John McCormick, with Alfonso Cipolla and Alessandro Napoli. the Italian Puppet Theater: A History

By Cavallo, Jo Ann | Italica, Autumn 2011 | Go to article overview

John McCormick, with Alfonso Cipolla and Alessandro Napoli. the Italian Puppet Theater: A History


Cavallo, Jo Ann, Italica


John McCormick, with Alfonso Cipolla and Alessandro Napoli. The Italian Puppet Theater: A History. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2010.

McCormick opens this clearly written and engaging book--the first full-length study of Italian puppet theater available in English--by acknowledging his debt to previous scholars of Italian puppet theater (1-3). Yet the author has not simply provided an English-language version of these prior works, but has undertaken a comprehensive history of Italian puppetry with due attention to the varying socio-cultural context. Indeed, to my knowledge this kind of all-inclusive treatment is lacking even in Italian language studies. McCormick's focus is not restricted to l'opera dei pupi, the famous Sicilian rod marionettes that staged largely chivalric narratives, but investigates all forms of puppet theater, presenting material from comic to melodramatic, in all regions of Italy, from the Renaissance to the present day. The breadth of his study is remarkable, allowing the reader to sense the pervasiveness, diversity, and power of an art form that today is all but forgotten. The research, astonishing in its thoroughness, brings to the attention of scholars largely unknown archives across Italy replete with scripts and other materials dating from various centuries. McCormick is, in fact, uniquely positioned to write this study from the point of view of both a practicing puppeteer and a university lecturer whose previous meticulously researched volumes, Popular Puppet Theater in Europe, 1800-1914, co-authored with Bennie Pratasik (Cambridge UP, 1998), and The Victorian Marionette Theatre, with Clodagh McCormick and John Phillips (U of Iowa P, 2004), explore puppetry throughout Europe and in Victorian England.

The initial chapter focusing on the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries is brief not for the paucity of puppetry, since "passing references reveal much puppet activity in the sixteenth century" (9), but for lack of documentation. Subsequent chapters focus on the golden age of glove-puppets, marionettes, and pupi; the commedia dell'arte and the puppet stage; saints, paladins, and bandits; the creation of new repertoires; music and spectacle, as well as the changing situation in the twentieth century up to the present, with brief accounts of puppet companies currently active. His conclusion is upbeat, noting the stimulus for greater creative expression provided by festivals, international exchanges, and puppet schools in recent decades: "After 200 years of being classified as a minor distraction, today puppets have re-emerged unashamedly as a significant element of theater and it has been realized that the puppet can sometimes make a stronger impact than the live actor on the imagination of the audience" (214).

For specifically l'opera dei pupi, until now English-language readers not persistent enough to track down rare scholarly essays on the topic might have only found the chapter in Bil Baird's Art of the Puppet (1973) entitled "Orlando Furioso: The Flower of Chivalry." Baird's misconception that the subject matter of Italian puppetry was derived exclusively from Ariosto's epic poem is echoed by most American newspaper and magazine articles that have since mentioned the subject. Even readers who might have chanced upon references to Sicilian puppet theater in Festing Jones's Diversions in Sicily (1929) would have found only a slightly expanded list that also contained the poems of Pulci, Boiardo, and Tasso. Yet as Giuseppe Pitre discussed in the late nineteenth century and Antonio Pasqualino further elaborated in the second half of the twentieth, the chivalric matter in Italian puppetry is based on a full range of medieval and Renaissance works that in 1858-1860 were rendered into a 3000 page prose version by the Sicilian Giusto Lo Dico, as well as on sequels to Lo Dico's compilation and original chivalric novels. As a result, the narrative cycle in its entirety could extend from the Trojan War, through the late Roman Empire, across the era of Charlemagne, and into the period of the Crusades. …

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