Opera dei Pupi (Puppet Theatre) is a traditional form of Sicilian entertainment and it seems that almost every souvenir shop in Palermo sells marionettes. But these are not just pieces of holiday memorabilia manufactured for the tourists; they’re an important part of Sicily’s cultural identity.
Originating as far back as the 15th century, marionettes were a popular form of medieval entertainment; the performances varied from region to region. Mostly, the theatres produced tales relating to local legends and historical events. The most popular of these tales featured fictional heroes from the Norman conquests: Ruggiero defending the honour of his lover Bradamante, sister of Rinaldo, or Tancredi’s fight to death with the mighty Saracen Argante. Whether battling with invaders or competing for the hand of a maiden, the productions were as extravagant as the stories and often featured violent swordfights that attracted large audiences.
To preserve the tradition, many villages still stage puppet festivals and there are many small museums devoted to this Sicilian art form that UNESCO in 2001 described as part of humanity's "oral and intangible heritage".
Founded by surgeon and anthropologist Antonio Pasqualino, who initiated the Association for the Preservation of Folk Traditions in 1965, the International Puppet Museum in Palermo houses an impressive collection of puppets and marionettes from all over the world, including examples of the Sicilian knights featured in stories by the likes of Italian Renaissance poets Matteo Maria Boiardo and Torquato Tasso.
The museum’s galleries are spread out over three floors including a library, bookshop and large hall to accommodate theatrical productions. Guided tours for large parties can be booked in advance as can puppet workshops and performances.
Opening hours for the museum are:
Monday to Saturday, 9 am to 1 pm, and 2:30 pm to 6:30 pm. In June, July and August the museum opens on Sundays 10 am – 1 pm.
Piazzetta Antonio Pasqualino 5 ( trav Via Butera )
Tel: 0039 0913 280600039 0913 28060
At the opposite end of the island in Syracuse is the Puppet Museum and Workshop, where the Vaccaro-Mauceri family have been performing traditional puppet shows for more than a hundred years.
All the plays are traditional stories adapted and written by the Vaccaro-Mauceri family and performed in Italian with a few lines of Sicilian dialect added for good measure. Heroic paladins, magicians, monsters and maidens feature in the theatre’s tales of the chivalrous knights of Charlemagne, with each performance lasting for approximately 30 minutes, making them suitable for smaller children to enjoy.
This is the only theatre in eastern Sicily that offers a regular season of performances. Also available are tours of the workshop where the marionettes used in the theatre are made by hand, each one taking up to a month to construct including the armature of embossed metal.
Opening hours for the museum and puppet lab are:
Monday to Saturday 10 am to 1 pm and 4 pm to 8 pm
Via della Giudecca 17-19
Tel: 0039 0931 4655400039 0931 465540
NB: As with all trips and visits, please do call or check the museum websites for all up to date information and performance schedules.
Watch the UNESCO video about the Opera dei Pupi: