Officially the Kingdom of Spain (Spanish: Reino de España), Spain is located on the Iberian Peninsula in south-western Europe. It is bordered to the south and east by the Mediterranean Sea, to the north and north-east by France, Andorra and the Bay of Biscay, and to the west by Portugal and the Atlantic Ocean. Two archipelagos, the Balearic Islands and the Canary Islands, two exclaves, Ceuta and Melilla, and a number of islands are part of Spanish territory. From the 16th century, Spain became one of the first global colonial empires, resulting in Spanish being the world’s second most spoken first language (after Mandarin).
Puppetry in Spain
The generic Spanish term to designate the theatre of figures is títere. Over time, two other words from the French were introduced and commonly used as synonyms, even though they represent two specific genres. One is marioneta from “marionnette”, in general designating string puppet. The other is guiñol, derived from the Lyonnais Guignol, denoting glove puppet which, in Spanish, is sometimes also called títere de cachiporra. Other words are and have been used (fantoches, for example), and, in fact, títere has been used to describe many different things.
Our understanding of the origins and development of puppetry arts in Spain is primarily based upon the work of the Spanish and Hispanic Theatre historian, the British John Earl Varey, encompassing his works Historia de los títeres en España (History of Puppets in Spain, 1957) and Los títeres y otras diversiones populares de Madrid, 1758-1840 (Puppets and Other Popular Entertainments in Madrid, 1972). Since then, other interesting local case studies and thematic works on certain traditions of this art have been published. These have provided access to the various repertoires, directories and catalogues of companies that reflect fairly well the actual state of the genre, but a complete and exhaustive history of Spanish puppetry theatre is still wanting.
According to Varey, the very first puppets were introduced from France into Spain during the 12th century by jugglers. The first written accounts of puppets in Spain date from the 12th and 14th centuries with a text from Alfonso X the Wise distinguishing different types of street performers. Meanwhile Ramón Llull’s De la contemplación de Dios (The Book of Contemplation on God, c.1309) uses the term bavastel to describe a sort of dancing puppet, held and manipulated by strings. Varey thought that these puppets were used to present battle scenes, jousts and combats between knights from which then came cachiporra puppets. The fact that these performances were held in a small theatre, at first called castillo, reinforces the notion that many of these scenes portrayed the attack and defense of fortresses. At the same time, mention should be made of the existence of several types of animated sculptures, specifically articulated religious figures seen on altars and used in certain rituals or sacred dramas such as mysteries or autos sacramentales. Another account by Alfonso X, Cantigas de Santa María (Saint Mary’s Songs), refers to these figures, some of which have been preserved like the Virgen de Los Reyes (the Virgin of the Kings) in the royal chapel of the Seville Cathedral.
Similar but much more astounding works from a technical viewpoint are the automata. According to Varey these were of Chinese origin. While introduced into Spain in the 12th century by Arab engineers, they only started to become famous in the 16th century. Among these were the mechanical figures perfected by the Italian mathematician Giovanni Torriani to amuse Charles Quint (as Charles V, he was ruler of the Holy Roman Empire from 1519, and as Charles 1, ruler of the Spanish Empire from 1516 to 1556) in his monastery at Saint-Just in 1556. Charles Magnin describes these as “ingenious inventions” in his writings about Spanish puppetry. Aside from entertaining nobility, similar apparatuses served other functions. One such is the carassa, which was very widespread in Catalonia. This carassa consisted of a grotesque head with Moorish traits that was placed inside church organs and would gesticulate when the instrument was played. This object is almost certainly the origin of another mechanical contraption, the “talking head”, which could be found in fairground attractions well into the middle of the 20th century. Oversized figures in the form of animal and dragon heads representing allegorical beasts were also in use. These were called tarascas, the dance of the giants, and they were commonly used in Corpus Christi processions until the beginning of the 18th century when the Catholic Church decided to ban them from such celebrations.
As to actual puppet shows, these certainly appeared by the 16th century. In the second part of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, the episode of Master Peter describes a puppet show with knights. In two of his Novelas Ejemplares (The Dialogue of the Dogs and The Lawyer of Glass), Cervantes briefly mentions puppeteers and how poorly this profession was viewed. Another more detailed description of this occupation at that time can be found in Francisco López de Úbeda’s La pícara Justina. According to Varey, Spanish puppet theatre contributed to the “representation of dramas and comedies similar to those in the repertory of actors’ companies”. Puppet theatre also found itself replacing live actors’ theatre during wartime, epidemics or when theatrical productions were forbidden, such as during Lent. The term títere was then used and, as mentioned by Varey, first found in Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España (The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, 1524) by Bernal Díaz del Castillo. A passage describing the conquest by Hernán Cortés mentions that among his companions were “an acrobat and a títeres performer”.
