A Southern European nation, Italy (Italian: Italia), officially the Italian Republic (Italian: Republica italiana), has a long and ancient history. The Roman Empire (27 BCE-476 CE) was one of the largest empires in world history, extending throughout Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. With the establishment of Christianity as the dominant religion in the 4th century, Rome in time became the religious centre of Western civilization. The Italian Renaissance (14th-16th century) was a period of great cultural change and achievements, especially in literature, painting, sculpture, architecture, science and technology, with a renewed interest in the culture of classical antiquity. During the 16th century, the commedia dell’arte was born, a form of theatre characterized by masked types, from which emerged traditional Italian puppet theatre. The commedia would be performed in many Italian regions over the following centuries. Important works in the fields of literature, music, theatre and the visual arts continued to be produced in the 17th to19th centuries. Italy was the birthplace of opera and ballet, while popular tastes in theatre long favoured comedy. Futurism influenced Italian literature and theatre in the early 1900s. Italy today is rich in its folk traditions and local “dialects” which throughout Italy are often closer to being separate languages than mere variants of Italian.

The Puppet in Italy

In Italy the presence of puppets – string puppets and glove puppets – is positively attested in the 15th and 16th centuries. However one may legitimately suppose that they already existed in the Roman era (Horace, Satires, II, 7; Petronius, Satiricon, XXXIV, 8) and continued to be seen during the high Middle Ages in the public squares, alongside the joculatores (crowd entertainers), also in the churchyards and even inside the churches where they presented mystery plays and stories of the martyrs. Many documents lend authority to this hypothesis: for example Gerolamo Cardano who depicts (in De rerum varietate, 1558) a puppet performance on a table, manipulated with strings with such expertise that one must suppose long practise of the technique over a long period. Also, the ban placed in 1600 by the Synod of the town of Oriolo on any representation of stories of the saints or episodes from the lives of Mary and Jesus played by puppets, hints at a long, if perhaps degenerated, tradition.

The Renaissance and the Baroque Era

Ludovico Ariosto, Luigi Pulci, and Tommaso Garzoni are witnesses to the presence of puppet shows in the 15th and 16th centuries, to which they give different names: bagatelle, magatelli, balastello, frate baseo, fracurradi. When Pietro Della Valle (1586-1652) mentions the existence of a shadow theatre in Italy, he calls the puppeteers bagattellieri. It is certain that these shows were designed for the populace, and that they utilized the resources of improvisation, first to attract buyers or clients and then, following in the footsteps of the comici dell’arte, to amuse and entertain the public in the town squares. It is no coincidence that Maurice Sand attributes to the character of Burattino, the second zanni (resident comic) of the commedia dell’arte, the name that in Italy will come to designate all glove puppets, while the term marionetta will be used to indicate the string puppets string puppets.

After the end of the 16th century, the glove puppet theatre closely followed the fortunes of the commedía dell’arte, for which the characters of the farces staged in the casotti (puppet booths) of the squares were the same as those played by real actors.

Tuscany, and in particular Florence, welcomed the burattini shows in the public spaces, whereas the marionettes appeared indoors in theatres like that of the Medici family, where they were well received not only by Duke Cosimo I, but also by Lorenzo, the son of Ferdinand I, who, as recounted by the late 19th-century critic and scholar Pietro Cocculuto Ferrigni, alias Yorick, “offered to his colleagues of the Accademia degli Infuocati, a marionette show in the theatre of the Palazzo Ardinghelli”.  Mantua, Venice, and Naples too were the lively locations of shows in the squares and in improvised theatres, as testified by the police regulations enacted after the Council of Trent (1545-1563) in an attempt to contain the diffusion of these shows. Bound by these rules, many of the puppeteers, already dedicated to nomadism, left the country in the hope of finding a more favourable welcome abroad. Their presence in England in the City of London is attested from 1573, probably performing the works of William Shakespeare, Robert Greene and Ben Jonson; in France at the end of the 16th century Pulcinella appeared at Court as a burattino animated by Luigi Argieri from Rome; in France in the 17th century, Giovanni Briocci from Bologna represented Pulcinella (Polichinelle) with marionettes at the Porte de Nesle (where Briocci was known as Brioché); Pietro Gimondi’s shows are witnessed in Germany and Austria in the 1650s and 1660s; and Pietro Resonieri worked in Vienna from 1667.

