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Notes by Bradford Clark, Curator



Gianluca di Matteo
Italian, Turin region; hand puppet
Commissioned by Nancy Lohman Staub

Pulcinella, the clever, child-like servant, typically wears a black leather mask and a tall “bread loaf” hat.  The Pulcinella play has more variations than the traditional Punch and Judy play, but much of the comic business is similar, depending upon the hand puppet’s ability to handle props (such as a club) and quick, direct actions.

The Pulcinella performer speaks through a high-pitched reed variously called a pivetta, swazzle or other regional variations.  While his dialogue may be difficult to understand, a human assistant typically accompanies and translates for the squeaking Pulcinella, serving variously as musician, straight man and announcer, literally drumming up passerbys for the street-corner performance. Most importantly, he has the responsibility of passing the hat for payment at the end of the show.

Gianluca di Matteo, who created our figure, performs widely and has brought traditional Pulcinella performances to festival audiences around the world.

Puppetry and The Commedia Dell’arte

Hundreds of years ago, popular Italian commedia dell‘arte plays relied upon stock characters. Often played by leather-masked actors, these roles appeared again and again under different names and in different stories.  Known as “masks,” and often deriving from stereotypical views of “typical” personalities in different regions, the various characters spoke in a variety of dialects.

Improvising their dialogue from basic storylines, talented actors wandered through Europe, thrilling audiences with verbal wit and skillful acrobatics and juggling.  Contemporary companies keep these traditional characters alive, and much of the work of Cirque du Soleil may be traced back to the commedia.

The characters of the commedia – including Arlequino (Harlequin, the servant), Dottore (the pompous doctor), Capitano (the braggart captain), Briguella (the wily, violent servant) and Pulcinella soon found additional homes in operas, ballets, and in the Italian puppet theatre, as well as in the plays of Shakespeare, Goldoni and Gozzi.  Perhaps most famously, Pierrot, the tragic romantic, found popularity in France in the 19th century.

Italian puppets toured throughout Europe and other parts of the world, eventually establishing themselves in their new homes (and with new names) as local members of the extended family of Punch and Judy.

Gianluca di Matteo at Covent Garden

Salvatore Gatto performs an excerpt from Pulcinella and the Dog

Edward de Fellipo demonstrates the mask of Pulcinella

Gianluca di Matteo’s website (in Italian)

Bruno Leone as Pulcinella - the master of classic Italian hand puppetry: Bruno Leone as Pulcinella

Center for Puppetry Arts catalog page

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