Located in the Iberian Peninsula in south-west Europe and bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and Spain, the Portuguese Republic (Portuguese: República Portuguesa; Mirandese: República Pertuesa) is the westernmost country of mainland Europe. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Portugal expanded Western influence, becoming one of the world’s major economic, political and military powers; the Portuguese Empire, which spread throughout a vast number of present-day countries in Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas, spanned almost 600 years. Lisbon (Lisboa) and Porto are Portugal’s largest cities.

The first performances with puppets in Portugal are difficult to date. However, we can assume that, as in the rest of Europe, beyond the use by the Church to spread the faith (which only appeared after the prohibition of the Council of Trent 1545-1563), groups of jugglers used puppets in their shows.

The 16th to 19th Century

In Portugal, the word bonifrate is perhaps the oldest and most pure of the terms signifying a puppet, with similar meanings to others perhaps more frequently used, such as marioneta, títere, bonecro, fantoche or roberto. In the 16th century, we find the word bonifrate in the comedy Ulyssipo by Jorge Ferreira de Vasconcelos, and in the Auto de D. Luís e dos Turcos written by an anonymous author. There also exist certain important documents that can contribute to further reflection. Furthermore, the monk Gaspar Cruz wrote in the Tratado das cousas da China (1569) that the Chinese gave performances with bonifrates to earn money, in the same way that foreigners have reported them in Portugal. We can deduce that  puppets were present in Portugal, probably outside the churches, before 1569. Finally, Francisco Pyrard of Laval, in his books about his trips to the Portuguese East Indies (1601-1611), claims to have seen on Christmas night performances with bonifrates of the mysteries of the Nativity, in churches, private houses and in the streets. This reinforces the hypothesis that the Portuguese brought back puppets from their travels in Asia. There is also an interesting description by the Portuguese apothecary Tomé Pires who visited the north coast of Java (Indonesia[/lier]) and described in Suma Oriental (written between 1512 and 1515) that “At night they make shadows of various shapes, like beneditos in Portugal”.

In the 18th century, the puppet was very popular. Its main representative is António José da Silva, called “the Jew” (1705-1739), who was burned at the stake by the Inquisition. His joco-sérias (humorous-serious) operas for puppets can be considered as the embryo of the opera buffa, both in their repertoire, and by their musical and literary characteristics. They are among the most precious and original sets of texts for puppets in the history of European theatre. Absolutely nothing remains of the puppets, however, neither drawings nor descriptions, only a few references in da Silva’s operas. They most likely were rod marionettes whose bodies were probably carved in wood or cork.

One could see presépios (“crèches”, “cribs”, see Nativity Scenes) and other performances played by figures or bonifrates in several places in Lisbon, such as the Pátio da Mouraria and, especially, the location of the theatre of the Bairro Alto, which included several scenes from the Casa dos Bonecos representing the operas by “the Jew”. There are also traces of bonifrates performances taking place in 1732 in the territory of the Count of Soure (Portuguese: Conde de Soure). The success of these performances aroused the jealousy of the grand opera which had obtained from the king D. João V (John V) in 1738 and 1743 an equal tax for shows featuring puppet operas in Lisbon.

João V allowed puppet shows of a religious character in his palace in Lisbon, in the chapel, especially for the occasion of births. During the reign of Queen Maria I of Portugal, at the Royal Palace of Queluz, the puppets of Pierre Delaval were presented two or three times.

The puppet theatre reappeared in the Bairro Alto in the 19th century at the Theatro Pinturesco e Mechanico (1813). The name of its director, Roberto Xabier de Mattos, is perhaps the origin of the word robertos used from that time to refer to glove puppets.

Later, at the Teatro Bijou and the Recreios, an actor, José Rodrigues Chaves (1852-1919), presented performances of ventriloquism, automata, dancing skeletons and puppets, the Andróides (androids).

Touring Companies

A key name in the history of puppets in Portugal is that of Henrique Delgado (1938-1971). He produced shows with Henrique Trindade, at the Teatro Robertoscope and, later, at the Teatro Lilipute, where he built the puppets and sets, and staged plays for children. The knowledge we have of the history of puppets, puppeteers and their traditions is all a part of his valuable work. Until then, because of the popular character of this art, this knowledge was transmitted orally from father to son, and the story thus remained ignored by most historians of the theatre.

Until the late 1960s, large touring companies crossed the country from north to south,  both glove puppet shows and string puppet shows, with scenery, great scenic effects and sometimes private orchestras. The repertoire consisted of popular comedies or involved medieval tradition, such as the Marquis of Pombal and the Jesuits, The Rose and the Three Lovers, The Miracle of Santa Isabel and The Miracles of Saint Anthony (see Itinerant Troupes, Travelling Puppeteers).

Henrique Delgado gathers a wealth of information from two troupes presenting puppet shows, Joaquim Pinto (1899?-1968) and Manuel Rosado (b.1909). Joaquim Pinto, known as “O Faustino de Setúbal”, was considered one of the very best puppet directors, and he enjoyed success across the country and in Spain. He was heir to a family of puppeteers, and his father, Faustino Duarte, was a famous puppeteer, head of a theatre curiously named Pavilhão Guignol. He inherited a large important collective of puppeteers who became his masters and friends. He also knew the entire repertoire of puppet shows. Unfortunately, he disappeared before he had passed on his knowledge and ensured the preservation of his puppets.

Manuel Rosado, known as “O Moca de Almeirim”, “Moca do Pego” or “Pégacho”, possessed a travelling theatre, the Pavilhão Mexicano, still active in the late 1970s. Some of his puppets are now preserved at the puppet museum, Museu da Marioneta, in Lisbon. An excellent manipulator, of both string puppets and glove puppets, he was invited to join the Italian company, Teatro dei Piccoli, directed by Vittorio Podrecca.

