Character from Italian puppet theatre. A “mask” (maschera, stock character) of Piedmontese origin that became Milanese. Gerolamo spans more than three centuries of puppet history. Originating in a little town in the Province of Asti, in the Piedmont region of north-western Italy in 1630, this character was later able to establish “himself” in the most prestigious theatre of Milan, which carried his name: the Teatro Gerolamo.
First created by Gioanin d’Osej in 1630 at Caglianetto d’Asti under the name Gironi (a diminutive of Gerolamo), this character reappeared in the wandering puppeteer company of the Turinese Giovan Battista Sales and Gioacchino Bellone, becoming the protagonist of their shows. The Sales-Bellone company had to leave Genoa, where they had established themselves, for their Gerolamo, satirically playing on a shared name, angered the authorities by mocking Gerolamo Durazzo, the Doge of Genoa. Having returned to Turin, Sales and Bellone rendered themselves guilty of lese-majesty with the comedy Artabano I ossia il Tiranno del mondo con Gerolamo suo confidente e re per combinazione (Artaban I, or the Tyrant of the World, with Gerolamo His Confidant and King by Coincidence). This time, the allusion was direct and concerned much more important people: Napoleon I and his brother Jérôme Bonaparte, who had just been made king of Westphalia (1807). Newly condemned to exile, Sales and Bellone decided to abandon their creation and created a new character, also destined for lasting success: Gianduja.
Gerolamo later became the favourite character of Venetian puppeteer Luciano Zane (1815-1903), who had worked for a long time in Milan and in Genoa. It was in Genoa, at the Teatro delle Vigne, in 1844-1845, that Charles Dickens saw him and became so enthusiastic that he (incognito) faithfully attended these shows, among which he particularly appreciated Sant’Elena (St Helen). Zane, who did not know the identity of this famous writer, performed in his presence Girolamo interprete di un milordo inglese (Gerolamo Interprets for an English Milord), an anti-English satire that not only did not shock Dickens, but allowed him to publicly reveal his feelings of hostility toward his country’s politics.
Théophile Gautier, in his Voyage en Italie (Travels in Italy), encountered Luciano Zane’s company in Domodossola (Piedmont region). Especially for him they staged Girolamo califfo per ventiquattr’ore o i vivi finti morti (Girolamo the Twenty-Four Hour Caliph, or The Living Playing Dead), inspired by One Thousand and One Nights. Gautier saw Gerolamo as “sensual …a courtier, clever when necessary, but also a bit stupid and crass”. These were precisely the characteristics of the Gerolamo of Giuseppe Fiando, whose theatre was established under the name of Teatro delle Marionette in Milan in 1806: a big drinker, big eater, fundamentally honest, capable of priceless episodes of absent-mindedness like the one that caused him to say he had lost his ass while he was riding it.
In Fiando’s hands, Gerolamo became a string puppet. He wore a long jacket with red frogs, brown breeches and red stockings; he had reading glasses on his face, and he wore a dark wig with a curly ponytail. The theatre that Fiando obtained in 1865 in Piazza Beccaria took the definitive name of Teatro Gerolamo.
Between 1818 and 1821, the Irish novelist Sydney Morgan attended Fiando’s performances while he was still working in the theatre of the Piazza del Duomo. In her book, Italy (by Lady Morgan), she was said to be attracted by the possibility of seeing a theatre while escaping Austrian censorship. If she thought Gerolamo’s jokes, which were designed to flatter the vanity of the populace, were “stupid”, she appreciated the scenery and the complicated mechanisms of the production Zemira Azor.
Another traveller, Antoine Claude Pasquin, called M. Valéry, librarian of Louis-Philippe, attentively analyzed the character of Gerolamo and defined him as “half Sancho, and half Sosie …, revolting, lazy, gluttonous”. Gerolamo, with his shady exploits, provoked laughter; spectators recognized themselves in him. The performance that M. Valéry attended was Alceste o la discesa di Ercole all’inferno (Alcestis, or The Descent of Hercules to the Underworld).
In his De Paris à Naples (From Paris to Naples), the historian and art critic Auguste Jal said that during his travels to Italy in 1834, he saw in Milan the drama Il principe Eugenio di Savoia all’assedio di Tamisvar (Prince Eugene of Savoy at the Siege of Tamisvar), in which Gerolamo, “the great comedian, the famous Gerolamo, is at the centre of the action …and availed himself of the dialect in such a way that the Milanese nearly died of laughter”.
Fiando, like Luciano Zane at Genoa in his day, introduced ballets into plays in which Gerolamo was the protagonist. These dances, admired by the most critical spectators, became a constant element in the puppet theatre of the late 19th century.
After the death of Giuseppe Fiando in 1868, the activities of the Teatro Gerolamo continued under the direction of his grandson Angelo until 1882. After this point, different companies succeeded each other in this theatre and always kept Gerolamo as the protagonist, often the herro of patriotic exploits (Garibaldi al Casino dei Quattro Venti e alla Porta San Pancrazio di Roma ovvero l’assedio dei Francesi alla nostra capitale nel 1849 con Gerolamo sergente della guardia, etc. Garibaldi at the Casino of the Four Winds and at the San Pancrazio Gate in Rome, or The Siege of the French on Our Capital in 1849 with Gerolamo, Sergeant of the Guard, etc.). The companies that performed at the Teatro Gerolamo included those of Luciano and Rinaldo Zane, as well as that of Antonio Colla, son of Giuseppe Colla.
The cultural heritage of Antonio Colla was collected by his grandson Carlo who, under the name of the Compagnia Carlo Colla e Figli, pursued his activity at the Teatro Gerolamo until 1957. The prestigious name of Gerolamo has not disappeared; the Piccolo Teatro in Milan gave rise in 1958, in its renewed seat, to a new Teatro Gerolamo, dedicated to avant-garde productions.