The Sicilian Puppet. Opera dei pupi: history, tradition and museums
Sicilian traditions

The Sicilian Puppet. Opera dei pupi: history, tradition and museums

Pupo Siciliano

The Sicilian puppet is a wooden and metal puppet that represents the characters and stories told in the epic-chivalric literature typical of the Sicilian tradition.

In particular the chivalrous epic literature of the Carolingian era.

The Sicilian puppet is the main protagonist of the puppet opera of the same name.

This represents the traditional Sicilian theater  originated in the 18th century. The Sicilian puppet theater was proclaimed intangible and oral heritage of humanity by Unesco in 2001.

In this article, I will tell you about the history, characteristics, characters and regional variations of this traditional theatrical work, one of the most fascinating and significant expressions of Sicilian culture and identity.

Sicilian puppet, his story

It almost certainly comes from the popular tradition of storytellers. This figure, present in Sicilian popular tradition, narrated the deeds of the paladins of France and their Saracen enemies, drawing inspiration from Medieval and Renaissance poems and chivalric novels.

Among the main sources we find “The History of the Paladins of France” by Giusto Lodico. This is a prose work published in 1858 consisting of 13 volumes.

The first puppeteers, the creators and animators of the puppets, are documented in Palermo and Catania between the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century during the Spanish domination of the island. These were craftsmen who built the puppets with wood, iron, cloth and leather, and who made them perform on a small mobile stage, moving from square to square or from town to town. The puppeteers were also the authors of the shows, who improvised following a pre-established narrative scheme.

The Sicilian puppet opera was a great success with the popular public. People became passionate about the affairs of the Christian knights and their valiant Muslim adversaries. The stories focused on themes such as: honor, loyalty, love and war.

These stories often had a moral value.

The performances lasted several hours and took place in installments, creating an effect of suspense and anticipation.

The Sicilian puppet theater reached its peak between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.

In these years the fixed shops of the puppeteers spread in the main Sicilian cities.

During the same period, regional differences also developed in the puppets’ appearance, maneuvering technique and repertoire.

However, with the advent of cinema and television, the Sicilian puppet theater went into crisis and many puppeteers closed their businesses.

I remember, regarding this, the second part of Ugo La Rosa’s film “I Zanzaroni” where Franco and Ciccio played “the last puppeteers”

Fortunately, in recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in this kind of entertainment which is rooted in the culture of the island.

The Sicilian puppet work has been recognized as a cultural asset to be safeguarded and valued, both for its historical importance and for its artistic originality.

In 2001, UNESCO proclaimed the Sicilian puppet theater a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity.

Main characteristics of the Opera dei Pupi in Sicily

The Sicilian puppet theater is completely different from all other puppet shows in the world. The differences concern the implementation and the actual representation which are different even within different areas of the island.

The puppet

The Sicilian puppet is a puppet made mainly of wood and metal. It can reach very significant size and weight.

The regional tradition is different between eastern and western Sicily. The opera dei pupi is traditionally divided between: “Palermo school” and “Catania school”.

Depending on the part of the island where you are, the puppet can be smaller (about 80 cm) as in Palermo, or larger (about 130 cm) as in Catania.

The puppet has a wooden skeleton, covered in iron armor and leather clothes. The face and hands are painted in bright, expressive colors.

The puppeteer

The soul of the Puppet is called the Puparo. The craftsman who builds it and makes it perform.

The puppeteer maneuvers the puppet with an iron bar that fits into the puppet’s head and the strings that move its arms.

The puppeteer is also the author and narrator of the show, who improvises following a pre-established narrative pattern.

The puppeteer uses a particular voice, called “vuciata“, which changes according to the character who speaks.

He is often assisted by an assistant, called “secunnu”, who takes care of scene changes and sound effects.

Characters

The characters of the Sicilian puppet theater are mainly drawn from epic-chivalric literature, in particular from the Carolingian cycle.

The protagonists are, therefore, the paladins of Charlemagne. Valiant Christian knights fighting against the Saracens to defend the faith.

Among the most famous paladins are Orlando, Rinaldo, Astolfo, Gano di Maganza, Bradamante and Angelica.

The Saracens are the enemies of the paladins, led by kings such as Agramante, Marsilio, Ferraù and Rodomonte.

Saracens are often represented with exotic and barbaric traits, but also with qualities such as courage.

Among the most famous Saracens there are Ruggero, Marfisa and Medoro.