The robertos are traditional glove puppets, whose presence was common at fairs, on pilgrimages, streets and beaches. António Dias (d.1986) was a leading artist who used these puppets. An itinerant puppeteer, he travelled throughout the country with his little booth. He began in the theatre of Mestre (Master) Faustino, where he learned this art and where he created his own robertos. The filmmaker Ernesto de Sousa was also inspired by his life for the film D. Roberto (1962). António Dias, who with his theatre, Teatro Dom Roberto, was an inspiration for younger generations, sent his repertoire and his records and accounts to João Paulo Seara Cardoso (1956-2010).

Among others, mention must also be made of Domingos Moura (1921-19?), puppeteer of northern Portugal, and Augusto Sérgio, who had a curious triangular puppet stage. His Dom Roberto, in a singular way, wore a black beard and was dressed like an Arab.

Sometimes controlled by the Church, sometimes controlled by the State, all these puppeteers were victims of a ferocious censorship, because they were considered insolent and dangerous for those in power, and were pursued by the police.

One of the companies best known today, because their story was the subject of research, is that of the Bonecos de Santo Aleixo, which dates back at least to the late 18th century. Every winter, the troupe travelled through the region of Alto Alentejo, in a cart driven by a mule, performing for the public popular shows that sometimes lasted until dawn. However, this was not the only family of puppeteers in the region of Alentejo. There were other troupes, like that of António Sandes, whose puppets are conserved by the District of Oradea.

Artistic Theatres

Along with itinerant puppeteers in the 20th century appeared the first artistic and literary puppet theatres. The first such project was the Teatro de Mestre Gil, created by the poet Augusto de Santa Rita (1888-1956), which had its premiere in Lisbon on 26 March 1943, revealing the work of the visual artist Júlio de Sousa (1906-1966), one of the creators of the puppets. Another important artist to have created puppets for the Teatro de Mestre Gil was Lena Perestrelo; she was later, in 1956, a founder of the group Teatro Bonifrates, and she created puppets for television shows for children which achieved great success, such as Dói-Dói, in the 1960s.

In Porto, in 1958, Maria Helena Alves Costa (1912-1977) and architect Mário Bonito (1921-1976) created the Teatro Mais Pequeno do Mundo, a pioneer theatre in which puppets were associated with therapy and which performed often in schools and hospitals. Teatro Branca-Flor, created in 1962 by writer Lília da Fonseca (1906-1991), presented for over twenty years a repertoire primarily devoted to children. UNIMA Portugal representative, he performed throughout the country and participated in international festivals.

The Carnation Revolution (25 April, 1974, Revolução dos Cravos, also referred to as 25 de Abril) was followed by a period of artistic renaissance from which the puppets were not excluded. Among several initiatives stands the work of the Marionetas de São Lourenço e o Diabo who travelled the country and created the Museum of Puppetry in 1987. The museum is now administered by the city, and has since been moved into a former convent in 2001.

Recent Developments

For the more recently developed work on puppetry many names deserve mention. Some of these are deceased, like Francisco Esteves and his initiatives (particularly in FAOJ – Fundo de Apoio aos Organismos Juvenis Support Fund for Youth Organizations) or the researcher and puppeteer Alexandre Passos (d.2007).

In Portugal, there are over ten national and international puppet festivals, including: Bienale Internacional de Marionetas do Évora (BIME), an initiative of CENDREV (Centro Dramatico de Évora) in the city and municipality of Évora; Festival Internacional de Marionetas do Porto (FIMP), founded in Porto by Isabel Alves Costa (1946-2009), a great promoter of puppet theatre; and Festival Internacional de Marionetas e Formas Animadas (FIMFA Lx), produced by A Tarumba – Teatro de Marionetas in Lisbon; as well as several regional festivals.

As a consequence of the progressive development of the art of puppetry in the country, in 1989 UNIMA Portugal was founded. This national centre recently gained a further impetus with the inauguration of its own headquarters and a documentation centre based in the city of Alcobaça.

The qualification and training of puppeteers has also benefitted from the creation, in 2010, of a Master’s degree in Theatre, with the specialization of Actor-Puppeteer, at the Universidade de Évora.

Currently, there is a significant number of puppet companies located in different regions and cities of the country; in Northern Portugal: MAO – Marionetas, Actores e Objectos (Viana do Castelo); Teatro de Marionetas do Porto (Porto); Teatro de Ferro (Gaia); Limite Zero (Porto); Francisco Mota (Porto); Marionetas da Feira (Santa Maria da Feira); TFA – Teatro de Formas Animadas (Vila do Conde); Teatro e Marionetas de Mandrágora (Espinho); Partículas Elementares (Ovar). In Central Portugal: S.A.Marionetas – Teatro & Bonecos (Alcobaça); Marionetas de Lisboa (Lisboa Lisbon); A Tarumba – Teatro de Marionetas (Lisboa); Delphim Miranda – Marionetas (Lisboa); Lua Cheia – Teatro para Todos (Lisboa); Algazarra – Teatro de Marionetas (Lisboa); Mestre Filipe e as suas Marionetas (Lisboa); Criadores de Imagens (Amadora); Ângela Ribeiro – Marionetista (Almada); Fio de Azeite – Marionetas do Chão de Oliva (Sintra); Valdevinos – Teatro de Marionetas (Sintra). And in Southern Portugal: Alma d’Arame (Montemor-o-Novo); Bonecos de Santo Aleixo (Évora); Era Uma Vez – Teatro de Marionetas (Évora); Trulé – Investigação em Formas Animadas (Évora); Maurioneta (Reguengos de Monsaraz); A Barraca do Gregório (Faro).


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