Where to go?
The fate of puppets and marionettes in Italy took an upward turn in the 16C, when the aristocracy took an interest in marionettes. The spread to a wider, paying audience came about in the 18C. But it was not until the mid-19C that the puppet show became a genre, complete with shiny armour, swords and agile movements in fight scenes.
Sicilian puppet masters weave their stories around bandits, saints and Shakespearean heroes, as well as local vignettes. The favourite source of subject matter is the popular picaresque stories of chivalry, from the Carolingian cycle, in particular. The puppeteers prepare a text that follows the basic lines of the plot, and then exaggerate clashes between the paladins and infidels, as the fight is always the culmination of the show.
The puppeteers’ arrival was always awaited with great anticipation, most especially by the less fortunate classes, and no one would dream of missing a single performance. This is why the puppeteers would break up the story into episodes and present them in series that might last several months. Each performance had to include at least one fight (such was the explanation for having to adapt the historical facts).
The puppet master also prepared various boards with panels summarising the salient elements of the story. The board, displayed outside the theatre, would act as an advertisement for the evening and also summarise for the public the story so far. In 2001, Sicilian puppet theatre was declared a masterpiece of oral tradition by UNESCO.
The most famous protagonists were the paladins (courtly peers) of France who, under the leadership of Charlemagne, spent their lives fighting the infidels. The show hinged on predetermined values and sentiments: there were “goodies” (the paladins), “baddies” (the infidels) and traitors, such as Gano di Magonza. The audience participates in the show and takes the sides of one character or another. At one time puppet performances were followed so closely that the audience would immediately recognise the characters. The easiest markers are the shields: Orlando’s shield has a cross, while Rinaldo and Bradamante carry shields bearing a lion.
The show has three main elements: the puppet who acts on stage; the master who remains off-stage, pulls the strings and voices several characters at a time; and the music. The latter emphasises the most dramatic moments, particularly when there is a duel – the sound of clashing swords must be accompanied by the frenzied strains of a mechanical pianola or wind instruments. Stunt puppets even pull off special effects: one might lose its head or be torn asunder, only to be magically restored to one piece in the next show, or a witch might need to take on a disguise, turning from a pretty, angelic face to a death mask.
Puppets are made of wood and are jointed with metal hinges (the warriors, at least); their manipulation is controlled by lengths of wire connected to the head and right hand. The embossed armour is usually made of bronze or copper. There are two main schools: Palermo and Catania (associated with the school of Acireale), which builds puppets to different criteria.
The Palermo puppet is around 80cm–1m/2.5–3.25ft in height, weighs 8kg/18lb, has flexible knees and can draw and sheathe its sword. Its relative lightness makes it easy to manoeuvre: the puppet moves with extreme agility, reacting quickly and suddenly to provocation, and seemingly jumping about on stage to drive home or avoid blows during a duel.
Palermo puppets are moved from the side, and the puppet master has to stretch out his arm to reach the centre of the stage. The Catania puppet measures 1.4m/4.6ft in height and weighs between 16 and 20kg/35–44lb. Its knees are rigid (partly because supporting such a weight for any length of time would be a mean feat) and its sword is always drawn, ready to parry blows. The Acireale puppet has the same features as the Catania puppet, but the height (1.2m/4ft) and the weight (15–18kg/33–40lb) are different.
The puppets from Catania and Acireale, are heavier, have longer wires and are controlled from above: the puppet master standing on a manoeuvring bench (in the case of the Acireale puppets), 1.9m/6.25ft high.