Tips for visitors to Sicily, where phrasebooks may falter

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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).

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.

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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.

The puppet theaters left other marks on Sicilian culture. The shows are advertised with large, brilliantly colored posters, a different one for each of the hundreds of popular offerings. The painting of these posters, along with the background scenes for the stage settings, is a folk art in itself. Scenes from the puppet epics can also be found in murals, on tableware and other craft items, and most arrestingly on the horsedrawn carts that still abound in Sicily. The opera dei pupi only date back to the beginning of the 19th century, but they are merely the latest version of a popular storytelling tradition with roots deep in the medieval period.

Like so many other folk art forms, Sicilian puppetry was nearly extinguished by mass entertainment, especially television, in the years after World War II. By the mid-'60s, most of the dozens of puppet companies had disappeared. There has since been a revival, however, spurred by the Palermo-based Association for the Conservation of Popular Traditions. Puppet theaters in recent years have attracted interest both from young, educated Sicilians with a reawakened concern for their cultural heritage, and from tourists themselves, who in this case have helped to preserve rather than overwhelm a local institution.

Most puppet masters have adapted to the changing audiences. Instead of performing complete cycles, they now tailor shows to one-time-only viewers. Most modern opera dei pupi are self-contained stories, made up of highlights of longer epics. However, the age-old cycles haven't been forgotten -- the Fratelli Napoli, one of the best of the traditional groups, did a complete cycle lasting several months a few years ago in Catania.

A traveler pursuing Sicilian puppetry would be well-advised to start at the International Puppet Museum in Palermo (Via Butera, 1, telephone 32 80 60). In addition to displaying a large collection of pupi and other types of stage puppets, the museum is probably the best source of information on currently performing puppet theaters. (The scene is constantly shifting, and the tourist offices are discouragingly ill-informed about their area's most important artistic genre.)

The most predictable puppet performances, although not the most satisfying, are those held almost daily at the Pitre Museum (Museo Etnografico Pitre) on the outskirts of Palermo, a museum worth visiting in any case for the glimpses it affords of the exotic, weirdly primitive folk culture lying just beneath the surface of modern Sicily.

There are a half-dozen or more traditional puppet theaters scattered around Palermo, most of which perform sporadically. Often the puppet masters will sit in front of their theaters in the early evening, waiting to see if enough would-be spectators show up to make performing worthwhile.

This can be extremely frustrating to individual travelers, of course. Those traveling in groups will fare better by having guides or group leaders arrange for performances in advance.

Aside from those in Palermo, there are puppet companies in Monreale, Catania, Acireale, and Messina; the one at Acireale, I Pupi Di Macri, is one of the most reliably active. Puppet performances are also given at many of the local festivals.

One of the best Sicilian theaters, and one of the most accessible, is actually in Rome. Teatro Crisogono, operated by the Pasqualino family of Sicilian expatriates, skillfully displays the traditional techniques, while ranging in subject matter from the standard heroic tales to whimsical updated versions like ``Pinocchio at the Court of Charlemagne.''

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