Strona główna/[ENG] THEATRE. The Sicilian marionette theater

[ENG] THEATRE. The Sicilian marionette theater

THEATRE. The Sicilian marionette theater as a source of historical knowledge
Małgorzata Skotnicka-Palka

“The Sicilian marionette theater as a source of historical knowledge” describes the specificity of the traditional Sicilian puppet theater (opera dei pupi siciliani) as an interesting source of knowledge, especially about the conquests of Charlemagne – the king of the Franks and Lombards, and from the 800th the Roman emperor. In this local theater, historical facts, myths, fairy tales, ideas and local socio-political problems were mixed with each other. The article shows the origins of opera dei pupi, its specificity, uniqueness, as well as the interest it has caused in Europe and in the world. The article is based on literature (knightly epics), which is the main source of puppet theater scenarios, and on the literature of the subject, e.g. books and articles dedicated to the topic described. The inspiration for the text was a two-time visit to the Antonio Pasqualino International Puppet Museum in Palermo and getting acquainted with the performance of “La battaglia di Orlando e Rinaldo per la bella Angelica”.

Public history, history in public space, puppets, puppetry, Sicily, theater, education, literature.


The Sicilian marionette theater as a source of historical knowledge

The Paladin of Charlemagne in immaculately shining armor, with a dashingly colorful feather on his helmet, pulls out his sword with a dashing movement and with a fighting cry splits a Saracen fighting with him. He alone overcomes a dozen warriors who lie at his feet. In the next scene he will defeat the fairy-tale dragon, but now he is on his way to rescue of his beloved Angelika, captured by repulsive enemies. Quick and loud patter of puppeteers’ shoes who are hidden behind the stage adds drama to the battle scene. The final of the match is known in advance – the paladin always wins[1]. In such a theatrical way, Sicilian viewers of traditional street puppet performances learned the history of the Franks.

Authors of the Sicilian puppet theater (opera dei pupi siciliani) scripts are constantly inspired by history, although it is only a background for the presented events. Most of the stories are part of the entertainment world and are meant to be fun. Many threads are not compatible with historical truth. The stories are based on literary motifs and are written in the convention of a legend. There are also a lot of fairytale motifs (dragons, mermaids, giants, witches, monsters, etc.) and plenty of dueling and fighting scenes[2]. However, we find in them elements that are to educate and teach viewers, eg to bring the story of Karol Wielki’s monarchy, battles in defense of the state against infidel attacks, or the history of crusades to the Holy Land. It is also intriguing to present the knights’ culture, the knight’s ethos – the defender of the faith, the good name of the ruler, guarding the weaker, defending women’s honor and self-respect.

It is interesting why the story of Charlemagne was so interested in the creators of the puppet theater. Why was not it addressed to Greek or Roman mythology or not based on biblical motifs? There are several reasons. Sea routes from Africa, Europe and Asia meet exactly in Sicily, which favors cultural diversity. Also the specificity of the island certainly contributed to this – Sicily was repeatedly conquered by representatives of various cultures, including Vandals, Arabs and Normans, who brought their own traditions and habits. In addition, according to the legend, Charlemagne visited Sicily returning from the crusade to Jerusalem along with the paladins[3]. The story of Charlemagne is therefore an element of the island’s identity.

The most popular motif of Opera dei Pupi performances is the clash of the Charlemagne paladins with Muslim warriors who occupied the Iberian Peninsula, thus posing a threat to the Kingdom of the Franks and all of Christian Europe[4]. The presented plays are based on knightly epic poems: The Song of Roland (La Chanson de Roland – unknown authorship) and Orlando Enraged (Orlando furioso) by Ludvico Aristo. The main characters of the performances are Roland[5] and Rinaldo[6] – the knights of Charlemagne, the Norman knights of King Roger of Sicily, Angelica[7]. In theater performances there is a hermetic and static system in which we know in advance who is good and who is bad. Good is handsome, bad is ugly. Good is a righteous and honest Christian, bad – insidious Muslim or pagan, which in the case of the traditional Eurocentric interpretation was rather the same.

The Song of Roland is the oldest and the most outstanding poem from the series about the deeds of Charlemagne (chanson de geste). It is also the oldest French epic and the first epic of the Common Era. The poem was based on a small episode from the wars of Charlemagne[8]. The thing took place on August 15, 778, when the king returned from Spain[9] after taking advantage of the rulers’ disagreements to made a futile attempt to free the country from the hands of the Saracens. He was returning through the Pyrenees to his capital in Aachen. Roland, the head of the Breton march, commanded the rear guards. When the main corps of Charlemagne’s army had already passed the mountains, and the rear guard was in a narrow isthmus, an armed Gasconist or Basque highlander attacked it. They murdered Roland and his knights. In The Song of Roland, however, false information is given that the reason for Roland’s death was the conspiracy of his comrades whose provocateur was Guenes

“Guenes came there, that wrought the treachery“[10].