Naturally there were still puppeteers in Italy, for example in Milan where Massimo Bertelli, known as the “Romanino”, worked during the first half of the 18th century, according to Francesco Saverio Quadrio, writing in 1739. (Massimo later “adopted” the puppeteer, Giovanni Bertelli (1725-1783), who also took on the name “Romanino”, performing farces with characters from the commedia dell’arte: Brighella, Rosanna, the Doctor and Pulcinella.) And in Rome Bartolomeo Neri, mathematician and lover of mechanics, created a little theatre of marionettes that were also moved from below by means of counterweights.

If the burattini lived principally on the piazza, the marionettes, artificial creations capable of creating wonder in a refined audience, were more and more frequently to be seen in the mansions of the nobility, thanks to their suitability as interpreters of the repertoire fashionable in the musical theatre of the time. After the famous La Comica del cielo (The Actress of Heaven) of Giulio Rospigliosi (1600-1669), who became Pope Clemente IX in 1697, was performed in Rome during the carnival of 1668 at the Palazzo Ludovisi (now Palazzo Fiano) with the music of Antonio Maria Abbatini and scenery by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and following the playful interlude Il Girello (The Weather-vane) by the writer Filippo Acciaiuoli, marionettes commonly appeared on the theatrical stages of the 17th century. In Venice in 1679, Leandro by Camillo Badoaro (or Badovero) was performed, with music by Francesco Antonio Pistocchi; and the following year, in 1680, came Damira placata (Damira Placated) by Filippo Acciaiuoli, set to music by Marc’Antonio Ziani. In 1681, Acciaiuoli’s L’Ulisse in Feacia (Ulysses in Phaeacia) was presented first in Venice and then in Naples, where at Court and in private residences the melodrama was received with much favour in spite of its late arrival from Venice. In Bologna in 1694, La Bernarda of Tommaso Stanzani was performed, set to music by Giuseppe Maria Righi.

Since marionettes continued to be in vogue, performances of operas with marionettes took place throughout the 18th century in the city’s many theatres and in the Legnani and Bargellini houses. It is perhaps no coincidence that Pier Jacopo Martello from Bologna exalted this type of theatre and wrote several bambocciate (short “foolish” pieces) for it. The most famous, Lo Sternuto di Ercole (The Sneeze of Hercules), set to music by Johann Adolf Hasse and Andrea Adolfati, was performed in Venice in 1746 in the little theatre that the abbé and literary scholar Angelo Maria Labia had built purposely for marionettes in the family mansion, modelled on the Teatro di San Giovanni Crisostomo. Here other works were performed, among which, in 1747 and in 1748, was the Didone abbandonata (Dido Abandoned) of Pietro Metastasio.

Venice in the 18th century was the city in which shows with marionettes and burattini were most frequent and popular, not only in the homes of the nobility such as the famous Casa Grimani, but also in the piazzas, to which the Neapolitan Pulcinella had his home. Pulcinella was so acclaimed by the public as to rouse the indignation of the nobleman Marco Foscarini, who ordered his expulsion, immediately revoked by popular demand. Carlo Goldoni also staged Lo Sternuto di Ercole in Vipacco, and wrote several libretti, such as Arcifanfano re dei matti (Arcifanfano King of Fools) and ll mondo della luna (The World of the Moon, set to music by Franz Joseph Haydn), both performed in 1777 in the marionette theatre of the Eszterháza Palace. Other works that enjoyed the favour of the theatre of marionettes and burattini were the fables of Carlo Gozzi.