In addition to the characters of the Carolingian cycle, the Sicilian puppet theater also includes characters taken from other literary sources, such as the Arthurian cycle (King Arthur, Lancelot, Geneva), the Gerusalemme Liberata (Tancredi, Clorinda, Erminia), the lives of the saints (St George, St Sebastian) and the works of Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth).

The repertoire

The repertoire of the Sicilian puppet theater consists of a series of episodes of chivalric stories. These can last several hours or even days.

The stories are divided into narrative cycles, which follow a pre-established chronology.

The main narrative cycles are:

– The cycle of the war of France: talks about the battles between the paladins of Charlemagne and the Saracens in France and Spain.

– The cycle of the war in Africa: narrates the battles between the paladins of Charlemagne and the Saracens in Africa.

– The cycle of the death of Charlemagne: focuses on the end of the reign of Charlemagne and the death of his paladins.

– The cycle of the war of the East: narrates the battles between the paladins of Charlemagne and the Saracens in the East.

– The cycle of the war of England: narrates the battles between the paladins of Charlemagne and the Saracens in England.

The stories are told by the puppeteer who manages to shape his voice to get to that particular sound, called “vuciato”, which changes according to the character he plays.

Rhyming lines, called “octaves,” are also used to introduce or end scenes. The stories are also accompanied by music and songs, which serve to emphasize the most important moments in the work.

From time to time the opera dei pupi includes amusing comedies called “farces” which have funny traditional characters as protagonists. Many times these characters (such as Turiddu and Mazzarò) are taken from Verga’s short stories.

The Sicilian puppet opera in Sicily is different in Eastern Sicily than in Western Sicily

Sicily is a large island. Like all its popular traditions (see the story between arancino and arancina 😜) even that of the puppets undergoes a transformation from one side of the island to the other.

We can divide the interpretation of the Pupo Siciliano into two main schools: the Eastern one and the Western one.

The two schools differ in several aspects: shape, appearance, junctions. This obviously means that they are also different: the maneuvering technique, the repertoire and the acting style.

Let us briefly describe the two schools:

The puppet theater in Sicily, differences between Eastern Sicily

The opera dei pupi of eastern Sicily has Catania as its main reference.

It is also widespread in the provinces of Syracuse and Messina.

The Catania puppets are among the largest and heaviest, they can reach 130 cm in height and 30 kg in weight.

The armor is wrought iron and they have a carved and painted wooden head.

They are operated with an iron bar that fits into the puppet’s head and with wires that move the arms.

The puppeteer uses a strong guttural voice to narrate the stories.

The Catania repertoire faithfully follows the History of the Paladins of France by Giusto Lodico, divided into 24 books.

The stories focus on the deeds of Orlando and Rinaldo, the two champions most loved by the Catania public.

Among the most famous scenes are the battle of Roncesvalles, the death of Orlando, the duel between Rinaldo and Ferrau and Angelica’s escape.

The Catania style is characterized by a strong dramatic emphasis and great showmanship.

The fight scenes are very realistic and violent: the puppets get injured, bleed, lose their limbs or their heads.

Sound and light effects are used to create suggestive atmospheres: thunder, lightning, explosions, fires are heard.

The styles of Syracuse and Acireale

The Syracusan puppet theater differs from the Catania one in some respects.

The Syracusan puppets are smaller (about 100 cm) and lighter (about 15 kg) than those from Catania.

Their armor is of tinplate and the head of papier-mâché or plaster. They are operated with an iron bar that fits into the puppet’s head and with wires that move the arms.

The puppeteer uses a clearer and more melodic voice to narrate the stories.

The Syracusan repertoire partly follows the History of the Paladins of France by Giusto Lodico, but also introducing variations and additions.

The stories focus on the deeds of Roger and Marfisa, the two Saracens who converted to Christianity and became champions of Charlemagne.

Among the most famous scenes are the duel between Roger and Rinaldo, the marriage between Roger and Bradamante, the birth of Leo the Great.

The Syracusan style is characterized by greater attention to narration and dialogues, which are richer and more varied.

The fight scenes are less bloody and more choreographed.

The puppets challenge each other with elegance and mastery, using different weapons and techniques.

The sound and light effects are used to create poetic and romantic atmospheres: you can hear songs, music, bells, birds.

The puppet theater of Acese has Acireale as its main centre, but has also spread to other municipalities in the province of Catania.

The puppets of Acireale are similar to those of Catania in size and weight, but have a tinplate armor and a papier-mâché or plaster head.

They are operated with an iron bar that fits into the puppet’s head and with wires that move the arms.

