INTRODUCTION: Ever since I had the good fortune to visit Sicily in the 1980's and purchased a puppet there, I have been interested in these unusual rod puppets. Often people finding them and putting them up for sale on eBay do not know what they or appreciate their significance. Therefore, I am writing this guide to help both sellers and buyers.
Puppets are considered by many to have originated in Italy. Both
Xenophon and Plutarch made reference to the use of puppets. Puppet
comes from the latin word "pupus" or "pupi" which means little child.
the fall of Rome the Christian Church continued to use puppets to
perform morality plays. The word "marionette" may originate from the
figures of the Virgin Mary or "Mary doll" used in the performances.
When some puppeteers began to inject comedy into the the morality
plays, the church became concerned (with probable justification) that
the inclusion of such comedy could be viewed as poking fun at
religion. The church decided to ban the use of puppets. While the
Church ban ended the use of puppets in morality plays, it did not end
puppetry. Instead, the puppeteers set up stages outside cathedrals,
where puppet plays became even more ribald and filled with slapstick
Puppetry not only continued in Italy, but spread out to
other European countries whree puppets were used in place of actors.
For the purposes of this guide, I am going to concentrate on the
continued development of puppetry in Italy, particularly Sicily.
In Italy, puppet plays outside the Cathedrals developed into the type of theater called Commedia dell'Arte.
Themes of puppet plays relied more and more on local events and legends
rather than religious stories. After the time of Charlemagne (crowned
Holy Roman Emperor 800 A.D.), stories about Charlemagne and his knights
became popular themes. Most of the puppet theaters operated in Naples
and Rome, but from the first half of the 1800's, the puppet theater in
Sicily (particularly in the city of Palermo) was where this Italian art
form reached its full development. Frankish romantic poems centering
on the Medieval epic poem "The Song of Roland" combined with the
Sicilian troubadour tradition of cantastori (sing stories) were put on in puppet theaters featuring wooden puppets. This Sicilian puppet theater became known as the Opira dei pupi (Opera of the puppets).
MARIONETTES VS PUPPETS:
terms "marionette" and "puppet" are often used interchangeably though
"puppet" applies to a broader range of dolls such as: finger puppets,
glove or hand puppets, rod puppets, and shadow puppets. Marionettes
are generally considered the most complex of puppets having many moving
parts that are controlled by strings attached to a cross-piece held
above the doll. Sicilian "marionettes" are among the simplest forms of
marionettes to operate. The puppet is usually carved out of wood and
has a sturdy rod extend up through the body into the head. This rod
has two strings attached (one for each of the puppet's hands) is used
to manipulate the puppet. Thus, the Sicilian puppet is often called a
rod or string marionette.
WHAT ARE THE PLAYS ABOUT?
Sicilian puppet plays were made by and for the people putting into
action popular folk lore. The puppets acted out the people's dilemma
between being faithful or not, Christian or pagan, good vs. evil, poor
vs. rich. The puppet plays represented a dramatic dialogue offering
an interpretation of history that the common man could understand and
debate. The marionettes exemplified the hopes, the struggles, the
victories and the defeats of their own existence. Although they
idealized the nobility which ruled Sicily and reinforced the feudal
society that continued to exist in the countryside, puppetry allowed
the people to make political comments without fear of persecution.
stories were very long and meant to be watched by the local people in
installments every evening for months. Often the audience even
participated in the play by throwing items such as fruit at the
There are many characters in the Sicilian Puppet Theater. The stories
are based on historical and literary characters and only loosely on
actual historical events of the Middle Ages. Charlemagne of course is
included. Two others usually found are Orland (better known as Roland
a great fighter and friend of Charlemagne), Rinaldo (a knight who is a
more romantic Robin Hood sort of character), and the Norman knights of
King Roger of Sicily. These heroes are pitted in battles with the
Saracens / Moors. Sometimes they fight dragons or devils. Sometimes
the heroes fight each other over the love of a particular lady, the
DESCRIPTION OF THE PUPPETS:
Sicilian wood puppets were not dressed in armor or carried swords in the early days as they are today. In modern times, some of these Sicilian marionettes in the theater are quite large (nearly the size of a twelve-year-old human child). Fast-paced battles where "heads fly and blood (beet juice) flows" have entertained audiences for two centuries. Smaller models of the puppets are sold to tourists and collectors.
Quality of the puppets varies. The best Sicilian marionettes are considered among the world's finest. There are a few families who specialize in making puppets and/or in performing in the plays. Both arts require years of training and highly developed skills. Each marionette is hand crafted with different facial expressions and different costumes composed of brass, copper, velvet and wood.
SAMPLES OF THE SICILIAN PUPPETS:
Puppets from left to right include: Orlando (Roland), Angelica, Charlemagne, a Saracen, and Rinaldo.
STATUS OF SICILIAN PUPPETS TODAY:
From the late 1800's the Sicilian puppet theaters began to deline as first Italian nationalism, and then Fascism made the medieval crusading themes obsolete. After World War II, these puppet plays nearly disappeared as Italians became more prosperous and more urbanized. Movies and television replaced the excitement of puppet shows. A few theaters have survived and some interest in them has
revived this folk art and rescued it through public funding.
Outside of Italy, the marionettes and puppet theater most like those found in Sicily are found in Belgium.
n 2001 UNESCO declared the Sicilian Puppet Theater a "Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity." Despite this world recognition, Sicilian puppets and theaters are quickly disappearing.
PRICES range (depending on size) anywhere from about $25 to over $100. If they are very large, of a high quality, signed by the maker, and vintage, they will bring a much higher price from the collector.
KEY WORDS to use in searching for these puppets are:
Sicilian puppet, knight puppet, rod puppet, string puppet, marionette, knight doll, conquistidor, Spanish puppet, Italian puppet . . . . (note that puppet and marionette are often interchangeable in these catch phrases).
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