“Fair Master Guene,“ says then King Marsilie,
“Shew the device, how Rollant slain may be.“
Answers him Guenes: “That will I soon make clear
The King will cross by the good pass of Size,
A guard he’ll set behind him, in the rear;
His nephew there, count Rollant, that rich peer,
And Oliver, in whom he well believes;
Twenty thousand Franks in their company
Five score thousand pagans upon them lead,
Franks unawares in battle you shall meet,
Bruised and bled white the race of Franks shall be;
I do not say, but yours shall also bleed.
Battle again deliver, and with speed.
So, first or last, from Rollant you’ll be freed.
You will have wrought a high chivalrous deed,
Nor all your life know war again, but peace. [11]

The number of Roland’s opponents he fought against was also overestimated. The event was mentioned by historions and by the chronicler Eginhard in his Life of Charles the Great[12].

“The count Rollanz, beneath a pine he sits;
Turning his eyes towards Spain, he begins
Remembering so many divers things:
So many lands where he went conquering,
And France the Douce, the heroes of his kin,
And Charlemagne, his lord who nourished him.


Over his arm his head bows down and slips,
He joins his hands: and so is life finish’d[13].


Rollant is dead“[14].

This episode became a contribution to writing songs and legends. To make these stories more attractive, they were combined with various later historical facts: the Saracen invasion in 793 and the two Gasnasts’ rebellions in 812 and 824. The addition of Saracen invasions to this story gave the event the character of a fight for faith, faith between the world of paganism and Christianity. Roland became a symbol of the defender of the cross. Almost parallel to the historical event, songs praising Roland began to appear. The whole folk sang short and easy songs, while epic poems (epics) were recited by professional traveling singers. Songs quickly spread throughout Europe. In the Renaissance, Roland was forgotten, while people focused mostly on the ancient world of Greeks and Romans. The memory of him came back in the era of Romanticism. In The Song of Roland there are no sophisticated literary motifs or in-depth psychological portraits. Repeated descriptions of fights prevail, and the strict moral ideals of the heroes are shown[15].

The source of the Opera dei Pupi story is also the History of the Paladins of France, a knight’s novel by Giusto Lodico, written in episodes in the years 1858-1860. It consists of novels and chivalric poems from the Carolingian series, which were chronologically arranged by Lodico, thus allow to follow the fate of Charlemagne’s paladins from childhood up to death. In 1895 and 1902, with the consent of the author, the work was reprinted and supplemented with additional episodes written by Giuseppe Leggio from Palermo[16]. Less frequently there are topics related to the history of Greece and Rome, such as and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey[17]. Sometimes plays are held referring to the tragedy of Shakespeare or stories about famous Sicilian criminals. Motifs from the literature have become the primary source of the Opera dei Pupi scripts. However, historical events are only a pretext for creating individual scenes of performances. Historical message of the puppet theater has many educational values. However, it should be remembered that there is also the danger of overinterpreting the content, mythologizing figures and attitudes, and ideologizing historical content.

Opera dei Pupi reproduces old thought patterns in which history is narrated not from the researcher’s point of view, but has a very subjective, culture-forming and ideological character. Most likely, there was no possibility of creative discussion with literary messages. The puppet theater refers directly to the Song of Roland and other literary texts without any dialogue with its content, meaning and form. One should also remember about the limitations of this theater, which still uses the same scenarios.

Sicilian puppets became popular at the end of the Middle Ages, while the peak of popularity was reached there by the puppet theater in the mid-nineteenth century. It is believed that it originates from the Spanish tradition that reached Sicily via Naples[18]. Sicilian puppets (pupi siciliani) used in local theaters derive from ritual figurines. The origins of the theater of Sicilian puppets reach back to street performances popular in the nineteenth century. They were intended for the audience, which enjoyed it during folk festivals, fairs accompanying the celebration of religious holidays, or celebrations in honor of the patrons of the provinces, cities and towns of Sicily. Puppet shows, as the productions of folk art, were a reflection of the popular perception of figures and events, not a faithful reproduction of the chronicles. It was inspiring for the viewers that they could compare the characters’ stories with their own lives. Opera dei Pupi was often an alternative to church art, eg Nativity play[19]. Puppeteers (pupari) were often illiterate. They knew, however, long poems from the cycle devoted to Charlemagne and his knights. The dolls were characterized so that they would best reproduce their literary prototypes. To this day, a custom is cultivated, in which the actor giving his voice to a noble hero speaks phrases in literary language, and in the case of people of lower status he uses a local dialect[20].

