Where Have All the Brave Knights Gone? Sicilian Puppet Theater and the Tuscan-Emilian Epic Maggio *

By Cavallo, JoAnn | Italian Culture, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Where Have All the Brave Knights Gone? Sicilian Puppet Theater and the Tuscan-Emilian Epic Maggio *


Cavallo, JoAnn, Italian Culture


Already in 1894 the Sicilian writer Luigi Capuana voiced his sadness over a profound transformation in his homeland that had led to the disappearance of many aspects of popular culture he had known as a youth. As he explained: "Non li rimpiangevo per una specie di malintesa predilezione archeologica, ma perche mi sembravano piu belli, piu buoni, piu caratteristici di tutto quel che gli si e venuto sostituendo" (137). In 1960, the American ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax reflected on an even more radical loss of local popular traditions throughout the world: "Now, we of the jets, the wireless and the atom blast, are on the verge of sweeping completely off the globe what unspoiled folklore is left, at least wherever it cannot quickly conform to the success-motivated standards of our urban-condition consumer economy. What was once an ancient tropical garden of immense color and variety is in danger of being replaced by a comfortable but sterile and sleep-inducing system of cultural superhighways" ("Saga," 56).

Today, at the onset of the third millennium, we must look beyond the constant bombardment of images and sounds delivered by globally oriented marketing systems and mass media if we want to seek out the clusters of local cultural traditions kept alive by the sheer passion of their practitioners. Two such "endangered" but still surviving popular traditions of Italy are the Sicilian Opera dei Pupi and the epic maggio of the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines. Both are forms of theater, which before the advent of television and cinema was the privileged vehicle for bringing stories to life, and thus for shaping and challenging ideologies, creating and sustaining collective memories and identity, and for trying to understand what it means to be human. (1) What most notably sets these two traditions apart from other forms of popular Italian culture is the fact that they take medieval and Renaissance chivalric literature as their principal subject matter. In this essay, in addition to discussing some parallels between the Opera dei Pupi and the epic maggio, I look at ways in which the "elite" chivalric epics of the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries were recreated in these two forms of "popular" theater of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. (2)

1. Origins.

Both traditions are related to ancient forms of theater: puppet theater not only existed in Siracusa, Sicily, in classical times (Xenophon, Symposium), but can be found throughout the world from Northern Europe to Indonesia; the epic maggio has been linked both to medieval Italian sacre rappresentazioni and to ancient pagan festivals celebrating the rites of spring. (3) Neither art form, however, has developed directly from ancient roots, and the concrete origins of both are a matter of speculation due to scanty documentation prior to the early nineteenth century.

The Opera dei Pupi is a form of prose theater that dramatizes primarily chivalric narratives using large wooden puppets with full armor, swords, and shields. The puppets weigh an average of twenty-two pounds in the Palermo tradition and sixty-five pounds in the Catanese tradition, and they are manipulated from above by means of iron rods. These characteristics distinguish the Opera dei Pupi from other forms of teatro di figura, such as the marionette (light-weight puppets supported by strings) and the burattini (hand-puppets), which present varied, primarily comic, stories outside the context of chivalry.

Readers of Cervantes' Don Quixote may remember how the ill-fated knight mistook puppet theater for reality and attempted to save the puppet Melisenda from the Moors (II.25-26). Whether or not the Opera dei Pupi came to Sicily from Spain (or from Naples, as some sources suggest), it is documented on the island in the early 1800s. Sicilian puppeteers appear to have transformed the art form by creating puppets dressed in decorative metallic armor and capable of intricate movements. …

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