Marionette puppets became popular in Sicily during the late Middle Ages and fifteenth centuries and are still considered an important part of Sicilian folk culture today. Sicilian puppet theatre (opera dei pupi) or, "marionette theatre," developed into its present form in the eighteenth century. Sicilian puppeteers are said to have performed in Athens in Socrates’s day and have fascinated the likes of Goethe, George Bernard Shaw and Mario Puzo.
In 2001 UNESCO declared Sicilian puppetry part of the ‘Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’ and set in motion training programs for puppeteers, festivals and awards in an effort to retain this rich cultural tradition.
Typically, the marionettes and their theatre depict medieval characters and legendary events based loosely on history. There's Orlando (Roland), one of Charlemagne's knights and the Norman knights of King Roger of Sicily, Saracens (Moors) Baroque paladins, really, as the costumes are often more reminiscent of sixteenth century decoration than medieval armour and clothing.
More recently, puppeteers have adapted stories of the Sicilian aristocracy (such as "The Baroness of Carini") to their tiny stages. As folk art, the productions are typically expressions of the popular perception of personages and events rather than faithful chronicles of history and literature. That was always the idea, it wasn't meant to be informative so much as inspirational. Puppet theatre also provided an innocent alternative to the passion plays of the Church and even be mildly revolutionary, though most themes served to idealize the nobility which controlled Sicily, reinforcing the strictures of a feudal society that existed in the countryside. While it eventually became a popular entertainment for children, it certainly appeals to adults as well.
The marionettes are hand carved, usually of chestnut or cypress with expressively painted faces and decorated in rich costumes. A handful of marionette makers still work in Sicily, particularly in Palermo, Catania and Messina and sell many of their creations as souvenirs. Quality varies, naturally, with the best Sicilian marionettes among the world's finest. Stylistically, Palermitan, Catanian and Messinese marionettes are quite similar to those of Naples and Venice, no accident considering the historical maritime trade among these cities. Traditionally, families specialized in marionette making and puppet theatre, the Cuticchios and Pasqualinos in Palermo for example, perfecting an art learned over many generations. Some of the finest puppets are often crafted to lose their heads or be divided into two – then magically return together again, witches that change their face from angelic to wicked. Sets too are painted in the Sicilian folk style with traditional colours, using canvas backdrops. As with any visual or performing art, puppets and puppet theatre are very individual, reflecting each artist's personality and style.
Apart from dramatic and historical figures, Sicilian marionettes are also based on local folklore and comedy. There's Nofriu and Virticchiu in Palermo, and Peppenninu in Catania. Typically the Palermitan marionettes are about 80 centimetres in height, while Catanian are considerably larger, around 120 centimetres.
Puppet theatre reached the height of its popularity in Sicily during the middle of the nineteenth century. An interest in puppet theatre faded with emergence of modern developments in the early decades of the twentieth century. Books of fairy tales and increasing literacy allowed parents to read the books to their children and of course film and animation also became an everyday part of life.
Conveniently for the new Italian state (the Kingdom of Italy) established in 1860, the traveling puppet shows, presented in the Sicilian language, began to disappear during a time when many of the themes they espoused, particularly the glory of the sovereign Kingdom of Sicily, were officially discouraged in favour of "national unity," the Italian language and then Fascism.
In Sicily the arrival of the puppet theatre was a thrilling event and not just for the lower classes or children. Communities gathered together from all walks of life, the puppeteers capitalising on the suspense, often divide a show over consecutive nights and culminating in a battle scene.
Following a long decline, there has been a resurgence of interest in puppet theatre in recent decades, coinciding with regional cultural movements supporting regional languages (dialects).
Shows are played against elaborately painted backdrops and accompanied by music often from a barrel organ or piano.
You will have an opportunity to enjoy a typical puppet show during the Unspoiled Sicily Rome & Amalfi Coast tour, departing May 2017, guaranteed to delight no matter what your age.