Despite the fact that the Sicilian puppet theater was based mainly on literary works and events from a distant history, the performances sometimes aroused strong controversy among the authorities. An example may be the period of the fascist regime when some scenes of puppet shows were censored by officials. The controversy was aroused, among others, by the story about Peppe Musolino bandit from Calabrian, especially the scene in which he tries to negotiate with a policeman. The local official decided that this could be misread because it suggests the possibility of law enforcement agencies cooperating with bandits. The dislike from fascist officials also aroused Rinaldo, who was perceived as a rebel – that is why many scenes in which he appeared were censored. The fears of fascist authorities regarding the puppet theater are proof of the impact that puppeteers had on society. Very often puppeteers referred to current political events in their plays, commenting on them, which was not convenient for the authorities[21].

Sicilian dolls originated not only from literature. While the nature of the characters they play was derived from from spoken and written sources, the appearance of puppets refers to the frescoes inside the Norman Palace (Palazzo dei Normanni) and Palazzo Chiaramonte-Steri in Palermo, which inspired the first puppeteers[22]. They are distinguished from other puppets by the way they are animated. Sicilian puppets are made of wood, have a solid rod that passes through the body and comes out of the doll’s head. The puppet is manipulated with this and a string attached to a hand[23]. Doll’s legs are loosely attached and can move freely. Thanks to such a design, it immediately reacts to the animator’s movements[24].

There are different traditions of Opera dei Pupi. The most known are dolls from Palermo and Catania. Palermian are made of nine wooden parts (feet, calves, thighs, bust, hands) connected by wire. The puppet has thickened knees and movable right hand to be able to take out the sword. A very important element is the movable head of dolls, which adds realism to the show and allows for rapid, quick movement[25]. The doll is about 65 cm high and weights from 7 to 10 kg.

Dolls from Catania are bigger – they measure about 140 cm, weigh about 20 kg and have stiff knees. Because of their greater weight, their movements are wider and more expressive than those of Palermo puppets[26].

Dolls are made of various types of wood, such as beech, walnut, lime and cypress[27]. Marionettes have intricately carved facial features, realistic glass eyes and very expressive personalities. They are dressed in extravagant costumes, knights have embossed armor with plumes, girls are dressed in fancy, fairy-tale dresses. Their costumes and props are made with great attention to detail.

The pupi siciliani performances are very dynamic. Duels and fights, rapid twists of action, short and simple dialogs with jokes are characteristic for them[28]. Each scene ends in a noisy battle, during which you can hear the buzzing armor and sword strikes. Christian knights are the defenders of the knights’ virtues, in the battle of good and evil they triumphant victories.

The viewer watching the show does not expect that during the fight the doll losing the duel will suddenly lose it’s head or limbs or will be split up in a caricatured manner. These scenes are exaggerated, they cause terror and at the same time they make people laugh[29]. The grotesque representation of the struggle results from the literal transfer of the convention of a literary work to a theater performance. These motifs are also characteristic of Italian art, in which the aesthetics of the abomination were present[30].

Characters played by Palermo dolls are not fanatically involved in the holy war, they are symbolic heroes, but also villains who take up the subject of love, death or honor[31].

Over the years, the popularity of the puppet theater began to decline. At the beginning of the twentieth century, other forms of communication such as film and animation developed, and it became more common to read to children of fairytales because the level of illiteracy was declining. After a long period of decline, along with the development of local cultural movements, supporting, among others, regional languages, interest in the puppet theater has started to increase again. Today, puppets are considered as important part of the Sicilian folk culture[32]. Along with the formalizing process of school education, the didactic importance of the theater decreased significantly. The theater put a greater emphasis on the aesthetic, social and entertainment qualities of the performances.

