The opera dei pupi is the traditional Sicilian marionette theatre. The puppets differ from other marionettes in the plays presented, in their mechanism, their figurative style, their scenic organization and in their manner of performing. The subjects are mainly long cycles, events presented in instalments based on the literature of chivalry and particularly on the Carolingian cycle. The repertory, however, also includes the lives of bandits and of saints, historical events and Shakespearean dramas.

Historical Background

It is difficult to establish exactly where the opera dei pupi originated. Some experts think that its origin could be traced back to the Greek marionettists of the time of Socrates and Xenophon, since rod marionettes were known by then in Syracusa.

It is less difficult to establish the start of the Sicilian Puppet Theatre if we confine ourselves to the chivalrous subject matter and the typical mechanical characteristics of the puppets. These features seem to have come into being only at the beginning of the 19th century in southern-central Italy and Sicily. It is to this that we refer when we say that the opera dei pupi originated in the 19th century. Shows of this type were to be seen not only in Sicily and Naples, but also in other parts of Italy, and up until a few years ago they were widespread in Apulia. Today in Belgium, in Liège and Brussels, there is a theatre which has similar subject matter and puppets. Since both Flanders and southern Italy were under Spanish domination in the 16th century both traditions may have a common Spanish origin. However, the first documented evidence in Belgium of rod marionettes performing material from the Carolingian cycle dates from 1854 when a theatre was set up in Liège by Alessandro Conti, an Italian-born plaster modeller from Tuscany, and his French partner Talbot. The puppets have also spread to the Americas following the immigrants to Buenos Aires, San Francisco and New York. Even today the Manteo family in New York keep the wonderful puppets of Papa Manteo, born in Argentina and who, without ever having been in Sicily, spoke a Catanese dialect from the beginning of the 20th century. In Tunis, the pupi gave life to a battle-filled Tunisian theatre where the Saracens were the goodies and the Christians the baddies.

The earliest sources for performances of the opera dei pupi are French medieval epics, such as the Chansons de Geste and Arthurian Romances. These poems, originally handed down orally, tell the story of the crusades and of the wars of the Christians led by the Emperor Charlemagne against the Saracens, or of the rebellion of the barons against their sovereign.

They provided an abundant stock of literary material up to the Renaissance when three key works appeared: Morgante (1483) by Luigi Pulci, the unfinished Orlando innamorato (Orlando in Love, 1494) by Matteo Maria Boiardo, and Orlando furioso (The Frenzy of Orlando, 1516) by Ludovico Ariosto. These poems, composed in the courtly atmosphere of Florence and Ferrara, were followed by La Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem Delivered) of Torquato Tasso, which marked a crisis and a change in tastes that heralded the end of chivalric literature.

From the mid-19th century, when the opera dei pupi was already well-established, up until the first decade of the 20th century a wave of publications appeared in Sicily with the Storia dei paladini di Francia (History of the Paladins of France) by the schoolmaster Giusto Lodico, written between 1858 and 1860, and quickly followed by a string of works in the same genre by other writers. Lodico’s Storia was made up of the compilation and mixing of the plots of a great number of poems. It put together a large amount of material that was already in use with the pupari (puppeteers), who in turn had drawn on written and oral sources and written down scenarios which they completed with improvised dialogue during the shows. Lodico brought together this material, cutting out contradictions and episodes and works that did not fit into the general structure of his work. It is likely that the greater part of the narrative material to be found in the History of the Paladins of France is from oral sources. Not all the stories of this long series were equally popular. The stories involving Charlemagne, Orlando and Rinaldo had the greatest appeal. Presented in nightly episodes they could last for a whole year.

The repertory also included other stories of chivalry, historical events and a number of Shakespearean dramas. There were in addition lives of bandits, of saints as well as the Nativity and the Passion. Most of these subjects provided material only for one or a limited number of performances. Often the serious performance was followed by short farces in Sicilian dialect. Characters from the farces sometimes appear with those of the chivalrous cycles playing the role of squires of the paladins, expressing in dialect the point of view of the people, or make joking comments on the action.

In the early 1950s, the arrival of television and cheap cinema offered serious competition to the puppet theatres. Many of the regular audiences of the little theatres abandoned this form of entertainment and even their Sicilian dialect. The pupi theatre would have been reduced to a little show for tourists if the Associazione per la conservazione delle tradizioni popolari (Association for Preservation of Popular Traditions) had not taken on the job of preserving not only the material objects but also the techniques of this form of theatre (construction of puppets, manipulation, etc.). One thing that it was not possible to preserve was the long series of episodes and the audience. The latter, now mostly made up of tourists and school children, wanted a more rapid action and did not want to come back day after day, so the puppeteers invented single evening stories taken from the most popular episodes, and nearly always involving the death of the hero or of a hated enemy. This led to a long series of titles as The Death of Don Chiaro, The Death of Milone, The Battle of Three Against Three on the Island of Lampedusa or The Battle of Roncisvalle. These modern performances are not improvised, as were the long cycles, but arranged and organized in a way that permits the puppeteer to do everything very quickly, and to show in one evening as many scenic tricks as possible: the magician summoning devils, Paradise opening up at the death of a hero, battles with dragons and other wild animals, etc.

