Sicilian marionettes are a very important part of the island’s folklore, and became extremely popular by the mid nineteenth century.
This popularity declined, however, when increasing literacy reduced the oral story-telling tradition, as well as other emerging media such as film and animation weakening its role.
Also, Italian unification in 1860 was idealistically opposed to regional glorification, such as that of the Kingdom of Sicily, and sought to promote the country’s unity rather than local dialects and regional differences.
Nevertheless, the marionettes retain a loyal following and have remained popular.
Small shows, in parts of Sicily, such as Palermo and Catania, can still be seen, to the delight of locals and tourists alike.
Moreover, in recent times, puppetry has enjoyed something of a renaissance, alongside a growing interest in regional dialects, history and folklore.
The marionettes are made of wood with some metal parts, whilst colourful materials are used for their clothing.
Some are similar to those from Venice and Naples, due to the island’s maritime trading history there.
Requiring great skill, the puppets, settings and backdrops are beautifully painted and decorated.
In fact, some Sicilian families have devoted their lives to the art.
Popular from the middle ages, they depict medieval characters and events loosely based on history, without adhering strictly to historical facts. For example, you might see Orlando, (one of Charlemagne’s knights), the Saracens or the Norman knights of King Roger of Sicily.
Sometimes, however, the stories will be about Sicilian aristocracy, such as ‘the Baroness of Carini’, based on a grisly Sicilian poem.
Designed to entertain or inspire, rather than inform, the stories often idealize the ruling Sicilian nobility, although sometimes a more rebellious twist is found.
Different parts of Sicily have different characters so in Palermo you might see ‘Nofriu’ and ‘Virticchiu,’ whilst in Catania you’d see ‘Peppenninu’. The marionettes also vary in size.
In a nutshell, the Sicilian marionettes are a fascinating expression of local culture and folklore.