In 1965 the Association for the Conservation of Popular Traditions was formed[33]. Its initiator was Antonio Pasqualino, surgeon and anthropologist, researcher of the history and culture of Sicily. He dealt in particular with the subject of the Sicilian puppet theater, which in the second half of the twentieth century seemed to inevitably disappear[34]. Born in Palermo in a wealthy family he was from childhood fascinated by puppets. He spent many hours in theaters and workshops where puppets were made. As a medical student, he began to collect them. In those years his main activity focused mainly on the Sicilian puppet theater. He protected objects that seemed to be losing life both on the stage and in the audience. He collected money to support theaters, promote performances that wanted to attract new audiences other than traditional. Within a few years, hundreds of recordings on traditional performances were collected. For documentary purposes, not only puppeteers were interviewed, but also ordinary viewers, and new performances were also looked at. In this way, people wanted to combine tradition with contemporary theater activities[35]. Scientific symposia related to puppetry, storytelling, folk music, etc were also organized. Pasqualino also undertook to collect scripts, marionettes, props and furniture to protect them from destruction. All collected materials were first presented to the public at the exhibition in the Palazzo Fatta in Palermo in 1975, which was the first location of the International Puppet Museum in Palermo (Museo Internazionale delle Marionette) created for this purpose. This place was very impressive, especially the valuable frescoes made in 1771 by Antonio Manno attracted attention. At the same time, the museum conducted studies of the outstanding anthropologist Antonino Buttitta and folklorist Giuseppe Bonomo, professors at the University of Palermo, who continued their scientific work in the field of traditional Sicilian culture initiated by Giuseppe Pitre in 1913 and continued by Giuseppe Cocchiara until 1964.

After some time the Association expanded its activities, through the purchase of exhibits to the Museum from other countries. In this way, they wanted to expand the conducted research, also analyzing non-European traditions. Items collected in many European countries (including France, Spain) and the Far East (Thailand, Vietnam, Burma) have been deposited at the International Puppet Museum.

Ten years later, in 1985, the Museum found a larger and more functional location and moved to the building at Via Butera, in which the Hotel de France was located in 1700. After the untimely death of Antonio Pasqualino in 1995 the museum was named after him[36]. It was and is still managed by the Association for the Conservation of Popular Traditions. The museum has 10 exhibition rooms, in which about 250 objects from more than 5,000 pieces of the puppet collection are presented, hand trays, theatrical exhibits, posters from around the world, including: three complete theatrical sets: from Palermo, Catania and Reggio di Calabria. It also has hand puppets from northern Italy and France; dolls from Belgium; Turkish and Greek shadow puppets; Burmese and Indian string dolls; Asian shadow theater dolls from Malaysia, Thailand or India; African marionettes from Mali and Congo; masks and puppets from Benin; or hand-made dolls from Brazil and China[37].

The museum also has the Library Giuseppe Leggio, named after outstanding playwright and scholar, who studied the sources of legends and the analysed 15th and 16th century chivalric works written in poems or prose, archived in the main Italian, French and Spanish libraries. The most valuable objects in the library are a collection of scripts by Gaspare Canino and Natale Meli, as well as materials published at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, in particular the History of the Paladins of France by Giusto Lodico.

Especially valuable is the collection of about 300 reel tapes from the 1960s gathered by Antonio Pasqualino and Janne Vibaek, with interviews, performances, recordings of puppet shows, etc.

Every year since 1975 the museum has been organizing the Morgan Festival (Festival di Morgana), during which the performances of Opera dei Pupi are presented. Since 1985 the Festival is international.

The involvement of the Association in the preservation and promotion of the Sicilian puppet theater caused that the Opera dei Pupi was announced on May 18, 2001 and entered in November 2008 into the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of UNESCO[38].

Opera dei Pupi will never return to its glory and popularity when its main characters Orlando and his cousin Rinaldo were beloved heroes of the Sicilian peasant culture. However, it is part of the Sicilian tradition. While the traditional Sicilian puppet theater derived from literary and historical sources, today it has itself been the subject of studies by theatrologists and historians. History is the sphere from which writers, filmmakers, painters and sculptors draw inspiration. Some present it in a faithful way, others use it as a background to present fictional events, as in the case of puppet theater.

Opera dei Pupi is a very interesting example of history in the public space (public history) because through the performances the puppet theater reached and to a lesser extent still reaches (though enriched with literary motifs) the viewers with a historical message. Sicilian puppets are unique, different from ordinary puppet comedies created only for entertainment. Throughout the island, school-age children learn about this element of their local heritage and culture. Tourists are still very interested in participating in the most colorful and characteristic attractions of Sicily[39]. Only in Palermo there are several such theaters, including: Teatro Pupi Enzo Mancuso, Teatro dei Pupi Siciliani – Famiglia Argento, Teatro dell’Opera dei Pupi, Museo Internazionale delle Marionette Antonio Pasqualino. Sicilian puppets and puppeteers are also very popular outside the island. This means that the heritage of Charlemagne survived not only in the sense of transfer of historical and factual knowledge or geopolitical changes that it caused, but also as a source of inspiration for artistic creation, which is one of the elements of social space.

