Sunday, February 27, 2011

L'Opre dei Pupi

I've been fascinated by puppets since I was about 4 years old when my brother bought me my first glove puppet and my father made me a theatre so I could bore present puppet shows at family gatherings.  I remember that theatre to this day - a Punch and Judy-like affair, three sided, painted blue with a curtain made from an old apron of my mother's.  I graduated to more elaborate affairs which led to fully staged plays - The Emperor and the Nightengale was a favourite - where I bored entertained  at church socials.

A few of the many rod puppets - knights, Kings, Saracens, Ogres and Spirits that make up the characters of the traditional Tales of Orlando presented by the Cuticchio family at their puppet theatre in Palermo.
I became enthralled by the world of puppetry - marionettes, shadows, rod and glove - though I was never able to master the marionettes: all those strings and coordination was never my forte. Since those days I have never missed an opportunity to see a puppet theatre - Salzburg, Bangkok, Hanoi - anywhere that it was considered part of the national tradition.

The great hero Orlando (Roland) is girded for battle and since the Risorgimento has worn a sash bearing the tri-colour of the united Italy.
Another one of my early fascinations were the Crusader myths of Orlando (Roland) - I still have in my library a copy of a translation of the Ariosto's Orlando Furioso that I read in my early teens.  Those Italian adaptations of the doings of the French knight and his cohorts as they battled Saracens, Demons and Evil Enchantresses in the East were great adventure stories and had everything - battles, daring deeds, sex, romance and even a touch of religion. I only wish I could read them - and La Comedia Divina -  in the original Italian  for the full poetry

The three main characters of the Paladin stories: Orlando (Roland) Brademante (the most powerful of the female Christian Warriors) and her brother Rinaldo. Since the 1850s their plumes have reflected the tri-colour - green, white and red.
Those two  interests meet in the Pupi tradition of Sicily - the elaborate rod puppets that tell the story of the Frankish hero and his co-horts.  The tradition of the "cunto" or story teller is an old one in many cultures - the bard who passed on the legends and stories of the past.  Sicily was no exception and there it evolved into the stories being retold with the help of rod puppets.  Eventually the puppets became more elaborate and the role of the cunto diminished.  In the 1950-60s the traditional art of Sicilian rod puppetry was in danger of disappearing.  However the Cuticchio family - which had passed the tradition down from father to son - kept it alive and their Teatro dell'Opera dei Pupi on via Bara all'Olivella in Palermo is now recognized as a national treasure.  Massimo Cuticchio has revived the art of the "cunto" and often in his presentation the story teller is the focal point of the pieces and is surrounded by the puppet characters.   Though he has branched out into other stories the traditional Paladin plays are still central to the Teatro's work.

Massimo Cuticchio - both a master cunto or story teller and puppeteer - repairing a Christian knight in his workshop near his family's Museo and Teatro in Palermo.

The Making of a Paladin Knight

The puppet body and head are carved from hard wood following a traditional pattern always with the right hand in the position of grasping a sword and fitted with an eye to hold the second control rod, the left, which hangs loose, is carved to hold a shield.  The heavy central rod is inserted through the head with a hook to attach it to the torso.  Limbs are joined to the torso with metal at stress points and with fabric to give flexibility and allow for the traditional movements of battle. 

Meanwhile armour has been cut out of  a heavy gauge tin again to a traditional pattern.  The 52 pieces required to make a complete set are then bent, tooled and embossed with heraldic devises that indicate the personage they represent.  The fighting can get athletic and often fierce in the stage battle so armour is often dented or even cut and is constantly being repaired or replaced.

Elaborately designed and colourful clothing - again design and colour are used to signify the character being portrayed - are made in the theatre workshop. Notice that only the parts that will not be covered by armour are clothed - both for the sake of flexibility and economy.

Finally the rod that controls movements of the sword arm is put in place.  Though there are only two major control rods strings are used to manoeuvre the shield and leg positions.

The positions and movements of the puppets are as dictated by tradition as the costumes and action. There are four basic attitudes that characters assume as the story is declaimed by the puppeteers sometimes in the voice of the character but more often as the "cunto" or story teller.

Most of the photos are from il teatro di Mimmo Cuticchio by Chiara Andrich, a marvelous book published by the Associazone Figli d'arete Cuticchio, recounting the history of the Teatro, the family and the new directions that Mimmo Cuticchio has taken the tradition of Sicilian puppetry.  And many of the details were gleaned in conversation with a charming lady at the small Museo connected to the Teatro.  She promised me that when I return to Palermo in May there would be a good chance I would finally get to see the puppets in action and hear Massimo recount, once again, the story of Orlando, his love for the faithless Angelica and the adventures of the Paladin knights.

27 febbraio - San Gabriele dell'Addorata
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Debra She Who Seeks said...

Fascinating! What beautiful puppets, especially that armour. I don't know much about the story although I have dim memories of having to read La Chanson de Roland in university French lit class. And I have never heard of Brademante, the woman knight! I must look into this further. I was crazy for knights and chivalry when I was a teenager, although it was pretty much all of the King Arthur variety.

yvette said...

Great post! It is sad to see this art form disappear, because oral tradition is replaced by alls sorts of 'pictures' now! I did not know Sicily keeps 'La Chanson de Roland' alive through marvellous puppet shows. In Rome I watched a very good 'Punch and Juddy' show with real trumpets and singing (from where they fire the cannon at midday on sundays!(perhaps every day?) beautiful place with trees and mansion houses and fantastic view. I forgot the's a shame really)


wow..that is so cool..
my middle son was fascinated with puppets when he was I sent away and got him a Howdy Doody replica..he loved it and tried to make it talk and everything...then his brother and he got into a fight and Thom found this note on his pillow..if you ever want to see your son Howdy Doody alive again, give me your allowance for 2 weeks...
I had to rescue ole Howdy for him.

yvette said...

This is a side remark as I have just made a major discovery: Félicitatons pour cette merveilleuse classification!