In the 18th century, the town square performances became very popular in Rome as they already were in Naples, where Pulcinella, playing in the Neapolitan puppet farces or guarattelle, expressed the concerns of the people, with all their joys and sorrows. In Rome, the burattini and the marionette shows were performed not only in the open air, in particular the Piazza Navona, but also in innumerable covered venues including real theatres (Pallacorda al Fico, La Pace, and others), or large wheat granaries (granari), where the public found release in the entertainment, but also in the freedom of speech, prohibited elsewhere. Even though no traces of it remain, there was a famous marionette theatre commissioned in the first years of the 18th century by Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni (1667-1740) from the architect Filippo Juvarra, who furnished the theatre, situated in a room of the Palazzo della Cancelleria (Palace of Chancery), with spectacular stage devices.

The 19th Century

Rome remained a lively centre for puppet shows into the 19th century, as recorded by painters and engravers, such as Bartolomeo Pinelli, and by travellers and writers, in particular the French writer Stendhal, who repeatedly described the theatrical life of Italian cities, and showed great interest and amused curiosity for the marionette shows. The amusement was due not only to the show itself, but also to the fact that the puppets exercised an open and colourful satire of the powerful, and were subsequently applauded not only by the populace, but also by the nobility. Pulcinella, always a part of the scene, found himself in the company of new characters: Rugantino, a burattino who, as he toured around Rome, denounced from his booth the tyranny of the strong towards the weak, often causing problems for his creator, Gaetano Santangelo, known as  Ghetanaccio (1782-1832); whereas Cassandrino, the creation of Filippo Teoli (1771-1844), appeared in the Teatro Fiano, and represented the Roman bourgeoisie with irony and grace.

The shows in theatres and also the pulcinellate (puppet shows with Pulcinella) used a combination of mythological, imaginary, and chivalrous themes that were brought to life by the set designs and lighting effects. This type of theatre was much admired not only by the general Roman public but also by literary scholars, musicians, and foreign travellers, who remembered it in their writings, as in the case of Giacomo Leopardi, Anna Potocka, Charles Dickens, and Paul Edmond de Musset, among others. In 19th-century Rome, moreover, in the small popular theatres known as infornate, chivalrous texts taken from the Carolingian cycle and from the poems of Matteo Maria Boiardo, Luigi Pulci, and Ludovico Ariosto were performed with rod marionettes comparable to the pupi siciliani (Sicilian puppets). The Jesuit Antonio Bresciani, the American sculptor William Wetmore Story, and the German historian Ferdinand Gregorovius recalled in their works the enthusiasm of the Roman people for this genre of performance. A more refined public attended the marionette shows that took place in real theatres such as the Ornani, the Delle Muse al Fico, and occasionally the Argentina or Costanzi, productions which writers and journalists referred to with admiration.

In the 19th century, every Italian city had its puppet theatre both for marionettes and for burattini; at the end of the century Yorick affirmed that there were hundreds of them. The popularity and capillary diffusion of the teatro di figura (puppet theatre), in the cities as in the countryside, is indirectly witnessed by the novel Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, whose real name was Carlo Lorenzini. It appeals to the imagination of all ages in its narration of the adventures of a rebel burattino (although he is in reality a string marionette) destined to become a human boy.

In Naples the theatre called La Stella Cerere presented puppet shows from at least the 18th century, initially for an aristocratic public and then for a plebeian one. From 1826 on, it would then be subjected to the competition of a new initiative that originated at the Marina del Carmine with the staging of I reali di Francia (The Royalty of France) in the theatre of Donna Peppa, alias Giuseppina d’Errico, mother of the famous Pulcinella player Antonio Petito.

It was from this and other chivalrous sources that developed the popular epic theatre for marionettes that is customarily indicated as teatro dei pupi, referring to the opera dei pupi siciliani (Sicilian puppet theatre), widespread throughout southern Italy ever since the first half of the 19th century. In Palermo, such theatres were opened both by Gaetano Greco, originally from Naples, in 1826, and several years later by Liberto Canino, while in the following decade Gaetano Crimi and Giovanni Grasso contended for the public of Catania. In 1889, the writer and anthropologist Giuseppe Pitrè counted as many as twenty-five permanent theatres throughout Sicily, plus numerous travelling companies that toured the island, but were found also in Cagliari (Sardegna) and Tunis.