[1] Based on the performance: La battaglia di Orlando e Rinaldo per la bella Angelica, The Antonio Pasqualino International Puppet Museum, Palermo, 19.11.2018.
[2] Johnny Morris, Grail trail: Sicilian puppets, (08.02.2019).
[3] Michael Buonanno, Sicilian Epic and the Marionette Theater, Jefferson City 2014, pg. 8.
[4] Sicilian Puppets, (05.02.2019).
[5] Roland – a historical figure, a Frankish military leader under Charlemagne. He is the main character of The Song of Roland.
[6] Rinaldo – a fictional character belonging to the Carolingian cycle, one of the twelve paladins of France who were chosen guardians of the Emperor Charlemagne; is a cousin and rival to Orlando, both are striving for the favor of beautiful Angelika.
[7] Angelika – a princess from the Orient, for whom the two most important paladins from France, both in the service of Charlemagne: Orlando and Rinaldo, compete with each other.
[8] Pieśń o Rolandzie, unknown author, transl. T. Boy-Żeleński, (24.02.3019).
[9] T. Manteuffel, Średniowiecze, Warszawa 2002, pg. 88.
[10] The Song of Roland, XII.
[11] Ibidem, XLIV.
[12] Einhard, Życie Karola Wielkiego, transl. Jan Parandowski, Warszawa-Lwów 1935, pg. 41.
[13] The Song…, CLXXVI.
[14] Ibidem, CLXXVII.
[15] Pieśń…, op.cit., (24.02.3019).
[16] Storia dei Paladini di Francia,, (10.02.2019).
[17] The Sicilian Puppet theatre,, (07.02.2019).
[18] Ibidem, (07.02.2019).
[19] Antoni Gallo, Sicilian Marionettes and Puppet Theatre,, (06.03.2019).
[20] Włochy / Sycylia – opera dei pupi,, (15.02.2019).
[21] Sicily’s puppets and the precious role of the storyteller,, (06.03.2019).
[22] Opera dei Pupi, (08.02.2019).
[23] Marionette,, (08.02.2019).
[24] Włochy / Sycylia.., op.cit., (15.02.2019).
[25] Tano Bongiorno, Opera dei Pupi,, (08.02.2019).[26] Opera dei Pupi, op.cit., (08.02.2019).[27] Tano Bongiorno, op.cit., (08.02.2019).[28] Włochy / Sycylia.., op.cit., (15.02.2019).[29] Based on the performance: La battaglia…, op.cit.
[30] A, Pieńkos, Okropności sztuki. Nowoczesne obrazy rzeczy ostatecznych, Gdańsk 2000, pg. 143.[31] Johnny Morris, op.cit. (08.02.2019).
[32] Antonella Gallo, op.cit., (06.02.2019).
[33] Mary Taylor Simeti, The Stately Puppets of Sicily,, (15.02.2019).
[34] Rosario Perriccone, The Antonio Pasqualino International Puppet Museum, pg. 213,, (16.02.2019).
[35] Rosario Perriccone, op.cit., (16.02.2019).
[36] The Museum,, (06.02.2019).
[37] Rosario Perriccone, op.cit., (16.02.2019).
[38] Opera dei Pupi, Sicilian puppet theatre,, (06.02.2019).
[39] Mary Taylor Simeti, op.cit., (15.02.2019).

Małgorzata Skotnicka-Palka, PhD in the field of modern history, graduate of the Institute of History of the University of Wrocław (Poland). Research interests: contemporary history, didactics of history, social history, public history, culture. Since 2006 she has been cooperating with the Department of Didactics of History and Social Knowledge at the Institute of History at the University of Wrocław (Poland), conducting classes in didactics of history and knowledge about society. Co-organizer of the “Education – Culture – Society” conference cycle (2010-2018).


Kultura Enter, 2019/02 nr 88

• Performance: La battaglia di Orlando e Rinaldo per la bella Angelica, The Antonio Pasqualino International Puppet Museum, Palermo, 19.11.2018, photo Mateusz Palka (1, 2).

• Performance: La battaglia di Orlando e Rinaldo per la bella Angelica, The Antonio Pasqualino International Puppet Museum, Palermo, 19.11.2018, photo Mateusz Palka (1, 2).

The Antonio Pasqualino International Puppet Museum, Palermo, 04.01.2018, photo Mateusz Palka (3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9).

The Antonio Pasqualino International Puppet Museum, Palermo, 04.01.2018, photo Mateusz Palka (3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9).