The Sicilian puppets of the traditional Catania school.

Sicilian puppets

… the whole history of the paladins of France, from the death of King Pepin the Short (768 D.C) to the death of Charlemagne (814 D.C), 46 years of history in about 354 episodes.

The Sicilian puppets
Sicilian puppets animated by the Napoli Brothers. Catania

What are sicilian puppets?

Sicilian puppets are certainly the first form of manual animation.
The Puppet Opera is the traditional puppet theater in Sicily and was recognized by UNESCO: “A masterpiece of the oral and immaterial heritage of humanity”.

Giuseppe Pitrè, the greatest Palermo scholar of Sicilian folklore, in his grandiose work “Library of Sicilian popular traditions”, indicates religion as a possible origin of the creation of puppets.
The epic battles between Christian heroes (such as Orlando and Rinaldo) and the Saracen infidels, touches the entire sensitivity of the entire Sicilian people, of which one of its main characteristics is precisely religious devotion.

This is one of the reasons why Sicilian folklore has focused on that precise chivalrous period, so profoundly religious, both in the historical reality and in the many legends nowadays.

Animated Sicilian puppets
Sicilian puppets animated by Mimmo Cuticchio

When are Sicilian puppets born?

The real date of origin of the “Opra dei pupi” and the first “puparo” remain in the mystery.
The puppet theater has existed for centuries in Sicily, it has always been considered the theater of that people. Day after day the people filled the theaters to follow the vicissitudes of the knights who were represented in episodes.

sicilian puppets advertising
Sicilian puppets. Advertising sign of the time. Napoli Brothers. Catania

The puppets tell the whole story of the paladins of France, from the death of King Pepin the Short (768 D.C) to the death of Charlemagne (814 D.C), 46 years of history in about 354 episodes, which entertained the Sicilian people; and every night with a different episode.

In those days the puppets were present everywhere.
They were painted on means of transport, or on Sicilian carts; and they even entered people’s homes. For example, we recall “the pupiddi a biscotto”, a puppet-shaped biscuit that children ate in milk.
Or the sugar puppets that were made in November on the day of the dead.
So the children, continually seeing the puppets painted and eating them at breakfast, fell in love with this figure, so much so that they then filled the theaters every time a theater was set up.

Sicilian cart
Sicilian cart with painted sicilian puppets

In addition to the history of the Paladins of France and the Orlando furious, the repertoire has been enriched with other representations, both religious, like the Nativity of Christ, and literary, such as Macbeth and Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Works reworked with great care and art by the Napoli brothers, master “pupàri” (puppeteers) for five generations.

Sicilian puppets represent the nativity
Sicilian puppets represent the nativity. Animated by the Napoli brothers. Catania

How are Sicilian puppets made?

In the first half of the 1800s the puppets were a little smaller than the current ones.
The master puppeteers of that period were very attentive to the beauty of the faces and the elegance of armor and clothes.

There are two main traditional schools concerning the puppet-making technique.
The Palermo school, present in western Sicily and the Catania school, which represented eastern Sicily.

In the Palermo tradition, the puppet has a height between 80 and 100 cm and weighs about 10 kilos; it has articulated legs and is maneuvered to the side.
In the Catanese tradition, the puppet is 140 cm tall and weighs 30 kilos. It is less dynamic and is moved from the top by a raised point in the scene (Scannappoggiu).

Sicilian puppets of the Catania tradition
Sicilian puppets of the Catania tradition

The armor is in brass, the arabesques are in copper. The head and the body are carved in wood. The symbol of the paladins is the cross and is often seen represented on the armor and on the shield.
The left hand, the one holding the shield, is tied to a thread that will serve to raise and lower it. The right hand, which holds the sword in its fist, is commanded by an iron wand that will serve to move it during the fighting.
The left leg is animated thanks to another cord, which lifts it and will allow the puppet to kick, climb or kneel.
Another thread is attached to the visor that lowers and rises during the fighting.

Sicilian puppets detail
A detail of the working of Sicilian puppets

What is the name of the Sicilian puppets?

The most beloved characters were the paladins of France, inspired by the furious Orlando of Ludovico Ariosto.
Here are some of the most famous characters, represented by Sicilian puppets.

Orlando. The most famous of the characters, who wears an eagle on his helmet and the color of his fabrics is red. Elected first paladin of France, in love with the beautiful Angelica, for which he lost his mind.
Armed with durlindana, in whose handle he holds the relics of the saints, he slaughters enemies.

Sicilian puppets. Orlando
Sicilian puppets. Orlando

Rinaldo. With green dress and helmet surmounted by a lion. Bradamante’s brother and Orlando’s cousin. Much loved by the public for his generosity, he too hopelessly in love with Angelica and, therefore, Orlando’s rival. Reason that will make the two cousins duel.

Sicilian puppets. Rinaldo
Sicilian puppets. Rinaldo

Angelica. The beautiful lady contested between two of the most important Paladins of France. It created confusion in the French courts, in fact Orlando and Rinaldo became great enemies because of this great love.

Sicilian puppets Angelica
Sicilian puppets. Angelica

Ruggiero. Paladin wearing a white eagle on his helmet. In love and husband of Bradamante, sister of Rinaldo.
Bradamante. Warrior woman, valiant paladin and great supporter of the Christian faith. In love with Ruggiero, despite being pagan and she a Christian.

Sicilian puppets

Where to see Sicilian puppets?

The “pupàro” is a very complex job, because it is not limited to just maneuvering the puppets.
The puppeteer has to manage the whole show and the entire staff he works with. At the same time he is a craftsman, he must know how to build a puppet, know how to stage it and give it life in the theater.

In 1835, in Catania, the first puppeteer was Gaetano Crimi.
Another historic puppeteer is Don Gaetano Napoli, who in 1921, in Catania, opened his first theater, starting a family tradition that still lives today.
Now in its fifth generation of puppeteers without interruption and without pause, the company offers a guided tour of the “Antica Bottega del puparo”, in Via Reitano, 55 in Catania (Castello Ursino area).

Shop Napoli Brothers
The “Antica Bottega del puparo” of Napoli Brothers

In Randazzo, near Catania, the Museum of Sicilian Puppets has today in the ex slaughterhouse, at Largo S. Giuliano.
The collection has 39 puppets of immense artistic and cultural value. Created between 1800 and 1900 by puppeteers of the Catania School: the sculptor Puddu Maglia and Emilio Musumeci, famous as a sculptor of heads, builder of armor, painter of scenes and talker. The puppet costumes are made of fine fabric and chiseled metal armor.

Museum of Sicilian Puppets
Museum of Sicilian Puppets in Randazzo. Catania

So the attraction is not only that of the theater, but of all that is around Sicilian puppets. It is also that of the Museum, the shop, local crafts, old postcards, typical Sicilian objects and the precious books of the time.

The experience of Sicilian puppets is a rich experience, through them the Sicilian culture is deeply told, in its depth and its origins.
An experience not to be missed here in Catania!

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