Thursday, February 25, 2010


When one thinks of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and preservation - normally one thinks of ancient ruins like Stonehenge, the Acropolis in Athens or natural wonders like the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. Afterall, the purpose of UNESCO is to encourage the protection and preservation of items of such cultural or natural significance that these items are not simply part of a single nation's culture ... instead are considered as belonging to humanity as a whole. UNESCO has designated Sicilian Puppet Theatre as part of humanity's "oral and intangible heritage" and has devised a plan to save it from extinction.
Pupi means puppets ...but these are the small marionettes that are commong in the States and most of western Europe. No - these things are about three or four feet tall and can weigh between 100 and 150 pounds. or The modern tradition that can still be seen in Sicily originated in the early 19th century but the history of Pupi theatre can be traced to at least the 1400s. Puppets and marionettes were a popular form of entertainment throughout Medieval Europe for all classes of people and it is probable that the earliest performances involved local history and folklore.
In Sicily, puppet theatre uses wooden marionettes on strings and metal wires instead of hand puppets made of cloth. Sicilian marionettes vary in size depending upon the locality. Catania are nearly twice the size of those used in Palermo and the closely related puppet tradition of Naples uses marionettes that are a meter tall. Sicilian Puppet Theatre: Famous Characters Many of the characters portrayed in the Opera dei Pupi come straight from the history of Southern Italy. Heroes of the Norman Conquest such as Roger (Ruggiero) and Tancred (Tancredi) do battle with the Saracens or vie for a maiden's hand. Other characters like Godfrey (Goffredo) and Reynald (Rinaldo) are fictional characters whose origins are based upon real-life participants in the Crusades. The most popular character is arguably Orlando, the Sicilian version of Charlemagne's (Carlo Magno) nephew Roland and the most common marionette sold in gift shops. The villains of the Opera dei Pupi are more fanciful and besides the Saracens who once ruled Sicily, are based more in legend than in fact. Agricane is one such villain who is identified as the King of Mongolia and fights Orlando for the love of a princess. Another foe of the hero Orlando is Alcina, a sorceress. Argante is a powerful Saracen warrior that battles Tancredi in a fight to the death at the walls of Jerusalem. Whether good or evil, the characters and their deeds are all much larger than life, the equivalent to today's fictional super heroes. Subject matter of the Opera dei Pupi is derived from various periods of Sicilian history, works of literature, folklore and comedy. Performances that pit the Norman knights against the Saracens are taken from Sicily's turbulent history, with various liberties taken for the sake of art. Plays which feature Orlando and Carlo Magno are the famous Song of Roland (Chanson de Roland).
Opera dei Pupi also covers subjects from classical Greece and Rome such as Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. Religious and Biblical performances can include tales from the Old Testament, including the tale of the Exodus. The dialogue of Sicilian Puppet Theatre is usually improvised, even if the plot remains the same. Therefore the skill of the performer is not only displayed in the actions of the marionettes, but also in the clever improvisation of the dialogue. A major component of the Opera dei Pupi is the violence: swordfights, jousts and battles with monsters or sorceresses. When a hero slashes with his sword, limbs can fall from the villain. In some performances the wounds actually bleed, the blood being made from beet juice.
Much of Sicily's history has been violent and over the centuries it has imprinted itself in this most traditional form of entertainment. Sicilian Puppet Theatre: Preserving the Tradition Sadly, the popularity of Sicilian Puppet Theatre began to decline sharply during the middle of the 20th century. With the advent of more modern forms of entertainment, many family-run puppet companies had to close, selling off their props to collectors. Today there is no shortage of shops in Sicily selling replica puppets for the tourist market, but actual puppet theatres have been in serious decline.
The theatre we went to has been around for several decades and is a family run theatre. Afterwars, we met the grandfather, father and mother, kids and even grandkids who all worked to put out each play.

1 comment:

lakeviewer said...

Wow! This is an excellent summary. I shall refer to your blog in my Italian for beginners blog. Thanks.