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Tips for visitors to Sicily, where phrasebooks may falter

By Phillip JohnsonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 4, 1986

Palermo, Sicily

Sicily can be rather daunting to a tourist, simply because of the sheer density of sites to be seen; the traveler is in effect thrust into the condensed version of 2,700 years of Western civilization. To compound the problem, the island's current marginality means that transportation is limited and undependable, save among a few major cities; roads are crude; and few people speak anything other than Sicilian, a ``dialect'' (really a separate, Greek-influenced language) incomprehensible to most Italians, let alone English speakers struggling along with phrasebooks. The Sicilian traveler, to avoid being overwhelmed, needs a theme, such as Greek architecture (some of the best examples surviving anywhere are found at Agrigento, Siracusa, and elsewhere on the island) or Norman churches (the cathedral at Monreale is one of the ecclestiastical wonders of the world).

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One intriguing theme to follow in Sicily, especially for travelers also passing through Rome, might be the tradition of puppet theater that persists here. This altogether unique folk art epitomizes Sicily's multilayered, contradictory nature. Its overt subject matter is drawn from such medieval French epics as ``The Song of Roland''; the epic duels between knights and Saracens shown on stage have come to symbolize Sicily's status as a perpetual battleground, particularly in the struggle between Christianity and Islam. The ritual significance of the puppet shows is half-Christian, half-pagan, while the low comic characters reflect modern Sicilian street wisdom. The craft with which the puppets themselves are constructed goes straight back to the Greeks -- the armor for each puppet knight is made by hand of beaten brass, in a manner which would have been familiar to a Bronze Age artisan.

``Puppet'' is a misnomer for these figures. In Italian, the Sicilian creations are called pupi, as distinct from conventional puppets, the burattini. The pupi are operated by metal rods, and there is nothing childlike or delicate about them -- those from Catania, on the eastern side of the island, weigh fully 80 pounds, while the more flexible figures employed in the capital city of Palermo are perhaps half that size, with the pupi of the Siracusan tradition falling somewhere in between. To the uninitiated, the movements of the pupi seem abrupt and jerky, yet it requires both skill and tremendous strength to work them, and after one becomes accustomed to the style, the puppets take on an uncanny stage presence all their own.

Traditionally, the opera dei pupi consisted of epic cycles. The puppet masters would tell a story in as many as 130 episodes, improvising continuously on an established plotline. Touring puppet theaters would settle in a Sicilian town for months, acting out complete cycles. In larger cities, hole-in-the-wall theaters would serve small, tight-knit neighborhoods. There would be a new episode each evening, lasting perhaps 45 minutes, and audiences would turn out night after night. One is tempted to compare the puppet shows to soap opera, save that instead of numbing minds while selling products, these ``operas'' sprang from a vital popular culture and served to reaffirm Sicilian identity.