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Passports: New Arrivals from the World of Puppetry
Notes by Bradford Clark, Curator
Italy, Sicily, Catania, string and vertical rod marionette
Gift of Nancy Lohman Staub
Opera Dei Pupi of Sicily
Tales of the emperor Charlemagne and his knights gave birth to the Sicilian Opera dei Pupi theatre. The heroic story cycles, partially improvised and always accompanied by music, could take many months to perform, with a different episode every night. Orlando (also known as Roland), Charlemagne’s paladin, is the hero of Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando Furioso. Love drives him mad, but in the end, he dies heroically. The plays celebrate themes of loyalty and personal sacrifice for the greater good.
The puppets of the Sicilian city of Catania may range up to eight feet, from the bottom of the feet to the top of the control. The puppets of the city of Palermo are generally smaller. Great strength is necessary to operate them.
Puppet traditions such as the Opera dei Pupi made their way to the United States during waves of immigration from Italy. The Manteo Family Marionettes of New York, who came to the United States from Italy (by way of Brazil) after WW I, actively performed through several generations, right up into the 1980s.
The Sicilian Opera dei Pupi has been recognized by UNESCO as an example of an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
UNESCO citation and video
Filmmaker Tony De Nonno speaks on the Opera dei Pupi and New York’s Manteo Family Marionettes at the Italian American Museum
A visit to Palermo’s International Puppet Museum, with an excerpt from an Opera Dei Pupi performance