The Argentine Republic (Spanish: República Argentina) is located in south-eastern South America with neighbouring countries Chile, Bolivia, Paraguay, Brazil, and Uruguay. While the country’s European roots began with the colonization of the region by Spain beginning in 1512, today around 10% of the population is indigenous peoples (see Latin America).
The development of puppet theatre in Argentina is closely linked to the waves of immigration, which have marked the country since its founding as an independent nation, and to the accompanying cultural and social exchanges. This process began in the 18th century, with massive waves of European immigration since the latter half of the 19th century.
The 18th Century
The first permanent theatre, the Teatro de Operas y Comedias (Opera and Comedy Theatre) was set up in Buenos Aires in 1757. Pedro Aguiar, a shoemaker of Spanish origin, provided the necessary funds, and Domingo Saccomano, an Italian flautist and puppeteer, installed a máquina real (literally “royal machine”) for producing operas with the sort of large overhead rod marionettes (French: tringle) and string puppets that had been fashionable in Spain since the 17th century. As theatrical producers, Aguiar and Saccomano were the first to hire performers. From Rio de Janeiro, they brought the acrobat Blas Ladro Arganda y Martínez, who was originally from Valencia, Spain, and was the first acrobat to appear in Buenos Aires; he performed in the Plaza Mayor between 1757 and 1759. In 1758, another Spanish acrobat, Antonio Verdum, arrived by way of Peru. After travelling through Santa Fé, he played in Buenos Aires for three months, went on a tour of Brazil, and returned three years later.
Between 1760 and 1780, there were frequent performances in Buenos Aires. In 1776, acrobat, juggler and magician Joaquín Duarte performed there. On November 30, 1783, the Casa de Comedias of Buenos Aires opened, more popularly known as the Teatro de la Ranchería. This theatre hosted many kinds of performances from acrobats, magicians and dancers to singers and puppeteers for almost a decade, until a fire destroyed the theatre on the night of August 15, 1792. One of these artists was the marionette showman Joaquín Olaez y Gacitúa who submitted a request to perform on March 21, 1791. This document contains the first use of the word, títere (puppet or marionette), in the country. In 1792 and 1793, Olaez and his marionette shows could be found performing in the bullring of Monserrat, a neighbourhood in Buenos Aires; he later went on a long tour firstly to inland towns, then abroad, until he reached Rio do Janeiro. He returned in 1799, hired Diego Martínez, an acrobat from Madrid, and José Castro, and departed with them for Chile. After stopping in several towns, they arrived in Santiago in 1802. Francesco Orsi, another acrobat of Italian origin, performed some dozen times in the bullring of Monserrat in 1795.
The 19th Century
The best-remembered puppeteer of this period is undoubtedly José Cortés, known as el Romano (the Roman). He was the son of Antonio Cortés the Hungarian, an acrobat famous throughout the Iberian Peninsula. José Cortés left Madrid in 1780, passed through Galicia, and was later found in Portugal, in the Canary Islands, and in Chile in 1802, before arriving in Buenos Aires in 1804, where in 1808 he tried to obtain authorization to open a Casa Bolatin (a theatre hall). In 1804, he was given a part as a singer with the company that performed for the inauguration of the first Teatro Coliseo. In 1806, he gave a shadow theatre puppet show during Lent, before renting a hall for his marionette shows. In 1808, he opened the Teatro del Sol (Sun Theatre), where he performed shows featuring marionettes, song, dance, mime and shadow puppets, but a few months later, the city council ordered it to be shut down for public indecency. Cortés subsequently left for a tour of Brazil, where his season culminated at the Court of Rio de Janeiro. There we lose track of him.
Among the other acrobats who visited Buenos Aires around this time were Manuel Olabarrieta, of Basque origin, Géronimo Cristóbal Colón (who claimed to be a descendant of his illustrious namesake, Christopher Columbus), and Asencio Duardo, who accompanied José Cortés on his final tour of Brazil.
In the year 1810, the Argentine territory gained independence from Spain, and consequently many artists of Spanish origin left the country, to be replaced by travelling artists of other nationalities.
During Lent in the year 1820, there was a presentation of a show called Teatro Romano, which featured automata. Likewise, a “Teatro de Títeres o Autómatas” (Theatre of Puppets or Automata) performed at the Fonda de Comercio on May 31, 1824. Finally, for the May Festival in 1825, commemorating the revolution of May 25, 1810, Joaquín Pérez obtained permission to present a peepshow (una caja de “titirimundi”).
