L'Opera dei Pupi, the puppet theatre emerged in Sicily in the 19th century and enjoyed great success among the popular classes. The puppeteers related stories based on medieval chivalric literature and Italian poems of the Renaissance as well as on the lives of saints and notorious bandits. The dialogues were improvised by the puppeteers.
The 2 main puppet schools in Sicily, Palermo and Catania were known principally for the size and shape of their puppets and for their stage techniques and colourful landscape backdrops dÃ©cor. The theatres were mainly family-run businesses passed down from generation to generation. However, the carving, painting, and fabrication of the very sophisticated puppets were done by specialised craftspeople employing traditional methods and techniques.
The puppet shows were spread over several evenings and provided opportunities for the different social classes to go out and chat about everyday matters in the community. This kind of theatre reflected the Sicilians' feeling of belonging and their awareness of a common identity.
Unfortunately, the economic boom of the 1950s had a considerable effect on this art form and threatened it to its very foundations. Similar theatres in Italy disappeared at the same time only to reappear 20 years later.
L'Opera dei Pupi is therefore the only example of an uninterrupted tradition of this kind of theatre. Today, technical progress, in particular the television, has turned many Sicilians away from these performances. Economic difficulties have also affected this traditional theatre form since many puppeteers can no longer make a living from their art. Tourism has also caused a decline in the quality of performances which were previously aimed at local audiences.
Plans are being made to organise training workshops for young puppeteers and festival awards for best troupes. National and international performances are also foreseen with the setting up of a school of puppetery to safeguard the future of L'Opera dei Pupi.
Series: Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity
Credits: NHK Enterprises 21 Inc (publisher), ORTUS Japan (publisher), UNESCO (producer).
Published in: 2002
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