Palermo and the Sicilian puppets Art

Mara Noveni | Live the World

May 29, 2024

In the heart of the wonderful island of Sicily, in Italy, a fascinating and millenary tradition is intertwined with the local history and culture: the art of Sicilian puppets. An ancient form of puppetry, Sicilian puppets are puppets with intricate details, brought to life in the skilled and passionate hands of their puppeteers. The two main puppet schools are located in Palermo and Catania, they are distinguished by the size and signature of the puppets. And today I take you to this magical world, to tell you about Palermo and the Sicilian Puppets Art.

Unesco cultural heritage since 2001, and since 2008 registered in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, the Opera dei Pupi, born in the early nineteenth century, is the traditional puppet theatre in Sicily. Today it survives thanks to some families who handed down this art and it is much loved and followed. The characteristic that distinguishes these from all the other puppets is their particular manoeuvre mechanics and the theatrical repertoire in which they engage, mainly based on chivalrous narratives.

© iStock / ItalianFoodProduction

The History of Sicilian Puppets

Sicilian puppets are a popular art form with ancient origins and have developed in Sicily over the centuries. The history of Sicilian puppets dates back to the Arab-Norman period when the Norman kings who ruled Sicily had commercial relations with the East. It was during this period that a form of entertainment began to develop and used puppets to represent the stories of knights and princes.

© iStock / Dziurek

Over time, puppets became increasingly popular and spread throughout Sicily. They were mainly used during religious celebrations and weddings, but also in the theatres of the main Sicilian cities. Over the centuries, the puppet tradition has been enriched with new characters and stories, becoming an increasingly complex and refined art form.

In the 19th century, the Sicilian puppets reached the peak of their popularity, thanks above all to Giuseppe Pitrè, a scholar who collected and catalogued many of the stories and traditions related to the puppets. However, during the 20th century, the puppet tradition suffered a decline, due to changing public tastes and competition from other forms of entertainment.

In recent years, however, the tradition of Sicilian puppets is experiencing a new renaissance, thanks above all to the commitment of some enthusiasts who are trying to preserve and spread this art form. Today, Sicilian puppets are considered a cultural heritage of humanity by UNESCO, and represent one of the oldest and most fascinating popular traditions in Italy.

© iStock / wiesdie

The craftsmen and the construction work

The artisans who make Sicilian puppets are true masters of the art, devoted keepers of a centuries-old tradition that requires extraordinary skill and dedication. With skill and passion, these skilled hands bring to life characters that seem to leap from the pages of history books.

The process of creating Sicilian puppets is an entirely handmade job, which requires patience and meticulous attention to detail. The craftsmen start by carving the wood, creating the solid structure of the puppets. Using techniques passed down from generation to generation, they sculpt every single part of the body, from expressive faces to graceful arms and legs.

Once the wood sculpture has been made, the craftsmen move on to the painting stage. With fine brushes and bright colours, they paint the faces of the characters, enriching every detail with artistry. Every expression, every wrinkle and every nuance captures the essence of the character and brings the puppet to life.

© Raistoria

No less important is the dressing phase. The craftsmen choose fine fabrics and handcraft every dress, every cloak and every armour, creating masterpieces of artisan tailoring. Elaborate embroideries, golden details and refined accessories complete the look of the characters, giving them a timeless elegance.

But the creation of a Sicilian puppet doesn't stop at its aesthetics. The craftsmen are also masters at making the puppets moveable and functional. With thin metal wires or cords, they fix the moving parts of the puppets, allowing them to move realistically during theatrical performances.

Each puppet is unique, the result of many hours of meticulous work and craftsmanship experience handed down from generation to generation. The artisans who make Sicilian puppets embody the soul of traditional art, proudly preserving the history and culture of Sicily. Their extraordinary skill is what allows these puppets to evoke deep feelings and transport the audience into an enchanted world.

© iStock / Travel Faery

These are hand-made puppets, which are used to represent heroic and mythological stories. The tradition of Sicilian puppets has roots in Arab and Norman culture, which have influenced the history of the island.

The art of the puppeteer

Since ancient times, Palermo has played a crucial role in the preservation and dissemination of the art of puppets. The city is the beating heart of this tradition, welcoming puppeteers and spectators from all over the world to enjoy the magnificent performances that take place in its historic puppet theatres.

Sicilian puppets tell epic stories of heroes, battles and love, often inspired to medieval epics. The main characters include the valiant paladin Orlando, the wise wizard Merlin and the brave and beautiful Angelica. Gripping storylines and vibrant fights make puppet shows an immersive experience for audiences of all ages.

© iStock / Angela Ravaioli

But the art of puppets is not just entertainment, it is a cultural treasure that is passed on from generation to generation. The puppeteers of Palermo, true guardians of this tradition, dedicate years to the creation of the puppets, masterfully carving every detail and covering the figures with bright colours and fine fabrics. Each puppet is a handcrafted masterpiece, a miniature work of art that mesmerizes spectators with its beauty and movements. Each puppet built is like a son to its creator, only in this way, he can give him his soul during the show, because he knows everything about that son.

The art of the puppeteer, which is handed down from father to son, ignites the magic of these ancient stories of heroism and betrayal, of witches and stratagems,  often of evil and bloodthirsty Moors who besiege the cities and undermine the damsels contending for their love with brave knights.

The mastery of the puppeteer lies, in addition to manoeuvring the puppets, in acting. Alone, or at most helped by a collaborator, he recites all the dialogues, changing his voice according to the character on stage and creating, only with the power of interpretation and a pinch of dialectal inflexion, lively attention, suspense and the strong emotional participation of the audience.

An unmissable moment in every drama is the scene of the battle or duel during which the puppets, all with helmets and armour as in the time of Charlemagne, draw their swords, protect themselves with their shields and then go on the attack, banging violently among them.

The Palermitan puppet is just under a meter tall and weighs about 8 kg, has articulated knees and, skilfully manoeuvred by the puppeteer, is extremely agile in his movements, fast and agile in duels.

© Museo Internazionale delle Marionette “Antonio Pasqualino”

Where to see Sicilian puppets in Palermo

The theatres that host this form of entertainment have made a comeback in recent years, after a period of neglect, and in Palermo there are many:

If you are fascinated by this ancient art and want to know more, you can book a guided tour of Palermo by night, during which the guide will also take you in front of the Opera dei Pupi theatre and will tell you about this beautiful ancient Sicilian tradition.

© Get Your Guide

Or you can opt for a Street Food and History Walking Tour, which combines the history of Palermo with the knowledge of street food, and which among the locations to view also includes the Teatro dell'Opera dei Pupi.

© Get Your Guide

Furthermore, if you also include the splendid city of Syracuse in your Sicilian tour, you can book a Museum Guided Tour with a Sicilian Puppet show, attend a puppet show and visit the entire theatre.

© Get Your Guide

Palermo is a city that welcomes puppet art lovers with warmth and hospitality. In addition to the theatrical performances, it is possible to visit museums and ateliers where you can discover the history and the process of creating these animated works of art. Spectators can also have the opportunity to attend real "workshops" of puppeteers, where they can learn traditional techniques and maybe even try their hand at manipulating puppets.

In conclusion, the art of Sicilian puppets in Palermo is a vibrant testimony to the glorious past of Sicily and to the love of its inhabitants for art and tradition. It is a form of performance that enchants and inspires, unites past and present, and continues to be celebrated as a true cultural jewel. Come and discover Palermo and the Sicilian puppets art!

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