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The Puppet Theatre

Oral and Spiritual Patrimony of Mankind  U.N.E.S.C.O. 2001


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The origins of the puppet theatre have been much discussed by critics and scholars; the oldest ‘testimonies’, which go back to the studies of the ethnographer Giuseppe Pitrè, prove that in the early part of the 19th century puppets existed with very rudimentary and incomplete amour- Some scholars in the 18th century held that the ability of the puppeteers came from the mastery in the making and the art of moving marionettes of some people from Syracuse who operated at the time of Socrates and Xenophon. At the beginning of the 17th century, Cervantes in his Don Chisciotte describes a puppeteer who puts on a show of Knights which represent Don Gaiferos, Charlemagnes’s nephew, King Marsilio, Orlando, Princess Melisendra….
There are four distinct traditions in the puppet theatre: the one from Palermo found in western Sicily, the one from Catania found in eastern Sicily and in Calabria, the Neapolitan one found in Campania and the one from Puglia , they are differentiated in the mechanics, in the representations and although there is a fundamental unity in the repertoire, there are some particular characters.
An analogous form of popular theatre exists in Belgium and in the north of France. Its birth can be linked to an emigrant of Tuscan origin whose job was to model plaster figures and who reached Liege in 1854.
The Sicilian Puppet Theatre has two fundamental roots: the oral tradition which the storytellers, short story bards, brought to the town squares, and the gestural one of sword dancing, an ancient way of representing a fight, with repeated and rhythmic movements which in peasant culture was linked to fertility. In folk festivals this dance has survived in some towns such as the ‘Tataratà ‘ dance in Casteltermini in the province of Agrigento. The 19th century was a period of medieval revival, of these ‘Chanson de Geste’ that centuries earlier the French jugglers had brought to the south of Italy and to Sicily. For centuries the tale of the hero Charlemagne’s exploits and the ‘Chanson de Roland’ had been handed down, taking form both in the medieval songs and the chivalrous poems of the 15th and 16th centuries. In the 19th century these memories come back to life. The oral story telling in the squares moves into the theatres taking life and movement towards the puppets. This folk revival , so the ethnographers say, corresponds to that of Opera in the wealthy classes, and is determined by the vulgarisation and the diffusion of chivalrous literature. The Kings of France, and the Guerin Meschino by Andrea da Barberino, the Morgante by Pulci, and Orlando the lover by Boiardo, Orlando the Furious by Ariosto, and Jerusalem Liberated by Tasso.
The ‘cuntista’, the name for a professional narrator of the Charlemagne cycle and the epic-chivalrous stories, was probably the principal vehicle through which the puppet theatre got its subjects in its cyclical form. It was from this that the puppeteer probably learnt the technique of interrupting the performance at a crucial point, dividing the story into everlasting installments.

It is difficult to identify the origin of the ‘cunto’, some scholars have found a link between the metre of the ‘cunto’ and that of the ancient bards and later with the singers, jesters and minstrels – that traveled round the courts during the Middle Ages- and with the Latin one.
The scholars all converge on the affirmation that it was the stories told by the ‘cunisti’ that inspired the birth of the puppets in amour.
The golden moment for the puppets was between 1840 and 1890. Artisan constructors, tailors, painters, engravers, embossers, and sculptors moved around this fantastic world……there were numerous complimentary professions to the puppet theatre.
In this period that habits took root and the small technical innovations spread, the armour becomes more and more richly arabesque and expensive, the costumes more and more accurate, the painting more and more sophisticated.

