past owners of an object she particularly loves. But, of course, she does not know who they are, so she says a prayer for them instead."

What a noble thought. And in this point of your conversation you think of the question you've been wanting to ask Vittorio and Elisabetta: "Is there anything more disposable than paper in today's world? Where do they ascribe the power of these paper hearts and nativities to move us?"

"Paper was the start of my passion for me," Elisabetta replies. I'm passionate about paper. I even collect candy wrappers! I would have loved if you to have seen one of my past exhibitions, 'Album Maternale [A Maternal Album] to help you understand. Paper is magic! Since the days of papyrus in Egypt, paper has always had authority, power. So much more so because so much of our communication has been through paper—letters, drawings, marriage licenses, books…

And the biggest collectors of paper have been women: baby albums, photo albums, valentine cards, love letters, children's letters. I did an exhibition on maternal papers, because it is usually the mother who is the conservator, the keeper, of a family's memories." A smile forms on her face as she looks at Vittorio mischievously and says, "The father usually collects war relics, coins…" There's a loud outburst as Vittorio, who shares in her laughter. "Seriously," Elisabetta says," "the mother is the keeper of a family's sentiments."

A Letterine di Carta—a first letter from a child to father—is decorated with a die-cut nativity. (Vittorio Pranzini Collection.)
The conversation now goes back and forth between Vittorio and Elisabetta, who are warming to their subject. Nicoló, as always, valiantly tries to shed light on the discourse: "Elisabetta says that even a word on a piece of paper can communicate the most powerful feelings. And my father says even a blank piece of paper can communicate something—by being folded into a piece of origami. Of course, a piece of paper can communicate so much with only a picture on it. And in the particular, with a paper heart or paper nativity, so much is more communicated—by faith, and art."

Beautifully put. Can Vittorio and Elisabetta touch on how artists of different lands have adopted the story of the Nativity?

"You can look at a heart presepe or paper creche from all over the world," Elisabetta says, "whether from Holland or Ethiopia, and you can see that the artist has made the subject his own. The German artist will have icicles dripping from the stable! The Ethiopian artist may more closely adhere to Byzantine tradition. It's one of the more fascinating aspects of iconography. In Mexico, to give another example, you may see sobreros on the Magi!

How do Elisabetta and Vittorio explain our fascination with these paper objects?

"The fascination you speak of is very true," Elisabetta says. "When you're a collector, there is a particular object that communicates to you something much more than the others. For example, I have a collection of santini, but I'm especially devoted to St. Anthony of Padua. I have a large santini collection of St. Anthony, but when I found one in which St. Anthony's head seems to be looking outside of the picture, I felt he was looking at me. This happened at an important day in my life, and I took it as a sign."

"It's difficult to explain this fascination with paper," Vittorio says, "because it's not totally rational. For me, they all the things we are talking about are reminders of the best in my childhood—the bright, colorful, illustrations; the fables; the stories; the myths. They all recreate a magical ambience. Some of these objects represent universal concepts that we each have inside of us. They may come from different cultures, but they represent the same particular things to each one of us.

"I have a special interest in the printing technique of these objects, their color lithography. Because, even though today we may have many more printing processes, the quality of the vintage pieces is unsurpassed. Then there's the beautiful original artwork…"

Vittorio looks at his watch. Aware that your day in Ravenna is almost half over, he wonders if maybe we shouldn't be moving to the country? His words are echoed in English by Nicoló: "My father says that now we should go to our house where my mom is cooking for us."

Arriving in Ravenna on the train from Rome.
Vittorio is right. Only a few hours remain until your 7:30 train back to Florence, and there's his collection to see—and try to photograph! With a heavy heart you begin to pack, and find the folder with the copies of your prized vintage Egyptian Nativity you have brought for Vittorio and Elisabetta. In the same folder, there's a photo of a woman in black holding a cane, and Elisabetta wonders who she is.

It's a photo of Mrs. Irene, the mother of your boyhood best friend, a present for her son. In their house you learned to love books, because your family was poor, and books were a luxury you could not afford. But your friend's father was a writer, the director of the library, and books filled their house, from floor to ceiling—just like Elisabetta's home.

Elisabetta, still holding the photo of Mrs. Irene, is moved. "I had a similar experience growing up," she says. "When I was young we were poor and had no books in our home. So when I went to school I was afraid that I might not be able to read… I also still remember," she continues "when I was a child—this story is a legend in my family—my wet nurse nursed me while holding an alphabet picture book in her hand! I remember looking at these beautiful color pictures—while drinking my milk!"

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