Other researchers have nonetheless found an even older record in the 1513 proceedings from the Jerez de la Frontera municipality (in the Cádiz Province), ordering the expulsion of “all those that played with puppets”. Sebastián de Covarrubias includes the word títeres in his Tesoro de la lengua castellana (Treasury of the Castilian Language, 1611) and explains its origin by the sound ti ti emitted by a voice distorted by the use of the pito or lengüeta, the vocal accessory used by puppeteers (see Swazzle). This definition however seems to pertain only to glove puppets.
In addition to castillo, the word retablo emerges as a term referring to the designated space where puppet shows were performed. Varey describes the retablo as a “chest separated in compartments in which appear automat-figures representing the life of Jesus Christ”. He dates the appearance of the retablo from 1538. The puppets were moved “by the use of a spiral metal wire and a wheel activated by the handler who sang the story of historical events”. This setting progressively transformed itself from an ecclesiastical altarpiece – with paintings or embossed paintings representing somewhat dramatic scenes – to a small mechanical theatre also called mondi novi, mundinuevo, totilimondi or titirimundi, in other words, “new worlds” and “puppet worlds” (see Theatrum Mundi). While these initially showcased sacred works inside churches, eventually they moved outside.
Most of these historical puppeteers were foreigners, particularly with French and Italian origins. However, one of the most remarkable puppeteers was the Spaniard, Francisco Londoño. He entertained his fellow countrymen in Madrid and other Spanish towns for almost half a century between 1689 and 1735, with performances of his máquina real (literally, “royal machine”). These shows consisted of basic puppets but with a fantastic aspect. They were sumptuously dressed, held by a wire fixed to their heads, and their limbs were moved by strings. From the 17th to the 19th century these shows included scenes inspired from the lives of saints (comedias de santos), “magic” flying acts, “supernatural” events, and bullfighting scenes, all of which could be more easily executed by these “machines” than by humans. These artists showed their mastery through a great variety of theatrical styles, from sketches to dancing and from tonadillas (ditties or sometimes popular short plays) to comedies.
During the entire 18th century, the retablos and altarpieces continued to present performances of “moving figure Nativities”, of which the Crèche of the Santa Maria de los Reyes de la Guardia Laguardia (in the Álava Province) remains (see Nativity Scenes). Chinese shadow plays were also introduced during this century. Furthermore, the character of Polichinelle first appeared at this time, very quickly assuming the traits of Don Cristóbal. His popularity brought out hostile reactions from the more “enlightened” part of society. They regarded puppet theatre as rural entertainment unworthy of the urban world. They felt it ran contrary to the ideal of theatre, consequently slowing the progresses brought by the neoclassical stage. These sentiments are reflected in the following extract from a 1790 Memoria para el arreglo de la policía de los espectáculos públicos y sobre su origen en España (Report for the police regulation of plays and public entertainments). “Perhaps puppetry, matachines (from the Italian mataccino, buffoon, clown), string-dancing pallazos (payasos, clowns) and harlequins, magic lanterns, totilimundis and other inventions, even though innocuous by themselves, express depravity and corruption, and should disappear as well. What good would it do to witness examples and testimonies of virtue and honesty at the theatre when, at the same time, a Don Cristóbal de Polichinela preaches its lewd doctrine to a crowd who so gullibly listens to these indecent profanities?”
This report also mentions the great variety of popular entertainments that were associated with puppet theatre during this period and which survived until the end of the 19th century. Puppet troupes mingled with circus acts, fairground exhibitions, pantomime and even the corrida de toros (bullfight). An example was the famous troupe headed by Luis Chiarini, for whom the term for “puppeteer” was synonymous with those for acrobat, tightrope walker, showman and juggler. At the same time, however, the terms for “automaton” and “automatic figure” were associated to that of “puppet” in the strict sense. These performances were often combined with those created through the use of other ingenious mechanisms – “cosmoramas”, magic lanterns, mirror effects and Chinese shadows – and could be viewed as the precursor of modern cinema. Associated performances and displays might include folkloric songs and dances, scientific demonstrations and experiments, and diverse curiosities such as fossils, dissected animals and fair monsters.