In Genoa there were many theatres (for example, the Teatro Delle Vigne) in which marionettists such as Luciano Zane, Nicola Tanlongo, and Luca Bixio were active, as well as burattinai (glove puppeteers) such as Giovan Battista Sales (popularly known as Giambattista Sales), and Gioacchino Bellone, both from Piedmont who introduced to Genoa the character of Gerolamo, present in Piedmont since 1630. After returning to Turin, Sales and Bellone were forced to rebaptize their character with the name of Gianduja in order to avoid dangerous references to Jérôme (Gerolamo) Bonaparte. Their growing success soon led to the opening of the Teatro Gianduja, in which the shows performed were increasingly complex, such as to require the transformation of the burattini, including Gianduja, into marionettes (1843). The repertoire was wide and consisted of satirical comedies and dramas, drawing on the works of Metastasio, Carlo Goldoni, and Carlo Gozzi. The Teatro Gianduja remained active up until the death of Sales, which took place around 1865. The character of Gianduja, which because of its political satire had by then become one of the highlights of the Risorgimento (Resurgence), passed after 1870 to the Lupi family, which had returned to Turin (from Ferrara) in 1805. The Lupi company, which still exists, can boast an imposing repertoire of almost 800 titles and a sumptuous scenic apparatus that would be difficult to rival.

In Milan, the Oratory of Bellarmino was in 1806 converted into the Teatro Fiando in order to host the extraordinary marionettes of Giuseppe Fiando (from Piedmont), the greatest marionettist of his time. His dances – celebrated by Stendhal, Auguste Jal, Antoine Claude Pasquin-Valéry, Flaubert, and the Goncourt brothers – compete with the renowned productions of La Scala with regard to the magnificence of the staging and their choreographic perfection. In 1865, the Teatro Fiando was demolished, but after just three years a new theatre was inaugurated in Piazza Beccaria, the Teatro Gerolamo, in honour of the stock character that had made Fiando so famous. At the time of his death, the theatre was being rented out to various marionettists, until in 1910 it passed definitively to the company of Carlo Colla e Figli (Colla and Sons, descendants of Guiseppe Colla, founder of this celebrated family of marionettists), who as a sign of respect for continuity abandoned their own stock character of Famiola for that of Gerolamo, not too difficult a passage since the Piedmontese dialect characterizes both figures.

The birth of the new regional resident characters took place during the first years of the 19th century, in a context marked by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era. The fall of the ancient homelands generated new needs, and the prohibition of the use of the maschere (“masks”, i.e. stock characters) as a result of the Edict of Saint-Cloud offered the occasion for a renewed creative effort. To the already mentioned Gerolamo, Gianduja, and Famiola, we must add reference to Facanapa of Antonio Reccardini, as well as to Gioppino, Sandrone, and Fagiolino. It was these last three that gave rise to the famous Italian burattino a guanto” (glove puppet) traditions. Gioppino was native to Bergamo and was associated with a puppeteer called Battaglia, and later with his apprentice Pasquale “Pasqualì” Strambelli, and with Bernardo Moro. Sandrone and Fagiolino became the stock figures for Modena and Bologna. The Modena tradition, which was founded by Luigi Campogalliani during the first years of the century and then developed by the Preti family, had as its protagonist puppet Sandrone, with Sgorghìguelo as the stooge; while that of Bologna, which was re-founded by the Cuccoli family (Filippo and his son Angelo, in whose booth Augusto Galli would then invent Sganapino), for decades presented an aged Sandrone reduced to playing the role of Fagiolino’s stooge. Both were destined to merge following the Unification of Italy (1871).