The puppeteer uses a softer and more harmonious voice to narrate the stories.

Also the Acireale repertoire partly follows the History of the Paladins of France by Giusto Lodico, but also introduces variations and additions.

The stories focus on the deeds of Orlando and Rinaldo, but also of other paladins such as Astolfo, Gano di Maganza, Bradamante and Angelica.

Among the most famous scenes are the duel between Orlando and Agricane, the abduction of Angelica or the death of Orlando.

The Acireale style is characterized by a greater focus on comedy and fun.

The fight scenes are lighter and more ironic: the puppets make fun of each other, make jokes.

Sound and light effects are used to create cheerful and festive atmospheres: laughter, applause, whistles, trumpets are heard.

The patrimonial community of Eastern Sicily

The patrimonial community of the puppets opera in eastern Sicily is made up of the families of the puppeteers, who have handed down the art of building and animating puppets for generations.

Among the best known families are the Napoli, the Grasso, the Trombetta in Catania; the Puglisi at Sortino; the Vaccaro-Mauceris in Syracuse; the Mancusos in Acireale.

The patrimonial community also includes the spectators of the puppets opera, who actively participate in the show with their emotional reactions and their dialectal expressions.

Spectators are often linked to the opera dei pupi by a feeling of cultural and identity belonging.

The patrimonial community also relies on the support of cultural institutions, such as museums, associations, foundations, which deal with safeguarding and enhancing the puppets’ work as an intangible heritage of humanity.

Among these institutions are the Opera dei Pupi Museum in Acireale, the Aretuseo dei Pupi Museum in Syracuse, the Syracuse Opera Study Center in Syracuse.

The puppet theater of Western Sicily

The puppet theater of western Sicily has Palermo as its main centre, but it has also spread to the provinces of Agrigento and Trapani.

Palermo puppets are the smallest and lightest of Sicily: they can reach 80 cm in height and 13 kg in weight.

They have wrought iron or tinplate armor and a carved wooden or papier-mâché head.

They are operated with an iron bar that fits into their head and with wires that move the arms.

The puppeteer uses a lower, darker voice to narrate the stories.

The Palermitan repertoire partly follows Giusto Lodico’s History of the Paladins of France, but also introduces variations and additions.

The stories focus on the deeds of Orlando and Rinaldo, but also of other paladins such as Astolfo, Gano di Maganza, Bradamante and Angelica.

Among the most famous scenes are the duel between Orlando and Agricane, the abduction of Angelica or the death of Orlando.

The Palermitan style is characterized by greater attention to acting and dialogues, which are more sober and measured.

The fight scenes are less frequent and shorter: the puppets challenge each other with honor and respect, using only the sword.

The sound and light effects are used to create realistic and plausible atmospheres: sword blows, shouts, moans are heard.

The patrimonial community of Western Sicily

  The patrimonial community of the opera dei pupi in western Sicily is made up of the families of the puppeteers, who have handed down the art of building and animating puppets for generations. Among the best known families are the Cuticchios, the Caninos, the Grecos in Palermo; the Gambinos in Trapani; the Naples Brothers in Agrigento.

The patrimonial community also relies on the support of cultural institutions, such as museums, associations, foundations, which deal with safeguarding and enhancing the puppets’ work as an intangible heritage of humanity. Among these institutions are the Antonio Pasqualino International Puppet Museum in Palermo, the Giuseppe Pitrè Sicilian Ethnographic Museum in Palermo, the Gaspare Canino Puppet Museum in Palermo.

Subsequent diffusion of the opera dei pupi

  The work of the Sicilian puppets has had a great diffusion in Italy and in the world, thanks to the migration of many Sicilian puppeteers who have brought their art with them.

Among the Italian cities where Sicilian puppet theaters have established themselves are Rome, Naples, Genova, Turin, Milan.

Among the foreign countries where Sicilian puppeteers have performed are France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Holland, Belgium, England, the United States of America.

The opera of the Sicilian puppets has also inspired many contemporary artists who have reinterpreted the tradition in a modern and innovative key.

Among these artists are Mimmo Cuticchio, Enzo Mancuso, Mimmo Mancuso, Vincenzo Argento, Ernesto Puzzo, Turi Grasso.

Conclusions

The Sicilian puppet, as well as the respective Opera dei Pupi, represents very deeply the Sicilian culture and its traditions.

If you are looking for an object that represents Sicily, the puppet is the right choice, especially if it was produced by skilled craftsmen.

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