It was also around this time that circus performances began to appear in Buenos Aires. The English clown Francis Bradley toured from 1820 to 1826, and the troupe led by José Chiarini arrived in 1829 to perform in the Coliseo. Around 1830, marionette shows were performed in El Anfiteatro, a small hall surrounded by gardens. The husband and wife team Luis and Teresa Smolzi, Italian opera singers, performed there in 1831. They sang behind a curtain while puppeteers acted out scenes with marionettes from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and other popular works of the time (see Opera).
With the arrival of Romanticism, a renewed aesthetic interest in popular forms of expression could be seen, as was the case in Europe. And so, around 1880, the country’s second permanent puppet theatre, the Teatro del Recreo, opened in a storefront at the corner of Libertad and Cangallo streets, under the direction of the Italian Pedro Baldizone. Its main character, Mosquito, became hugely popular, but the theatre closed its doors after the puppeteer’s death.
The Turn of the 20th Century
At the turn of the century, Argentina attracted a new wave of immigration, primarily from Spain and Italy. Among these emigrants was the Genoese Santiago Verzura, accompanied by his family and his puppets. Verzura, who used the nickname Eureja, started a new Teatro del Recreo; his company, which was made up of other Italian immigrants, performed in different neighbourhoods of the city. In 1893, they set up a tent in the San Cristóbal neighbourhood (at Alsina and Matheu streets). Their repertory was composed of José Zorrilla’s Don Juan Tenorio (see Don Juan), Los Milliones del Diablo (The Devil’s Millions), Pascual Bruno el Bandido (Pascual Bruno the Bandit), El Recluta (The Recruit), and other classics, as well as some works of their own creation.
Dante Verzura took over from his father and he gave puppet performances at the Teatro del Jardín Zoologico de Buenos Aires (the Buenos Aires Zoo Theatre) for thirty-three years until 1926. During this time, he resurrected the Mosquito character.
Another puppeteer, Vito Cantone, from Catania in Italy, was the son of Giovanni Cantone, a puparo (performer of Sicilian marionettes or pupi), and Nazarena Crimi, who was herself the daughter of another famous puparo, Gaetano Crimi (1807-1887). In 1895, Vito Cantone started a company, Títeres Sicilia, which played in Buenos Aires until 1911. His mother sang and played the piano for the performances. Cantone built his pupi in the Catanian style, larger than those of Palermo, and his best-known characters were Rinaldo de Montalbán, Ruggiero del Aguila Blanca, Orlando, Clodomiro, the Paladins of France, and Charlemagne. Then, one fine day, Vito Cantone, tired of administrative hassles, shut down the theatre, dedicated himself to other unprofitable ventures, and eventually returned to Italy in 1911, where he stayed for twelve years. But since his memories, his friends and his family were still in Buenos Aires, he returned in 1923. He resumed his puppet performances for a time, but the business failed.
From 1895 to 1920, many other Italians, mostly Sicilians and pupari, performed in Buenos Aires, especially in the port neighbourhood of La Boca, where many of their compatriots lived. Among these were José Costanzo Grassi, José Macarigno, Carmelo Nicostra, Leonardo Maccheroni, Achille Greco (between 1890 and 1918), Luigi Canino (from 1918 to 1928), and especially Agrippino (Papa) Manteo (1883-1947). Born in Catania, Manteo moved to Argentina in 1896. His puppet theatre became a popular locale for the Italian community between 1923 and 1939, first in Buenos Aires, then in Mendoza (he later emigrated to the United States of America, where he opened a puppet theatre in New York City). Also worth mentioning are Carolina Ligotti and Sebastián Terranova, who were both from Palermo and used pupi made in this style. The couple, who met and married in São Paolo, travelled around Brazil with their puppets from 1898 to 1910. At La Boca, they set up the Teatro de Títeres San Carlino with Camilo Udine. Their repertory included Historia de Carlomagno y los Doce Pares de Francia (The Story of Charlemagne and the Twelve Peers of France), Las Aventuras de Orlando y Rinaldo (The Adventures of Orlando and Rinaldo), and other Italian classics.
In addition to the pupi, other types of puppet theatre flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The English clown Frank Brown (who died in Buenos Aires in 1943) used puppets in his acts with the Italian-American Di Carlo Brothers’ Circus in 1884. In 1887, both the London Fantoches (London Marionettes) and the Fantoches de Tomás Holden (Thomas Holden’s Marionettes) performed in Buenos Aires (see Fantoccini). In 1889, the Brandi brothers brought their famous marionettes with spectacular productions such as El Diluvio Universal (The Great Flood). And in 1903, Luigi Lupi’s Compagnia Marionette Lupi from Turin came to the Teatro Alambra to perform (see Lupi (family)).