The 19th Century
With the growth of urban populations during the 19th century, “theatre-houses” – inns and small performance spaces where puppet shows were performed – started to appear. All of the kinds of entertainments previously mentioned were offered at these venues. One of these “theatre-houses” headed by the Montenegro Family of Cádiz, between 1815 and 1870, presented a wide variety of entertainment as well as a Nativity scene with animated figures and a sketch with the company, La Tía Norica. A new Nativity scene of a mechanical character appeared at this time and became very popular. This was the Belén de Tirisiti, introduced in 1870 by the Esteve family of Alcoy, situated between Alicante and Valencia.
Catalonia was home to the Cuyàs family small shadow theatre. However, it was also in Catalonia that a glove puppet known under the name of Putxinel·li, or Titella, became very popular starting from the middle of the 19th century. Federicu de Figueres was among the puppeteers who performed with it. But it was Juli Pi who perfected its manipulation technique and who, from 1898 on, performed in the famous Barcelona cabaret Els Quatre Gats (The Four Cats), a rendezvous of intellectuals, writers and artists like Pablo Picasso and Adrià Gual. Other puppeteer dynasties like the Anglès and the Vergés perfected this titella, and Antonio Faidella Colea performed with it throughout Catalonia in his small travelling theatre, Els Tres Tranquils (The Tranquil Three), before moving to the Balearic Islands.
Aside from traditional companies in Barcelona, there were other more important troupes like that of Alfredo Narbón‘s, active during the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, which comprised of twenty-one artists and crisscrossed scores of Spanish towns under the name of “The Spanish Puppets”. This company had around three hundred puppets – some of which were oversized – and was characterized by great technical precision and very natural movements.
The 20th Century
The first portion of the 20th century witnessed many developments in Spanish puppetry. For example, another popular character, Barriga Verde, appeared in Galicia. During the 1920s, Vittorio Podrecca and his Teatro dei Piccoli performed very successfully in Madrid, Barcelona, Salamanca and elsewhere in the country. During the following decade, Salvador Bartolozzi became well known at the Spanish Theatre of Madrid, especially due to his recreation of Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio and the characters he created with his companion Madga Donato. Also during the 1930s Ezequiel Vigués i Mauri, also known as Didó, brought back the famous Catalan puppet, Titella. Meanwhile, another artist and ventriloquist, Francisco Sanz Baldoví, known as Paco Sanz, travelled extensively throughout Spain and Latin America with his “auto-mechanic” troupe, demonstrating technical progress in the world of automata while maintaining highly valued aesthetic and story-telling qualities.
Puppetry also followed theatre innovations that occurred during the 19th and 20th centuries. It also had its share of champions and avant-garde artists. These would include Edward Gordon Craig and Alfred Jarry, as well as Federico García Lorca, Ramón María del Valle-Inclán, Rafael Alberti, Manuel de Falla and Hermenegildo Lanz González, who searched – in tradition and in the streets – for new sources of inspiration and new ways of expression. Glove puppets entered into literary salons and university settings. In 1931, the Ministry of Education of the Second Republic, as part of their “Misiones Pedagógicas” (pedagogical missions), promoted puppet theatre and encouraged performances in the most remote regions of the country. Rafael Dieste’s Retablo de Fantoches, a guiñol or glove puppet theatre, was created in 1933 from this effort. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), several puppet theatres were hastily created which modelled themselves on the theatre of actors supporting the Republican cause (also known as the Loyalist faction, the Republican faction was loyal to the democratic, left-leaning Second Spanish Republic against the Nationalists, led by General Francisco Franco). For example, the painter Miguel Prieto assumed direction of, initially in Madrid and eventually in Barcelona, of a theatre called La Tarumba.
On April 29, 1944, the Franco regime created puppet theatres under the auspices of their youth organizations. Therein a character called flecha Juanín (which was a rank given to children belonging to the Falange Española or Spanish Phalanx) denounced the enemies of the Franco regime while disseminating doctrine. During the 1940s, Didó, like other Catalan puppeteers, was forced to translate his repertoire into Castilian. However, he was later allowed to perform in Catalan until his death in 1960.
