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PUPI SICILIANI – SICILIAN PUPPETS and the Napoli Family of Catania

August 10, 2013

I have always been fascinated by i Pupi Siciliani, Sicilian Puppets, and took my own two with me when I moved away from Sicily in 1981.  Over the years, they have hung in my homes and reminded me of one major Sicilian tradition.

 Recently, I attended an “Opra de Pupi”, a puppet show, performed by the Napoli Family in Catania, had a pleasant conversation with Davide Napoli (one of the nephews) and his uncle Giuseppe (one of the uncles) and visited their Pupi museum.

The Napoli family pride themselves in the fact that they have been Sicilian puppeteers for four generations, without interruption.  They mentioned that they have been a role model for other pupeteers on the island.  When there had been an interruption in the pupi tradition of other pupeteers, those who would start over would look to the Napoli family for inspiration.

 Besides the artistic expression of putting on the puppet shows, the Napoli family handle the construction of the puppets themselves, from start to end including the sewing of the costumes, which traditionally is carried out by the  women in the family. I quote Davide who told me that the puppets become part of the family and in his own words: “I give you life, but you give me emotions.” However, they believe that not only emotions are given, but the puppets have actually modeled a behavioural code to its audiences, as stated by Uncle Giuseppe.

Following are some excerpts from the Demetra Guide, SICILIAN PUPPETS – History, art and tradition of the marionettes in Sicily, almaeditore (publisher) available at the Napoli family museum:

“The Sicilian Opera dei Pupi (Opra) is a characteristic theatre show in which the puppets, manouevred by the pupeteers on specially created stage-fronts, portray the deeds of the greatest medieval heroes, real or legendary, who defended Christianity against the Saracens.  In particular, the most recurrent theme was the battle between Carlomagno’s heroes and the Muslim warriors who, invading the Iberian peninsula, threatened the French reign and the whole of Christian Europe…..The Sicilian marionettes were in fact covered in elaborate metal armouor and the pulling thread of the right hand was replaced by an iron rod, which allowed the marionette to make more direct and precise movements, especially during battles and duels…..Starting from Palermo and Catania, the Opera dei Pupi  spread around Sicily to such an extent that at the end of the 19th century almost all towns boasted their own local puppet companies…..The oldest and most depicted subject of the Opera dei Pupi  is the famous rout of Roncisvalle, the historic battle where Carlomagno’s troops were defeated in 778 in Ara  b-occupied Spain.”

When I visited the Napoli family theater in Catania recently, I saw the performance of the battle of Roncisvalle one of the most important battles,  which culminates in the death of Orlando. The title of the show was “La Storia di Orlando.” The theater was packed; there were spectators of all ages and I was so impressed to see the younger spectators so engaged.

  Before the show, during my conversation with Giuseppe and Davide Napoli, they had pointed out that in the past the plot of the performance I was about to view would be stretched out into seven weeks of performances.  During the past century, these puppet shows represented evening entertainment for the entire family and audiences would visit the theater on a regular basis engaged in the development of the plot over several weeks.

The Napoli men also pointed out to me that each city in Sicily followed its own traditions in the creation of the puppets and the shows.  These shows would be developed differently in each city and even influence aspects of the local culture.  One example David mentioned is that in the dialect of the city of Catania when one states ‘successi a valli”, which means that something aweful has happened, “valli” refers to the valley of Roncisvalle where Orlando died. 

Following are some pictures I took at the Napoli family puppet museum and during the performance of La Storia di Orlando.

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Four generations of Napoli family immediately after the performance.  In center, with a light blue cardigan, bowing, is Great Grandmother, in her eighties, who still lends her voice during the show.

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