In this context of profound and constant change, the last two decades of the 19th century bring an initial crisis of the marionettes, which foreshadows a complete assimilation to bourgeois culture and a radical transformation of the repertoire, the canons, and the conception of the performances. Under the influence of the touring company of the Englishman Thomas Holden, the marionettes begin to be stylized in appearance and action, rather than imitative. Other large companies, such as those of Giovanni Santoro and especially of Enrico Salici, destined for international success, renewed their language and repertoire, putting aside the traditional dramas while turning to variety shows composed of musical scenes, intermezzi, and circus acts.

The 20th Century

During the 20th century the presence of burattini and marionettes in Italy went through alternating, and in part contrasting, high and low periods. The social changes and the advent of new expressive instruments at the beginning of the century brought about a certain disaffection for this type of theatrical entertainment, but at the same time the essential form and the symbolic importance that the inanimate actors could embody constituted the premise for a strong renewal of puppetry and the birth of remarkable artistry.

Thus, in 1914, Vittorio Podrecca founded his Teatro dei Piccoli, which was destined to enjoy a long period of activity and to achieve worldwide success. Many artists of other disciplines interested themselves in puppets and found in them either an aesthetic model or a potential for a new and alternative means of expression. This was the case with painters and sculptors such as the Futurists Fortunato Depero and Enrico Prampolini, as with numerous writers and playwrights, from Giovanni Cavicchioli to Massimo Bontempelli, and from Pier Maria Rosso di San Secondo to Luigi Pirandello. In the course of draining the characters of their psychological consistency, all these artists encountered in the puppet, whether represented directly or only evoked, a breakaway from the bourgeois theatre and its naturalistic conventions. The studies of Edward Gordon Craig on actors and their role on the stage are not foreign to this new theatrical reality.

At the same time, the activity of the traditional burattinai continued, especially in the provinces of central and northern Italy, while in Naples, Puglia, and Sicily the opera dei pupi persisted. Among the former groups were the Preti, Ferrari (I Burattini dei Ferrari), Maletti, and Zaffardi families, as well as other individual burattinai who worked with the traditional and regional characters, while at times creating new ones.

Halfway through the 20th century began the significant activities of Maria Signorelli, who had worked in the theatre for decades, eventually finding her vocation as a creator of productions with burattini and marionettes. Her company, Opera dei Burattini, premiered in Rome in 1947 and gave birth to a vast and diversified repertoire, in which fantasy and experimentation were intertwined.

Otello Sarzi is another strong artistic presence who attracted attention with a theatre of research that experimented with complex and non-conventional literary texts, as had been previously attempted by the marionettes of Gianni and Cosetta Colla.

In the second half of the 20th century, puppetry in Italy was overshadowed by the predominance of new expressive forms, including the cinema and, especially, television although in this sphere interesting results were achieved by puppets that exerted a lasting international influence. The extraordinary invention of the mouse “Topo Gigio”, the work of Maria Perego, was followed by other artists and groups, with at the forefront Tinin and Velia Mantegazza, the future founders of the Teatro del Buratto. During this critical phase the only productions that resisted the electronic changes were local ones designed especially for children, with a repertoire of folklore, which preserved their value as testimony to an important past.

In the years following 1968 there was a considerable renewal of interest in puppet theatre, which was seen as an alternative and in some way anti-conformist experience as opposed to the bourgeois standards of the human theatre. There were also authors and actors not directly involved with puppetry who rediscovered and, even if only occasionally, made use of its expressive, iconic, and symbolic strength, as in the case of Dario Fo, with his expressly political stance.

The outcome of this rebirth was the formation of many young puppeteers and companies that are giving rise to shows, research, and new forms of experimentation. These groups did not originate from traditional or family experiences, but are rather characterized by a desire for aesthetic and artistic, as well as social, liberation, founded on the study and research of new artistic expressions. In this period festivals aimed at safeguarding the tradition were organized, beginning with that of Bologna (1970), where the only innovative group present was Giovanni Moretti’s Compagnia dei Burattini from Turin. There followed shortly afterwards other more adventurous international festivals like those of Parma and Cervia (“Arrivano dal Mare!” They Arrive from the Sea!), also Palermo’s “Festival di Morgana” and “La Macchina dei Sogni” (The Dream Machine), and Perugia’s “Figure Animate” (Animated Figures).