Harry Vernon Tozer, a Paraguay-born puppeteer of English ancestry who settled in Catalonia in 1925, created in 1944 the Agrupación de Marionetistas Amateurs (Association of Amateur Puppeteers) – and, from 1956, his company Marionetas de Barcelona (Barcelona Puppet Company) – and performed with it until 1957. Juan Antonio Díaz Gómez de la Serna, “Maese Villarejo” (Master Villarejo), performed in Madrid from 1940 in collaboration with the author Eugenio D’Ors. A pioneer of televised puppet shows, he and his wife, Josefa Quintero, were in charge of the Teatro del Retiro de Madrid (the theatre in Madrid’s vast public garden) starting from 1952. At this theatre were Natalio Rodríguez López, called “Talío”, Tina Francis Delgado-Ureña, and Francisco Porras who dedicated himself not only to his art and its dissemination but also to research, publishing several works. Also in Madrid, Francisco Peralta (from Cádiz), trained as a sculptor and, influenced by performances of La Tía Norica, created in 1956 with his wife Matilde del Amo, a troupe that became well known for its original and highly stylized puppets.
During the 1950s, several “masters” (maese) set up their companies throughout the country. These include Pepe Segura with Abedul in Cádiz, Julio Martínez Velasco and his Pipirijaina del Titirimundi in Seville, the Germans Ingeborg and Frank El Punto in Ibiza with their Teatro de Marionetas de la Isla Blanca (White Island Puppet Theatre), and also Colorín y Sus Marionetas (Colorín and Their Puppets) in the Basque country. In 1958, the popular but short-lived Teatro Popular Infantil (Popular Children’s Theatre) was born from an initiative by Lauro Olmo and Pilar Enciso, with an emphasis on masks and large animals, catering to both children and adult audiences. After the death of Didó in 1960, his companion Teresa Riera became the owner of the rights to his art and taught his techniques and styles. Joan Baixas and Teresa Calafell learned these techniques and, in 1968, created the Putxinel·lis Claca group. They then sought to reveal to the public the secrets of their art and the mechanics of their theatre, teaching the manipulation and manufacture of puppets. They performed all over Europe, participated in international festivals and significantly renewed the art of puppetry, even collaborating with renowned artists like Joan Miró.
Within existing companies, puppetry was being taken up by new generations of family artists, such as Vergés and Anglès or, in the Balearic Islands by Joaquina and Rosa Faidella, who continued their father’s tradition into the 21st century. Meanwhile, other troupes like Titelles Garibaldis took new directions. It was during this time that television welcomed the world of puppets, beginning with Herta Frankel from Vienna.
However, in Spain, adult spectators still considered puppets as a minor entertainment form exclusively for children. To change this situation, the leaders of the Institut del Teatre de Barcelona (Barcelona Theatre Institute) created in 1972 a programme dedicated to puppetry. From 1974, this was lead by Jordi Coca. With the creation of schools, international festivals, exhibitions and conferences, Spanish and international professionals were able to congregate, and public interest grew.
The death of the dictator Francisco Franco in 1975 accelerated this process of renewal in Spanish puppetry. In Barcelona there was an explosion of string puppetry stemming from the workshop of Harry Vernon Tozer at the Institut del Teatre (Theatre Institute). The Barcelona puppet theatre scene soon featured the creative energies of Pepe Otal (1946-2007), a rebellious student steeped in the style of the Bread and Puppet Theater, as well as Jordi Bertrán. Another Catalan introduced to puppetry by the Bread and Puppet Theater was Joan Font Pujol, who founded Comediants (also known as Els Comediants) in Barcelona in 1971. A series of other companies building upon traditional Catalan puppetry and introducing modern techniques and styles appeared, supported by the Putxinel·lis Claca group of Joan Baixas and Teresa Calafell.
Meanwhile in Madrid, Francisco Porras and Gonzalo Cañas had been struggling to raise the prestige of the city’s puppeteers. Porras began publishing the magazine Títere in 1977, and Francisco Peralta’s delicate construction techniques proved to be a trigger which prompted the emergence of new companies, including La Tartana (1977), Teatro de la A (1978), and La Deliciosa Royala (1980).
