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How puppeteers keep their craft alive in Palermo, Sicily

How puppeteers keep their craft alive in Palermo, Sicily

Palermo, Sicily, may be best known for piazzas and palazzos, but it is also home to a long puppeteering tradition. Anna Staropoli meets the puppeteers

Deep in the historic heart of the Palermo, Sicily, a dragon stirs. A drumbeat thuds through the darkened room as the creature takes flight. The dragon lurches toward our armour-clad hero, Orlando, but it is no match for a knight. Orlando’s sword slices through the beast and its body falls to the ground. Its bloodied head dangles by a string above the stage. A burst of funhouse music from a barrel organ closes out the scene.

Here at the Antonio Pasqualino International Puppet Museum, housed in a grand building that was once home to the 18th-century Hotel de France, slaying dragons is a family affair. Salvatore Bumbello stages daily live shows at the museum’s theatre, often with the help of his 10-year-old daughter Martina and her older brothers Luciano and Francesco. (During the dragon show, Martina cranked the handle of the theater’s barrel organ and her brothers worked backstage.)

Palermo, Sicily, a girl cranks a barrel organ during a puppet show

Martina Bumbello plays the barrel organ during a performance at the Antonio Pasqualino Museum

The productions follow traditional storylines from the Renaissance and earlier, in particular the tales of Orlando and Rinaldo, two legendary knights, or paladins, of Charlemagne’s court. The pair take on dragons, demons, and other foes—staple fare for this distinctive style of Sicilian puppetry, which began in the early 19th century. 

Weathering war and economic turmoil, the Opera dei Pupi has been performed without interruption for more than 200 years. Covid-19 threatened that run, forcing Palermo’s puppeteers to tweak the very elements that set their tradition apart—or risk losing it altogether.

"The Opera dei Pupi has been performed without interruption for more than 200 years"

Palermo had dozens of puppet theaters before 1950, when interest in the art form began to decline. Today, there are only four left, each employing the handmade marionettes that stand nearly a meter tall and weigh nine kilograms. 

Puppetry inspired by regional tales crops up across cultures, from ancient India’s Ramayana and Mahabharata to Japan’s Tale of the Heike. But, says Jo Ann Cavallo, chair of the Italian Department at Columbia University in New York, “only Sicilian Opera dei Pupi stages epic stories with intricately structured and painted wooden puppets, in elaborate metal armor, and with swords and shields made to withstand heavy fighting.” Cavallo has studied Opera dei Pupi extensively in her research on Renaissance literature and how it is dramatized in Italy.

Family business

Sicilian puppet theaters are often family-run: Salvatore Bumbello learned the art from his late father, beginning when he was Martina’s age. Today, he designs and creates the elaborate puppets for his shows as well as for other puppeteers. Some of his marionettes can be found in the museum’s extensive collection—with thousands of Opera dei Pupi puppets, it’s the largest of its kind in the world.

In addition to the Sicilian marionettes, the museum houses rare water puppets from Vietnam and enormous, human-sized puppets designed for a show written by Italian fairytale author Italo Calvino. Too large to be operated using strings, the puppets had to be strapped to the backs of puppeteers. They were retired after a single performance and now occupy an entire room in the museum, serving, perhaps, as a warning of the risks of abandoning deeply established conventions, something Palermo’s puppeteers have long avoided.

Sicilian marionettes

Three of the museum's thousands of marionettes

“We have not changed anything,” Bumbello says when asked to compare his productions with those of his father. Even the special effects he uses—such as pull-apart puppets that can be dismembered or beheaded, including the doomed dragon in his current production—have existed for centuries.

Since the start of the pandemic, however, change has been unavoidable for Palermo’s puppeteers. The theaters closed temporarily in March 2020, which Bumbello says jeopardized their status, recognized by UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list, as the only uninterrupted puppetry tradition of its kind.

“The pandemic devastated the world of puppetry,” he says. “We could not act out our stories and consequently could not have an audience.”

"Even the special effects Bumbello uses have existed for centuries"

Rather than shut down completely, the museum took to the internet, allowing viewers to live-stream performances until in-person shows returned in October 2021. Streaming shows helped keep the tradition going—but for some of the Palermo’s puppeteers, evolution of their art form has been ongoing for years. Third-generation puparo Vincenzo Argento, who runs Teatro Famiglia Argento with his son Nicolò, started experimenting with new approaches to Opera dei Pupi to keep his business alive long before the pandemic hit.

Hunched over a desk in his workshop, Argento chisels fragments of metal that will form the helmet of a puppet destined for sale in his shop beside feathered, puppet-shaped wine corks and other items intended to appeal to tourists. Setting aside traditional stories, he and Nicolò have written original scripts and added more daring special effects to their shows. “[Other puppeteers] don’t always accept these changes,” Argento says, his eyes intent on his handiwork. “When we began, it was much simpler.”

Adapting to the times

Today’s Opera dei Pupi shows often depict knights fighting their way through one battle after another and emerging victorious before the curtain falls. As local audiences shrank in the second half of the 20th century and were replaced largely by tourists without knowledge of the Italian language or the stories the productions were based on, the shows became more action-heavy and disconnected from their literary inspiration.

Some see the challenges created by the pandemic as an opportunity for Opera dei Pupi puppeteers to experiment with technology and update traditional themes. For example, several storylines still performed today include the Christian knights killing villainous Saracens, and end with puppet corpses piled on the stage, reflecting centuries-old hostilities toward Muslim conquerors. However, Cavallo says, such scenes are evolving.

"Some see the challenges as an opportunity to experiment with technology and update traditional themes"

“Today, we can find plays that actively question confrontations based on provenance or religion and instead seek to promote understanding across borders, encouraging compassion for those who suffer regardless of their origin,” she says. 

Expanding to online performances has also allowed Sicilian puppeteers to try out new, more modern stories and to stage plays that haven’t been performed in decades. The Antonio Pasqualino Museum has taken this new digital direction even further by incorporating augmented reality into its puppetry, creating an interactive component for virtual visitors.

Palermo, Sicily, two boys help during a puppet performance

Luciano and Francesco Bumbello help their father during a performance

Back at the museum, Martina cranks the barrel organ as the show comes to an end. Before the curtain closes, three final characters make an appearance. Bumbello, Luciano, and Francesco crouch down, visible at last in front of the wooden set, and wave at their audience. 

“The art was handed down to me, and I will hand it down to my children, as they will do with theirs,” says Salvatore Bumbello. “This way, tradition will not be lost.” 

Atlas Obscura (December 10th, 2021), Copyright © 2021 by Atlas Obscura

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