If you’re taking a young family on holidays to Sicily, it usually isn’t too long before you encounter (often, quite by accident) a very charming aspect of the local culture: that of the “pupari”. The art of puppeteering has been a popular local folk culture since the 15th century, and I’ve discovered enchanting “opera dei pupi” in the most unexpected times and places in my travels around the island.
Developing into their more modern form around the 18th century, although referred to commonly as puppets, the Sicilian pupi are actually marionettes – which means they’re controlled by a series of strings rather than fitting over the hand. Carved from wood and adorned with cloth and metal armour and accessories, the production of the marionettes is an art form in itself.
There are still a number of traditional craftsmen that produce the Sicilian marionettes, using age-old methods. To give you an idea of the work involved, one marionette’s armour can comprise of up to 35 individual parts, which then need to be assembled – and that’s not to mention the puppet itself!
Over the centuries, those skilled in the trade usually pass their expertise down to family members and some names have become synonymous with marionette making. In Palermo, for example, the Cuticchios and the Pasqualinos are renowned as being among the world’s finest craftsmen in the trade.
The Ancient Stories They Tell
Most of the stories enacted by the marionette theatres still depict tales from medieval history and legend. They include those of the Charlemagne knights and their battles with the Saracens, the Norman knights, and the often-comedic romantic escapades of the Paladins, Orlando and Rinaldo, as they battle for the love of the beautiful Angelica. In recent times, the stories have evolved to include some of the more modern tales of the Sicilian aristocracy.
While originally designed as entertainment for children, the traditional stories often contain very adult themes in regards to the nobility, the church and the feudal society from which they originated.
The Famous Pupari of Palermo
While there are opera dei pupi in virtually every city and town around the island, if you’re visiting Palermo on your holidays to Sicily, not only will you find one of the most renowned, children will also fall in love with the wonderful museum entirely dedicated to the subject.
The Cuticchio Puppet Theatre
Located at Via Bara all’Olivella 95, right in the heart of Palermo, this wonderful old opera dei pupi has been a labour of love by the Cuticchio family for generations. Not only do they stage the intricate productions (incredibly, it’s all enacted by just four puppeteers), they also handcraft the marionettes in the traditional way.
Visiting the theatre is an experience in and of itself, and the minute you get inside it’s as if you’ve taken a giant leap back to medieval times. I always find it such a pleasure to see the rapt expressions on the children’s faces and, even though the entire production is in Italian (Sicilian dialect), you really don’t need to understand the language to experience the magic.
Antonio Pasqualino Museo
Speaking of magic, the Pasqualino International Marionette Museum provides its very own kind of appeal – revealing a fascinating insight into the history and craftsmanship of the pupi. Located on the second floor at Via Butera 1, the museum is home to over 3,000 marionettes and shadow puppets, in their various shapes, sizes and forms, from all over the world – as far afield as Japan, Poland, Indonesia and Cambodia.
As well as being able to get up close to the puppets, the museum runs its own opera dei pupi, with daily shows, as well as seminars in puppet making and various presentations and events.
The museum is open every day except Sunday, from 9am-630pm, closed between 1pm-2.30pm for lunch.
I’d urge everyone to explore the joy and craftsmanship of the pupari culture while on holidays to Sicily, and it’s certainly not just the children who will appreciate the joy of this ancient art.
John Dixon is an experienced world traveller and the Managing Director of Prestige Holidays. For over 30 years, he has been providing luxury holidays to Sicily, Bermuda, Croatia and many other destinations around the globe. John tries to visit each of the destinations regularly in order to ensure the quality of his properties, and stay up-to-date about the latest local news and events. He has a taste for the finer things in life and has an interest in arts, history and culture.
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