Postcard from Palermo
As you walk through Palermo, people spill from cafes in true Mediterranean style and there’s the smell of fish markets as dust kicks up from crumbling streets. But this is not just the capital of Sicily – it’s also the home of traditional 14th century marionette puppet theatre. Hidden within the city’s small alleys are the cavernous puppet theatres of the Opera Dei Pupi.
One of the most active theatres is the family run Associazone Figli d’Arte Cuticchio, which was set up in 1933 by the Greco brothers. They were intrinsically integrated into the community, originally playing for a passionate and discerning crowd of Sicilians.
The post-war depression forced them to travel to attract new audiences. Journeying through Cefalu and ending up in Palermo, they caught the attention of tourists who were intrigued by the puppets’ old tales of chivalrous battles from the Charlemagne period. Throughout time other plots (like Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth), famous playwrights, historical events (like the Norman Conquest of Sicily) and religious subjects (like the Passion and Nativity) have been used.
The stories have changed as they’ve passed through the regions of Sicily. The script of Romeo and Juliet – which is used time after time for its romantic potency – has been summarised and adapted. This loosening of structure gives the chance for improvisation to flourish. The puppeteer often improvises micro-stories relating to local drama that can then be extended or shortened.
To visit the Associazone Figli d’Arte Cuticchio’s theatre today, you enter an old stone building with a swinging wooden sign. Inside the walls are painted with elaborate patterns of gold and red, bordering pictures that depict scenes of puppet characters playing out farces. Rows of pews eagerly face a small, boxed curtain.
The show begins with cheerful and boisterous music, which stops abruptly and is followed by the drone of a man’s voice introducing the characters. Painted backdrops show the countryside, castle or town. Heavy wooden puppets are clad in finely crafted metal armour and talk in monotones. The slow pace is dictated by numerous scene changes. The climax comes with an extremely loud and violent fight scene, which concludes with piles of puppet corpses.
The marionettes are hand carved, and have thick layers of clothing and armour. During the performance the sound of wood hitting wood is used to create impact within fight scenes. They are controlled using a metal bar out of the head and strings for the limbs. Many have been adapted so their limbs can fly off in fight scenes.
This particular design structure draws many similarities with the Belgian puppet theatre Theatre De Toone, which can still be seen in Brussels today. It has been suggested that both were influenced by the Spanish denomination in Belgium and Sicily during the 16th Century.
Contemporary myth making
Opera dei Pupi is still common throughout Sicily, supported by the Association of Conservations of Popular Traditions. The art form’s varied influences and historic richness make it a fascinating cultural gem. Although still integrated into family life and local culture, it’s now mainly watched by tourists. This transient audience has little relationship with the local mythology or resonance with its cultural values.
Alongside the theatres in Palermo sits the Museo Internazionale Delle Marionette Antonio Pasqualino, which displays a huge variety of historic puppets from every continent. As well as being a museum, it’s also a working theatre that collaborates with contemporary performers both locally and internationally.
The museum’s Festival of Morgana encourages an exploration of theatre practice and a re-evaluation of puppets and objects on stage. They also encourage collaboration between other visual arts like painting, writing and music. This allows contemporary material to sit alongside, and learn from, a rich puppetry tradition.