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How Sicily’s Last UNESCO-Recognized Puppeteers Are Fighting to Save Their Tradition

By Jessica Vincent

Apr 13, 2020

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Vincenzo Argento (left) and his son, Nicolo (right), are among the few remaining practitioners of Sicily’s traditional puppet theater, known as Teatro dei Pupi, or Opera dei Pupi.

Photo by Jessica Vincent

Vincenzo Argento (left) and his son, Nicolo (right), are among the few remaining practitioners of Sicily’s traditional puppet theater, known as Teatro dei Pupi, or Opera dei Pupi.

In the Italian island’s cobblestoned capital, a centuries-old craft has few remaining practitioners.

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Note: Though COVID-19 has stalled a lot of travel plans, we hope our stories can offer inspiration for your future adventures—and a bit of hope.

In a dimly lit theater in Palermo, Sicily, a thick red velvet curtain draws back to reveal an armored knight poised for battle. He slices through the brass shields and plumed helmets of his opponents with the elegance of a crazed ballet dancer; a swift strike of his sword sends another doomed warrior through the air, his decapitated head hitting the floor with a thud. Once the clang of metal ceases, the knight takes his position at center stage to declare his undying love for the princess, Angelica. The crowd lets out an excited cheer for the much-loved hero of the 1516 chivalric epic, Orlando Furioso—a limewood carved puppet standing about 32 inches tall.

The puppet’s strings are held by Nicolo Argento, a fourth-generation puparo (puppet master) and the co-owner Teatro Argento, one of Palermo’s few remaining puppet theatres. Nicolo was just seven years old when he first learned how to chisel the limbs of a pupo (marionette). As a young boy, he would spend his afternoons repairing broken shields, painting misty woodland backdrops, and sewing costumes with his father at the Argento puppet theater and workshop, which has been owned by Nicolo’s family since his great-grandfather established it in 1893. But due to a dwindling interest in the traditional Sicilian art form, puppet theater—or Teatro dei Pupi—is under threat.

Teatro dei Pupi, also known as Opera dei Pupi, emerged in Sicily at the beginning of the 19th century.

During its heyday in the early 19th and 20th centuries, Teatro dei Pupi was Sicily’s prime form of entertainment. Puppeteers from Catania and Palermo, Sicily’s two major puppet theater hubs, would travel the island performing medieval epics in nightly installments. The most popular performances–the ones that still endure in both cities–were those about the Christian crusades, written in the early 1500s. 

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Aside from entertainment, puppet theater also served as a catalyst for moral behavior in Sicily, which has long been one of the poorest regions in Italy. In the past, much of Sicily’s population was without access to television or radio and often even basic schooling, making Teatro dei Pupi, also known as Opera dei Pupi (puppet opera), the easiest and most efficient way to educate the Sicilian population. Puppeteers could build pop-up theaters quickly and cheaply and could explore themes of honor, bravery, and the fight between good and evil.

“At the height of Sicily’s puppet tradition, there were 40 theatres in Palermo,” Nicolo says. “Now, we are only 3.” 

In the early 1950s, however, Sicily’s Teatro dei Pupi began to decline. Unable to compete with TV, radio, and cinema, many puppeteers—most of whom had dedicated their entire lives to the craft—were forced to close their theaters. To revive the dying craft, a Sicilian anthropologist named Antonio Pasqualino founded the Association for the Conservation of Folk Traditions in 1965. Its founding goal was to raise Teatro dei Pupi’s profile through regular puppet workshops, performances, and exhibitions (such as the now popular Festival di Morgana, an international puppet festival held annually in Palermo). Ten years later, the association opened the International Puppet Museum in the Sicilian capital. There, through a collection of more than 4,000 puppets, theater props, and scripts, visitors can trace the long history of puppet theater not just in Sicily, but across Europe and Asia, too. 

In 2008, Opera dei Pupi was inscribed on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list, aimed at safeguarding and promoting the world’s most precious art forms and traditions. While UNESCO recognition is helpful in raising awareness about the art form and giving it some official credibility (particularly among tourists), Nicolo thinks it isn’t enough to keep Sicilian puppet theater alive. “At the height of Sicily’s puppet tradition, there were 40 theatres in Palermo,” Nicolo says. “Now, we are only 3.” 

At family-run puppet theaters such as Teatro Argento, Sicilian puppet masters carve detailed wooden marionettes and handpaint the figurines using traditional methods.

To help ensure this traditional craft lasts another generation, Teatro Argento is changing with the times. “For this endangered art to survive, our shows must become more relevant to modern audiences,” Nicolo continues. Teatro Argento traditionally offers chivalric puppet operas—which are popular with tourists and older Sicilian audiences—but they’ve started to experiment with plays that tackle modern-day issues faced by Sicilians, such as immigration and Mafia-related conflict.  

Attracting new audiences isn’t Teatro Argento’s only challenge, however. At the height of puppet theater’s popularity in Sicily during the 19th century, there would be a team of up to 10 artisans, including carpenters, welders, and painters, working on the production of each show. Now, due to small profit margins, Nicolo and his 81-year-old father, Vincenzo, have to do everything themselves, from painting backdrops to carving puppets. “We currently have 160 pupi [puppets], and we’re always making more,” says Nicolo.

Inside a tiny workshop just across the street from the theater, visitors can watch Nicolo and Vicente working on their puppets daily. (Making one puppet can take weeks to complete.) The skilled puppeteers meticulously carve the nearly 29-pound marionettes using limewood, fixing each with metal rods before hand painting the figurines. The Argentos cut, shape, and weld each of their puppets’ metal armor entirely by hand, too—a skill that Nicolo learned during his childhood by watching his father. “There is so much to learn and very few resources out there,” says Nicolo, “so unless you are born into it, it’s very hard to become a puppeteer.”

From the early 1800s through the 1950s, Opera dei Pupi was hugely popular among Sicily’s working classes. Performances often told stories based on medieval chivalric literature or Italian Renaissance poems.

Nicolo doesn’t have children, so he fears that once he and his father pass away, there will be no one left to continue this beloved tradition. A lack of puppet theater schools, as well as insufficient government funding to promote the art, means that even if younger generations do show an interest in becoming pupari, it’s hard for them to pursue that interest because there are no courses or classes available. To combat this issue, the Argento family invites their audiences backstage after each show in the hopes of educating younger generations about the art. “It’s not traditional to do this,” says Nicolo. “But we think it’s important to inspire our younger audiences to take up puppet theater.”

Nicolo’s biggest dream is to run puppeteer courses in schools and universities. But without adequate financing, he fears his dream of inspiring the next generation will remain forever in the pipeline. Still, he remains committed to the craft. “Our love for this art is strong,” he says. “We will not give up.”

>>Next: The Uplifting Ways Italians Are Coping With the Coronavirus Lockdown

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