The Puppet theatre is one of the most famous and popular forms of art of the Sicilian tradition. This form of theatre, exalting the rebellion of the poor and the humble against the rich, has been declining in the last decades due to major commercial forms or expressions like cinema and television, that have caused the closure of many puppet theatres. Although often considered a low-class artistic expression the marionnette show remains a best attraction and a symbol in the Sicilian tradition.

The Museo Internazionale della Marionetta (International Puppet Museum) in Palermo, has much contributed to preserving and supporting this art. It collects some three thousand pieces among marionnettes from the Catania and Palermo traditions, a whole section dedicated to Eastern paladins along with pieces of the Naples’ theatre.

The puppet owes his existence to the work of master craftsmen that today continue the work of their illustrious ancestors, who founded real puppeteer dynasties. Outstanding are the Cuticchios, descendants of Cav. Giacomo Cuticchio, whose work has influenced every “puparo” (puppeteer) since.

The Opra dei Pupi (Puppet Theatre) represents the battles between Saracens and Christians in the Middle Ages. It became popular in its current form, around the second half of the nineteenth century. Its success was fostered by the well-known Cantàri or Cantastorie and the Contastorie, streets story tellers and singers who first evoked the adventures and stories of epic knights and heroes. At the beginning of the nineteenth century their repertoir included I Reali (The Royals) and Storia di Orlando e Rinaldo (A story of Roland and Reginald). Like the jongleurs in France, the story tellers and singers had an outstanding role in spreading the Chanson de Geste in the Southern Italy.

The puppet theatre conveys ideals which are dear to Sicilian people: chivalry, honour, justice, faith, love. Its main themes are related to the legendary stories of Charlemagne’s knights, whose sources were the Chansons de geste and the Arthurian cycle. The Carlovingian cycle, deriving from the former, spans the period between the deaths of Pipin “the short” and of Charlemagne; it is divided into many episodes.

The shows also tell of local legends or events, like that of Uzeda, a puppet created by praised Don Raffaele Trombetta and Sebastiano Zappalà, and inspired by Don Giovanni Francesco Paceco, Duke of Uzeda and vice-king of Sicily in the late 1600s. The hero falls in love with gorgeous king’s daughter, Galatea. He accidentally kills his own son Osvaldo and eventually dies in her arms.

Some episodes were often represented as single shows and performed in one night.

The “bandit” theme is also much recurring, the “thief” being one of the most popular puppets. He is aversed by the audience who dislikes his evil deeds perpetrated against unfortunate victims he happens to meet.

After 1860 the characters’ representation underwent considerable changes. Reginald, for example, started representing a strong and fearless man who wanted to resist the established social and political powers. The bandit himself became a hero defending and vindicating justice. Vincenzo Di Maria’s Rinaldo Furioso is a valued example of this turn. In his work, Reginald represents the expectations of equality and freedom of the masses and engages in a fight against Charlemagne, but his dreams of glory are destined to fail.

Every show features specific events, notably the councils and the battles. The former consists of private or official meetings of characters. The scene has standard elements like the opening and the closure. The official council generally involves a number of soldiers and a king or a commander announcing the imminent fight. The private council involves fewer characters and also introduces a fight.

Councils help spectators better identify the characters. Are they positive or negative figures? Traitors or trustworthy? Do they really have the values they personify?

The battles engage and involve the audience. They’re central to the Opra dei Pupi and culminate in a finale that shows the death of some protagonist. Minor characters’ death is less emphasized and more frequent in the show.

The representation deals with important themes: the betrayal, the relation between the king and his vassals, the opposition between good and evil and that between Christians and Saracens, issues of politics, love, family, and the supernatural.

The work of numerous people is required to make a puppet: two assistants, a blacksmith, a painter (for the decorations) and a writer (for the texts). Not rarely does the puppeteer receive help by his family members in making and preparing the material and equipment. Every puppeteer, still respecting the tradition, has his own secrets and technics that he only reveals to his family and close assistants. Texts draw on the literary tradition and are enriched by idiomatic expressions and organ music (originally played by musicians).

The puppeteer must also be a good actor since he must animate the puppet and give him a voice. No wonder praised Sicilian actors like Giovanni Grasso and Angelo Musco grew in families of puppeteers. Several names are most renowned: the Crimis, whose most important member was Gaetano Crimi from Catania, one of the best performers of the Sicilian Opra dei Pupi; the Grassos, from Catania too; the Insanguines from Bari, later settled in Sicily, their most famous puppeteer was Nino who was able to give puppets such human traits as an actor could hardly do; the Grecos, from Palermo, whose major member was Gaetano, born in Naples and much related to another great puppeteer, Don Liberto Canino. Both are remembered as the founders of the Palermitan Opra; the Catanian entrepreneur-puppeteer Giuseppe Chiesa, who started his activity with youngest Angelo Musco, at the Machiavelli Theatre, and founded several theatres; Pasqualino Amico, unforgettable marionnette voice and animateur.

The audience becomes much involved in the story and can even identify with the protagonists. Spectators directly interacts with the show by their likes and dislikes, by even throwing objects at the aversed protagonists and by their peculiar dialectal impressions during the show interval, the performance attracting most young or low classes.  

One of the merits of the puppet theatre has been that of allowing people to gain familiarity with that old and extraordinary world soon become a favorite topic of their conversations.

The puppets from Sicily, unlike their “relatives” abroad, has evolved over the years, what helped them look like more than simple wooden marionnettes animated by wires and strings. An additional wire, for example, was placed in the arm of the knight to enhance his movements when he draws out his sword. A second change concerned the puppet’s armour material, where tin replaced the original cardboard to make it more resistent to fights.

The puppet head is perhaps the most difficult part of the process. It is made from wood or chalk. Once commissioned to skilled craftsmen, it was since made by the puppeteer himself. The metal armour was introduced in the early 1800s to become a distinctive feature of the Opra.

The stage is carefully set up. There are differences between the Palermo and the Catania puppet theatres. The former has smaller dimensions but it is more richly decorated. Other differences concern with the stages and the graphic boards introducing and shortly describing the show. Palermo’s board is divided into 8 sections displaying the several scenes of the cycle. Catania’s has one only scene.

Some puppets have specific tasks: one announces the title of the show; two other puppets exchange a few words before it starts in order to create the perfect atmosphere and to capture the audience attention; another, finally, gives a short summary of the representation.

The show features numerous characters: Christian soldiers like Morando di Riviera, the Saracen Bramante, the Magonzesi, the Giants, and then, magicians, women, boys, and many others.

The main protagonists are Reginald of Montalbano (a rebel figure who personify ideals of loyalty and courage; the squint-eyed Roland (commander and bravest of the paladins, committed to loyalty and fairness); Earl of Maganza (an evil character, the traitor par excellence)


The two main Sicilian cities show differences in the shape and size of the puppets also.

The Palermitan is about ninety centimetres tall and weighs less than fifteen kilos. His smaller dimensions give him more mobility. The Catanian is bigger and heavier, reaching 140 centimetres in height and 35 kilos in weight. Both types of puppets are controlled by two main wires placed on their head and on their right hand, and by secondary wires and strings.

Acireale, an important city in the Eastern Sicily, also produces a puppet of its own, that is much alike that of the neighboring Catania, just a bit smaller.

A final mention must be given to the puppeteer dramatization, which varies according to the different schools of pupari. In general, the Palermitan theatre is more lively than Catanian’s.


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