Sicilian puppets(Pupi siciliani) are armed puppets that date back to the popular epic theater of the nineteenth century, which developed and spread in Naples, Rome and then in Sicily, where it reached its maximum splendor.
They take part in the “Opera dei pupi” that’s a type of puppets’ theater, whose characters are Charlemagne and his knights. Each pupo typically represented a specific paladin, characterized by the armor and the cloak.
The heroic deeds of Sicilian puppet characters, who fight for religion, glory, fidelity and love, are taken from the material contained in the novels and poems of the Carolingian cycle and in the Orlando Furioso. It is believed that the Carolingian epos arrived in Sicily with the Normans in the twelfth century.
Sicilian puppets: evolution from the origins to the present day
Sicilian puppets were born as a symbol of the uprising of poorer classes between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.
The profession of puppeteers (those who animate the puppets) is comparable to the profession of real directors who tell the story improvising and acting. The puppeteers, although very often illiterate, knew works such as the Chanson de Roland, the Gerusalemme Liberata and Orlando furioso by heart.
However, it can be said that today the figure of the puppeteer is now an almost extinct figure due to the advent of modernity, media, theatres with actors and because it’s considered a spectacle for an uneducated audience.
Despite this, the puppets’ show is still theatre, in fact, the artistic career of the puppeteers has continued for generations thanks to their professional commitment that makes them the protagonists of the show.
In the Sicilian puppets’ tradition, art, show and culture are combined with technique and history.
Sicilian puppets aren’t simple puppets: they differ for their technical characteristics. They are characterized by having rapid and natural movements.
Initially, in the eighteenth century, the puppets were made up and moved thanks to a thin metal rod that was connected to the head through a joint and more wire that were used to move the legs and the arms of the puppet.
When the puppet theatre spread in Sicily, an artificer changed the construction technique and made sure that the metal rod wasn’t connected to the joint, but that it was connected to the head from the inside and he replaced the thin wire, used to move the right arm, with a large metal rod, a fundamental characteristic of the Sicilian puppets. The movements turned out to be more realistic and faster, thus becoming particularly effective to imitate duels and typical fighting of chivalric stories.
The names of the most famous Sicilian puppet characters are Orlando, who is the bravest knight; Angelica who is Orlando’s love of life; Rinaldo, Orlando’s cousin and paladin, who falls in love with Angelica; Dama Rovenza who wants to avenge Mambrino who was killed by Rinaldo; Medoro, the cause of Orlando’s fury as he falls in love with Angelica.
Symbolic places of Sicilian puppet tradition
Since 2008 Sicilian puppets have been inscribed by UNESCO among the Intangible Cultural Heritage.
The two cities that represent the folklore tradition of puppet art are Palermo (established in the capital and widespread in the western part of the island) and Catania (established in the Etnean city and widespread in the eastern part of the island and also in Calabria).
Despite belonging to the same culture, puppets of Palermo and of Catania have differences regarding the size and the weight of the Sicilian puppets, but also some aspects of the mechanics and the manoeuvring system and a different show conception.
The puppets of Palermo are smaller than those of Catania, which instead can reach a meter and a half; another difference is that in Palermo the puppets have articulated knees that allow them to extract the sword from the scabbard, in Catania they have stiff legs.
If you want to organize a trip, the two puppet cradles are undoubtedly the best place to spend a pleasant experience, visiting the “International Puppet Museum” of Palermo (where you can admire not only puppets and marionettes, but also scenic shadows and Oriental and Neapolitan puppets), the “Sicilian Ethnographic Museum”, the “Branciforte Palace” or the many museums and puppet theaters that there are in Catania.
Sicilian puppets can be also purchased; they are cheerful Sicilian souvenirs of different sizes and any character from the chivalric epic.