The Puppets

In theatrical jargon the tools of the trade are called mestiere and are handed down from father to son, except that the son would never lend his voice to the puppets until he got a theatre of his own. He would “steal” the art from his father so as to be ready at the right moment. Usually a Palermitan theatre could feed only one family so the son had to create his own mestiere when he wanted to marry. On average a well-equipped theatre has about one hundred pupi (puppets). About half of these are warriors clad in metal armour; the others are kings, ladies, prelates, civilians, etc., dressed in cloth. There are numerous spare heads; and by changing a breastplate or a cloak the corpses of the previous evenings can be revived to create new characters. The backdrops are painted with great care and depict castles, courts, fortified towns, squares, camps, gardens, woods and landscapes. Each theatre has at least a hundred.

The armour of brass, copper or nickel, is decorated with other metals. The imaginative floral and geometric ornamentation includes emblems which along with the features and clothing help identify the principal characters. The signs of identification are constant to each area, those used in Palermo being quite different to those in Catania, which in turn differ from those of Naples. This constancy of signs enables habitual spectators to recognize the heroes immediately. There are many non-human marionettes such as horses, lions, dogs, stags, large birds, donkeys, bulls but also supernatural creatures like centaurs, mermaids, snakes, dragons, devils and angels.

The puppets of Palermo and Catania have similar mechanical characteristics but differ in several aspects. Both are moved by two thick iron rods, one for the head and the other for the right arm and by auxiliary strings, one of which moves the left arm. They are made of wood and are formed of a head and a trunk to which the legs and arms are attached. The legs are articulated and have free forward movement but limited backward – the arms which are jointed at the hand and forearm are joined to the shoulder by pieces of stuffed material and so can move in all directions. The main rod runs through the head and has two hooks, a small one at the bottom, which is attached between the shoulders, and another at the top so that the puppet can be hung up. The manipulation strings are fixed near the upper hook. By inclining the main rod backwards and forwards the head looks up or down. The lower hook enters a hollow in the neck and allows the main rod to rotate on its axis so that the head of the puppet can be made to turn right or left. The main rod controls the puppet’s gait. By moving the puppet backwards so that the longer left leg touches the floor, the right leg takes a step backward. A slight tipping to one side allows one foot to stay on the floor while the other is free to swing and move forward. Tipping in the opposite direction allows the puppet to bring the other leg forward and so walk while the puppeteer makes it advance. The rod connected to the right hand allows it and the arm as a whole to make energetic movements in the fighting scenes and this results in more precise gestures than those obtained with a string. The right hand clenches a sword at right angles, as one might hold a dagger.

The puppets in Palermo range from 80 centimetres to 1 metre in height and weigh about 8 kilograms. They have jointed knees; a string attached to the rod of the right arm goes through the fist to the hilt of the sword and enables the pupo (singular of pupi) to draw its sword and put it back in the sheath. In a few theatres in Palermo the puppets have a string connected to the left thigh to help start a pendulous movement which facilitates the first step and also serves to express anger by agitating the leg itself. This string also allows the puppet to go down on one knee. However, some puppeteers consider this a superfluous addition.

The puppets in Catania can reach 1 metre 40 centimetres and are much heavier than those in Palermo weighing 16 kilograms and more. They have no knee joints, and if they are warriors they nearly always keep their swords drawn. The rigid knees allow the weight of the puppet to rest on the floor between one step and the next.

In Palermo the puppets are operated from the wings, with outstretched arms. In Catania they are worked from above from a platform behind the backdrop.

In Naples the puppets are 1 metre 10 centimetres high; they have one iron rod for the head and strings for both arms. The sword points in the same direction as the arm and is fixed to the hand by fitting the hilt into a hole in the palm. The legs are flexible and the manipulation is carried out from a platform behind the backdrop.

The Audience and Its Heroes

To understand the reason for the success of the opera dei pupi, that is the long tales of chivalry that delighted very poor audiences, one must understand that the myth of the Paladins of France represented more than an escapist world for them. The puppets personified the hopes, struggles, victories and defeats in their own lives. The history of the Paladins expressed a whole range of emotions running from resignation to revolt.
It was thus a good means of meditating on the world and of understanding life over a long period of time under varied historical and social conditions. The tales of chivalry and stories of bandits and martyrs conjured up a picture of the world and its struggles and so became an atemporal picture of daily life, of friends and enemies, of loyalty and treachery, of ingratitude and injustice of those in power.

