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A five-minute walk from St. Peter’s Square, hidden in an inner courtyard surrounded by residential buildings, is a peculiar Nativity scene. Built in 1972 by Giuseppe Ianni, a garbageman working for Rome’s urban sanitation service (AMA), it is supposed to replicate Palestine at the time of Jesus’ birth and spread the message of peace. When Giuseppe put into place the first stone he would have never guessed that his crèche would become famous worldwide.
Since 1972 this nativity scene has been visited by all kinds of people, including Mother Teresa, Italian politicians, and John Paul II, who went to see it every year on January 6, from 1979 until 2002. Although Giuseppe passed away in June 2022, his work and faith remain alive in his Nativity scene, which continues to be a testament that Christ can be born even in the most unexpected places.
My father would always make the comparison that as the sanitation worker cleans the street so the crib can also clean the soul, regardless of one’s belief system.
“My father would always make the comparison that as the sanitation worker cleans the street so the crib can also clean the soul, regardless of one’s belief system,” Salvatore Ianni, 61, one of Giuseppe’s six children, told Aleteia in an interview on December 20, 2023. “This nativity scene was my father’s seventh child,” he joked, pointing to the intricate crèche sprawling behind him.
The Nativity scene today is made up of 2,234 stones, 350 of which were brought by Catholics from all over the world who wanted to contribute. It includes 100 houses, numerous roads that wind along for more than 170 feet, three rivers, seven bridges and four aqueducts, all with running water. Colorful figures of villagers, shepherds, and more pepper the stone structure.
The creche began in 1972 when Giuseppe asked his bosses for permission to build a Nativity scene in the AMA branch where he was stationed, close to the Vatican. He gathered some economic support from his colleagues to buy the materials, tuff and flint, and began sculpting his Bethlehem in his freetime in the room where the sanitation workers kept their cleaning trucks and other machines.
“He decided to bring the crib to a humble place […] also thinking it could be a good meeting point for the neighborhood,” Salvatore said. At the time “in the gears of society, it seemed that garbagemen were among the last.”
“The nativity scene was born from an act of faith,” explained Salvatore. “And it was really his faith that led him to write a simple letter to the Pope, inviting him to come visit the creche and the sanitation workers.”
To Giuseppe’s surprise the Pope at the time, Paul VI, accepted, and was the first pontiff to visit in 1974. Giuseppe then repeated this gesture at Christmas in 1978, a couple of months after Pope John Paul II had been elected.
A tradition for John Paul II
John Paul II, like his predecessor, agreed and when he arrived Giuseppe decided to ask the Polish pope if he would like to come every year and visit the sanitation workers and their creche. John Paul II consented and in fact came by for the next 24 years, until 2003 when his health became too fragile.
“I remember the first visit very well, there was great curiosity around this new foreign Pope, […] he was a bearer of novelty. His attitude was really about contact; it was an extraordinary thing,” recalled Salvatore, who was 16 years old when John Paul II came for the first time.
That day, Giuseppe was not the only one who addressed a question to the new Pope. When John Paul II approached the eldest daughter, 21-year-old Vittoria, she took the Pontiff’s hands and told him she would be getting married in a few months. She then asked if he could celebrate. “As naturally as he had said yes to coming to visit the nativity scene, the Pope said yes to my sister who, in a somewhat bold and cheeky way, had made this request. It was a sudden thing,” Salvatore said. John Paul II then in fact married Vittoria and her husband on February 25, 1979.
John Paul II was one of various famous figures to visit the nativity scene, although he was the most frequent. Mother Teresa also visited in 1996, Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti in 1991, Pope Benedict XVI in 2006, and Italian President Giorgio Napolitano in 2007. As the popularity of the nativity scene grew, AMA decided to dedicate the whole room to it, placing their cleaning machines elsewhere, and allowing people to visit the creche for free. AMA estimates around 1,000 visitors come by every year.
A nativity scene for peace
“Your Holiness is welcome among us garbage collectors. We pray for world peace,” is written across one of the walls in the room hosting the nativity scene.
Born in 1935, Giuseppe had lived through the struggles and traumas of the Second World War, losing both his parents at the age of 9 and then being separated from his siblings until his teenage years. Having lived through these traumatic years, there was no question in his mind that his nativity scene would be dedicated to peace among peoples.
Salvatore pointed out a frame that held a white piece of paper with faded writing on it : “Do not offer money but pray for peace on earth,” signed “the sanitation workers.”
“My father refused in every way any monetary contribution that people could give, […] money was not supposed to come in here at all […] the crib has always been dedicated to world peace,” Salvatore said.
Instead of money, people started bringing rocks and stones from their countries’ of origin, which Giuseppe first integrated in the nativity scene. But when the space ran out they started putting them across the walls of the room. Croatia, Colombia, the USA, and even a fragment of moon rock, decorate the creche and its surroundings.
A man of faith and study
A list of names tracing the genealogy of Christ, from Abraham to Joseph and Mary, snakes around the side of the nativity scene leading to where the figures of the Holy Family are located in a bright little cave. Salvatore explained that his father avidly studied the Sacred Scripture because he wanted the creche to have a “historical truth.”
In fact when asked what witness he believed his father and his creche still bears today Salvatore answered with three elements : “faith, study, and hope.”
“My father’s faith was not something empty or magical,” his son explained. “It was based on the concrete facts of life.”
“The nativity scene belongs to AMA, as my father had always wanted,” Salvatore said. “We only need to carry on his witness as observers from the outside. […] The nativity scene is this, in fact, it is not so much a physical place but the spiritual message it carries.”