The transition to democracy also saw the reinstitution of traditional performances, including La Tía Norica of Cádiz and the Belén de Tirisiti, the latter a Nativity scene traditionally performed at Christmas in the town of Alcoy. Interest also grew in older techniques, and many were restored, as seen in the Teatro de Autómatas (Automata Theatre) of Gonzalo Cañas. Meanwhile, the permanent Teatro de Marionetas del Retiro (Retiro Puppet Theatre) began operating under the auspices of the Asociación Española de Teatro para la Infancia y la Juventud (AETIJ, Spanish Theatre Association for Children and Youth). Other associations and initiatives took form, including ADAM (Asociación Española de Amigos de las Marionetas y los Títeres, the Spanish Association of the Friends of Puppets).
Furthermore, certain policy changes fostered the emergence of companies with professionals from France and Latin America. While Libélula of Julio Michel and Lola Atance was an example of the former, Argentina proved particularly influential through such companies and individuals as Los Horacio in Madrid, Alcides Moreno in Seville, and Alberto Cebreiro with Los Duendes, in Valencia.
The 2001 directory/yearbook published by Concha De la Casa identified some two hundred professional troupes spread out all over Spain, with several of these having been in operation for more than thirty years. Among those which have not been mentioned previously are Teatro Corsario in Castilla-Léon, Etcétera Teatro and El Espejo Negro in Andalusia, Titiriteros de Binéfar in Aragon, and Bambalina in Valencia, together with many new theatre groups such as Periferia from Murcia and Tanxarina in Galicia, as well as Tàbola Rassa, La Cónica Lacónica (now defunct), and El Teatre de L’Home Dibuixat.
Several recent initiatives are encouraging further dissemination of puppet theatre. These include national and international festivals like those in Bilbao, Tolosa, Segovia, Barcelona, Seville, Alicante and Lleida. Research and studies are being supported by Centro de Documentación de Títeres de Bilbao (CDTB, Documentation Centre for Puppets in Bilbao) and Centre de Titelles de Lleida (Lleida Puppet Centre).
Various parties are creating spaces and stages dedicated to puppetry, including the Teatre Malic of Toni Rumbau, Mariona Masgrau and Eugenio Navarro in Barcelona (see La Fanfarra), the Quiquilimón at Gijón, the Escalante and Estrella theatres in Valencia, Los Gigantillos in Burgos, and the Teatro Arbolé in Saragossa. Schools and other centres of learning are disseminating puppetry through workshops and exhibitions, important examples being the Institut del Teatre in Barcelona and the Museu Internacional de Titelles d’Albaida (MITA, Albaida International Puppet Museum). TOPIC (Centro Internacional del Títere de Tolosa Tolosa International Centre of Puppetry), founded in 2009 in Tolosa, instigated by Miguel Arreche and Idoya Otegui, is currently one of the key puppetry institutions in the country. There is collected the teachings of seasoned masters that will serve as motivation for young puppeteers to break the mould of/in this old art and theatre profession.
Special mention must also be made of the role of UNIMA Federación España (UNIMA Spanish Federation). Created in 1985, it has brought together puppet professionals and it supports the training of puppeteers with classes and workshops. UNIMA also promotes the art of puppetry through its publications, including the magazine Fantoche, and by organizing national conventions – in Segovia in 1990, Seville in 1995, Cuenca in 1997, Bilbao in 2003, and Almagro in 2004. It also arranges international meetings and has found ways to honour puppetry artists and celebrities like Ángeles Gasset (1997), Federico García Lorca (1998) and Francisco Peralta (2003).
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- Aladro, Carlos Luis. La Tía Norica de Cádiz. Madrid: Editora Naciónal, 1976.[S]
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- Larrea y Palacín, Arcadio de. “Siglo y medio de marionetas (II): las representaciones pastoriles del teatro de La Tía Norica” [A Century and a Half of Puppets (II): The Pastoral Performances of the Theatre La Tía Norica]. Revista de dialectología y tradiciones populares. Vol. IX, Notebook 4, 1953.
- Lloret Esquerdo, Jaume. “Breve historia del títere en Alicante” [Brief History of Puppetry in Alicante]. El títere en Alicante. Ayuntamiento de Alicante/Caja de ahorros del Mediterráneo, 1997.
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- Mata, Juan. Apogeo y silencio de Hermenegildo Lanz [Heyday and Silence of Hermenegildo Lanz]. Granada: Diputación Provincial, 2003.[S]
- Ortega Cerpa, Désirée. “El largo camino hacia la normalización teatral de los títeres” [The Long Road to the Theatrical Standardization of Puppets]. Ade Teatro. No. 84, 2001.
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