By showing hatred for the wicked and admiration for the hero, allegiance to human laws was expressed. The audience was usually divided into two groups: the supporters of Orlando and those of Rinaldo. Each group approved of a certain type of behaviour. Take for example the relationship between Charlemagne, the evil counsellor Gano di Maganza and the barons who react against injustice by rebelling. Some, like Malaguerra, cannot accept the situation, others, like Rinaldo, do so with difficulty, whilst those like Orlando accept it readily. Audiences found their own relationship with authority in this and it allowed them the possibility of expressing a revolutionary ideal or a more moderate one of social reconciliation.

In its essential features, however, the opera dei pupi is a rite of passion, death and vengeance. Performance after performance the heroes piled up claims on the love of the audience while the villains only gained hatred and scorn. The death of the former was awaited with trepidation while that of the latter was looked forward to and this gave rise to alternating emotions of grief and joy. Gano di Maganza, the traitor, a despicable and detested character, is not only the scapegoat for all evil and crimes – at the end he is condemned to be quartered by four horses – but also embodies death, being small and always dressed in black.

A curious similarity links this character to those of the farce, who, as we have pointed out were often introduced into serious plays as servants of the heroes. Both Gano and Peppennino are small in stature, move and speak in a ridiculous way and both lift one leg like a macroscopic phallus. On a superficial level the comic figures or “masks” (“maschera” or “maschere” referring back to the masked Zanni of the commedia dell’arte), who speak dialect represent the people, everyday life and the antiheroic. On a deeper level, one might say that the diabolic figures of ancient ritual theatre are doubled. On the one hand we have Pulcinella, Peppennino or Virticchio, righteous comic characters, who assist the heroes in their undertakings and skip in triumph on the fallen foe; on the other is Gano, who obstructs the heroes, leads them to their death and jumps for joy when they are killed.

If this is true, then the fact that it is Virticchio, Peppennino or Pulcinella who carry out the death sentence on Gano means that people set themselves up not only as the instrument for re-establishing justice but also for ensuring the triumph of supernatural forces for good over evil ones. This is confirmed by the fetishist treatment of both heroes and villains. To touch Virticchio brings good luck, to lynch Gano di Maganza, tear him apart and take a piece of his body home appeases one’s anger in face of the injustices of the world.

For the poorer classes of Sicily chivalrous literature has provided a source of fantastic images available for re-elaboration, played out in various and contrasting ways. The function and effectiveness of its symbols, characters and objects, were not restricted to a circle of experts – those who saw and listened to the cantastorie (ballad singers) and the audiences of the opera dei pupi – but reached out to numerous other people, who, though, not really knowing the plot had a fairly clear idea about its fantastic elements and its metaphorical use.

The Puppeteers

The pupari (puppeteers) active today are nearly all descendants of old families. Only two families have never ceased their activity. In the 1970s and the 80s, very few companies were active, and mostly intermittently. But several families kept their puppets. Around 1990, one can notice a new interest in puppetry, often on the part of grandchildren of old puppeteers who have begun to organize companies and perform, often involving their fathers and other family members. The fathers who had often chosen a completely different career but had helped their own fathers were able to give advice to their sons. These new companies were very weak at the start, but some of them are now giving very respectable performances.

In 2001, UNESCO proclaimed the opera dei pupi a masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. The candidature was presented by the Associazione per la Conservazione delle Tradizioni Popolari. Hitherto, this recognition has however had very little influence on the situation of the pupi and the pupari.

In Catania the Company of the Fratelli Napoli (see Natale Napoli), awarded the Erasmus Prize in 1978, and the Cooperative Macrì of Acireale (see Emanuele Macrì) are the most active, but others such as Gesualdo Pepe in Caltanisetta and Vincenzo Gargano in Messina still have their puppets and give performances from time to time. In Palermo the various members of the Cuticchio family are still active. There is the Teatroarte Cuticchio run by Girolamo Cuticchio and his sons, the Figli d’arte Cuticchio run by Mimmo Cuticchio with his wife and his son; and the brothers and sisters of Mimmo, Anna, Nino and Rosa and their families that also have their own puppets. Members of the Munna family (Monreale), the Mancuso family (Trabia/Palermo), the Puglisi family (Sortino) and the Canino family (Alcamo and Partinicio) are still working time to time, whilst Siracusa has the Vaccaro-Mauceri company. For all these people and many more the memory of the brilliant times of the Sicilian puppets is still alive even if they earn their living in other ways. They are always ready to give a show or to help with a performance. The number of the theatres changes all the time with economic and cultural changes. Sometimes there are more requests from schools and tourist organizations, and these are growing in number; sometimes there is a problem of unemployment and this leads to pupari playing their last card.

(See Italy.)


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