The puppet theatre known as the Opera dei Pupi emerged in Sicily at the beginning of the nineteenth century and enjoyed great success among the island’s working classes. The puppeteers told stories based on medieval chivalric literature and other sources, such as Italian poems of the Renaissance, the lives of saints and tales of notorious bandits.
Opera dei Pupi Origins
The opera of the puppets and the Sicilian tradition of cantastorîas (singers of tales) are rooted in the Provençal "Troubadour" tradition in Sicily during the reign of Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, in the first half of the 13th century.
The dialogues in these performances were largely improvised by the puppeteers. The two main Sicilian puppet schools in Palermo and Catania were distinguished principally by the size and shape of the puppets, the operating techniques and the variety of colourful stage backdrops.
These theatres were often family-run businesses; the carving, painting and construction of the puppets, renowned for their intense expressions, were carried out by craftspeople employing traditional methods. The puppeteers constantly endeavoured to outdo each other with their shows, and they exerted great influence over their audience. In the past, these performances took place over several evenings and provided opportunities for social gatherings.
Sicilian puppet theatre evolution
Following a long decline, there has been a small resurgence of interest in puppet theatre in recent decades, coinciding with regionalist cultural movements supporting things like regional languages (dialects).
The economic and social upheavals caused by the extraordinary economic boom of the 1950s had a considerable effect on the tradition, threatening its very foundations. At that time, similar forms of theatre in other parts of Italy disappeared, some of them to re-emerge some twenty years later. The Opera dei Pupi is the only example of an uninterrupted tradition of this kind of theatre.
You can admire the richest collection of marionettes at the Museo Internazionale delle Marionette Antonio Pasqualino, and at the Museo Etnografico Siciliano Giuseppe Pitrè in Palermo.