The 20th Century
In 1922, the Italian marionette company, Teatro dei Piccoli of Vittorio Podrecca, visited Argentina for the first time, and performed La Bella durmiente del bosque (The Sleeping Beauty) at the Teatro Nacional Cervantes in Buenos Aires. Much later, Vittorio Podrecca returned to Argentina and based himself there from 1936 to 1951. He travelled throughout the country and other parts of Latin America at the head of a company which numbered 1,200 marionettes, 30 performers and technicians, 400 scenic units, and 2,000 costumes. They presented Maurice Ravel’s Mother Goose, Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, Claude Debussy’s The Toy Box, Commedia dell’arte, and many other productions.
In addition to the above, Federico García Lorca visited Buenos Aires from October 1933 to April 1934. On one memorable evening, March 26, 1934, the night before his return to Spain, he put on a show with his títeres de cachiporra (glove puppets), in the hall of the Teatro Avenida, after a performance of his play, Bodas de sangre (Blood Wedding). The programme of this puppet show included Euménides (The Eumenides) by Aeschylus, an interlude by Cervantes, and El Retablillo do Don Cristóbal (The Puppet Play of Don Cristóbal), by García Lorca himself. This visit of the Spanish poet, playwright, and theatre director had a profound impact on the intellectual and artistic life of the city. Javier Villafañe, then twenty-four years old, met and conversed with him on three occasions. Other visual artists, actors, musicians and writers, in particular the marionette performer Mané Bernardo, were inspired by García Lorca’s puppet shows to feel a new sense of vocation.
From the 1940s, puppet theatre in Argentina experienced a renaissance. Besides Javier Villafañe and Mané Bernardo, there were the twin brothers Héctor and Eduardo Di Mauro with their company, La Pareja, which was set up in 1947; Ariel Bufano; Cesar López Ocón, who, with his brother, Eduardo, and Otto Alfredo Freitas, founded the company Trotacaminos in 1942; Juan Enrique Acuña; and Héctor Alvárez d’Abórmida. Under the influence of García Lorca and his títeres de cachiporra, some chose to use glove puppets, which predominated during the 1940s. The visit of Vittorio Podrecca’s Teatro dei Piccoli, however, made string puppets popular as well.
The 1950s saw the formation of several companies. The company set up by Horacio Casais and Herman Koncke, and known by the name of Títeres de Horacio (1950), toured Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil before establishing itself in Madrid. In 1950, the painter and sculptor Amadeo Dell’Aqua founded Las Marionetas Dell’Aqua. The Teatro Mágico de Marionetas started at this time, and was for a long time run by Leonidas Miviè, who made finely crafted puppets. Ramón Lerma Araujo and his Marionnettes de Buenos Aires (1955), José Minelli’s Los Automatines in Jesús Maria (province of Córdoba), and Las Marionetas de Toto Maidana in Resistencia (Chaco), should also be mentioned. Finally, in 1959, in the city of Mendoza, the MAM-Teatro de Marionetas was started under the direction of Miguel Antonio March.
The Contemporary Scene
In the wake of Ariel Bufano, creator of the Grupo de Titiriteros del Teatro Municipal General San Martín (1978), whose work is continued today by Adelaida Mangani, the Argentine scene has been enriched by numerous troupes since the middle of the 1970s. They include, among others: Títeres del Triángulo (see Taller de Títeres Triángulo, founded in Caracas in 1973), Silvina Reinaudi and Rolly Serrano’s Asomados y Escondidos (1979), and the company of puppeteers Grupo NUMA (1979).
The movement intensified in the 1980s with Viento Sur (1982), El Teatro de la Plaza (1983), La Mancha (1984), Grupo Libertables (1985), Diablomundo (1985), Títeres Harapo (1986), Títeres del Tranvía (1988), and with puppeteers such as Carlos Martínez, Tito Lorefice, Rafael Curci, and, more akin to object theatre, troupes like El Periférico de Objetos (1989).
Two organizations also played an important role, along with UNIMA, in spreading the art of the puppet and in training puppeteers: the Centro Nacional de Documentación e Información sobre Títeres (CENADIT, National Centre for Documentation and Information about Puppets), founded in Santa Fe in 1986 by Oscar Caamaño, and the Instituto Argentino de Títeres (Argentine Puppet Institute) also founded by Oscar Caamaño, in 1996.
(See also Alcides Moreno.)