The outcome of this renewed interest was the foundation in 1980 of UNIMA Italia, whose launch circulated among its members the awareness of being part of a wider context and of an extensive world association, encouraging a wish to exchange experience and knowledge.

The Italian puppet theatre of recent decades has discovered and developed its own pedagogical and, when needed, therapeutical characteristic, beginning with the activity and teaching of Mariano Dolci. On a different plane, other companies have turned more towards a theatre of objects than of burattini or marionettes. They have discovered – sometimes collaborating in various ways with actors’ theatres – different techniques and forms, some drawn from tradition, and all filtered by the assimilation of 20th-century stage culture: the companies include the already mentioned Buratto; the shadows of Teatro Gioco Vita and Controluce; the experimentalism of the Teatro delle Briciole at the time of its début; of Claudio Cinelli, Alessandro Libertini, Gigio Brunello; more recently the Teatrino Giullare and of Cà Luogo d’Arte; the objects of Assondelli and Stecchettoni (now “La Voce delle Cose”, The Voices of Things) and of Giulio Molnar; and the narration with figures of Sergio Diotti, among others.

Many shows inspired by tradition successfully reinterpret the past, investing the old theatrical forms with a new attention and highlighting the work of the preceding generation of masters, such as the Bergamese Benedetto Ravasio, the Neapolitan Nunzio Zambello, and the Bolognese Ciro Bertoni. Thus tradition enjoys new consideration, with the Milanese marionettes of the Compagnia Marionettistica Carlo Colla e Figli; the Emilian burattini of Romano Danielli, of the Pavaglione, and of the Teatro del Drago of the Monticelli family; the Bergamascan burattini of Daniele Cortesi; the singular burattini with legs of the Florentini Pupi di Stac; the Palermitan puppets of Giacomo Cuticchio and his son Mimmo Cuticchio and the Catanese puppets of the Marionettistica Fratelli Napoli (see Natale Napoli); and, lastly, the Neapolitan guarattelle of Bruno Leone, Salvatore Gatto, and Gaspare Nasuto.  

The traditional forms provide models, canons, and language also to theatrical companies that do not belong to a specific school or tradition: examples of this would be the Sardinian Is Mascareddas and other puppeteers in various regions, whose characters are rooted in the cultural context of their territory (as already took place between the 19th and 20th century with the birth of the Bolognese Sganapino and of the Parmense Bargnocla).

The practice continues, in Italy, of the shows di strada (street performances) conducted by the descendants of historical families, such as Franco Niemen, Erio Maletti, and the Ferrajolos.

In this context, the inclusion of the “Opera dei pupi, Sicilian puppet theatre, Italy” in the 2001 inaugural UNESCO proclamation of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity represents, as a repercussion, a success for the entire movement. The attention shown towards puppetry on the part of artists from other disciplines, typical of the first half of the 20th century, is finding final confirmation in the following decades, through the work of painters, sculptors, scenographers, and illustrators, such as Luigi Veronesi, Enrico Baj – whose marionettes are brought to life by Massimo Schuster – Emanuele Luzzati, Graziano Gregori with the Teatro del Carretto, or through writers such as Guido Ceronetti, with his unique experience as scholar-marionettist.

In recent years the renewed interest in puppet theatre has also been due to the creation of many festivals and of training schools for young artists; to the research work of study centres, museums, and universities, along with the consequent journalistic activity, and to the recognition and financing of this type of theatre, alongside the theatre of human performers, on the part of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs.

(See also Arlecchino, Centro Teatro di Figura, Emanuele Macri, Guiseppe Argento, Museo Internazionale delle Marionette Antonio Pasqualino, Roberto Leydi.)


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