The First and Second Crisis

The first crisis in the theatre can be seen around the 1930s at the same time as the spread of the cinema, however, it was a crisis that was easy to overcome because the operators continued to multiply rapidly. All of them has their own audience and each one was distinguished for different characteristics and ability, some for more sophisticated puppets, some for more passionate plays, others for the extraordinary art of moving the puppets.
The second great crisis can be seen around the 1950s with the arrival of television, but not just because of this. The decline coincides with a general disinterest in this form of popular theatre and its repertoire, for a refusal of an ideological patrimony, a pattern and a code of behavior in which people no longer identified themselves as they were concentrated on overcoming the economic difficulties that had been caused by the second world war. The Puppet theatre represents the past, a past of difficulties, austerity that had to be overcome at all costs and which the lower classes wanted to forget.
The quarters of the historical city centre began to empty, many small theatres are torn out and sold, the puppeteers’ children take up new professions, the courageous puppeteers give up and with them their painters and wonderful artisans. To cut it short, the world of the theatre breaks up and the incompetence of cultural politics scatters the puppeteers.
In the general disaster that was created, only Giacomo Cuticchio managed to involve his family in his profession but above all his eldest son Mimmo, who being the eldest boy, followed his father, more than the others, to the small towns of Sicily, where Giacomo continued to perform the long cycle of the story of the Knights of France one evening after the other until 1969.
Mimmo Cuticchio, the eldest son of Giacomo, can be seen in a contrasting relationship of criticism with the situation that arose and as a ‘son of art’ reached a healthy rebellion that today allows him to be the last of the Master puppeteers, a bridge between tradition and innovation, able to arouse curiosity and the interest of the younger generations. Mimmo Cuticchio was born in 1948, when his father Giacomo, traveling puppeteer, settled in Gela (CL) for a few seasons.
His childhood is marked by the fantastic world of the ‘theatre’ but his youth is not a fairy story. Although he received an education that was imbibed with an absolute respect for tradition, he found himself in the situation where he had to face a reality that was far from the values of popular culture.
The reasons for the crisis of his youth are to be found in the perception of new possible worlds to experience.
In as much as son of an operator in the puppet world and helped by his father, following the stages of an apprentice in the theatre, from playing the piano to helping with the scenery, from reciting in an angel’s voice (the first part the puppeteer allowed his child to play) to a fighter in the third scene to the conquest of the first scene in front of the puppeteer who directs the performance. The apprenticeship takes place naturally, almost like a game, in an environment that is soaked with chivalrous stories and rigidly organized.
However this atmosphere of rigid discipline, if on the one hand represents a rigorous apprenticeship inspired by the best traditions, on the other it did not allow room for innovations.
In 1963, he took part in the 6th’ Festival dei Due Mondi’ in Spoleto. In 19965 he followed his father around the Italian theatres for the workers of Itlasider visiting numerous cities, from Taranto to Trieste, from Genoa to Bagnoli, stopping at all the ports in Italy. In 1967 after the experience in Paris at the Italian Embassy he decided to cut the paternal umbilical chord and stay in the French capital for a few months to manage a small puppet theatre in Boulevard St. Michel near the Cave Libraire 73, in the Latin quarter.
In 1970 he moved to Rome for an experience in the field of cinema and television. He met the actor Aldo Rendine, director of the Pietro Sharoff Academy, here he took lessons in diction, phonetics and acting, however, after a year, the actor himself encouraged his young Sicilian pupil to continue the puppet tradition and Mimmo returned to Palermo, but his father still performed the same play for an audience that was made up of tourists.
The intolerance of his father’s authority goes beyond the generation gap, Mimmo feels the need for another teacher, Peppino Celano . He made a calculated choice.
His apprenticeship with Peppino Celano lasts just three years, until the death of the old puppeteer, but before his death thanks to the dedication with which Mimmo followed him, he (Mimmo) managed to learn the technique of the ‘cuntista’. After the death of Celano, all Mimmo’s attention is absorbed by the small puppet theatre that opened on the 28th July 1973.
The opening of the theatre in Via Bara all’Olivella is a very courageous fact that allowed the puppeteer to take the future of the puppet theatre into his own hands. He brought his shows into a national and international context of ‘experimental theatre’ and theatre of a master, keeping a distance from that genre that was a commercial venture performed for tourists. He solidified the structure avoiding the dependence on an economy governed by criteria totally foreign to the puppet theatre.

Figli d’Arte Cuticchio

In 1977 he founded the association ‘Sons of Art Cuticchio’ that took in the company of the same name. For the first time a company of puppeteers has a relationship with the Ministry of tourism and performing arts. This allows a further development and qualification of the activity that continues developing in those craft sections that traditionally support the puppet theatre and by which the puppeteers have always depended on. The activity is a completely self sufficient productive unit able to produce performances, control all the stages from embossing the armour to engraving and the sculpture of wood for the heads and bodies, to the painting of the scenery and posters to the making of costumes.
The company directed by Mimmo , solders three principal languages of theatrical communication: the recuperation of traditional puppet techniques and ‘cunto’, research and experimentation, its artistic survival is due to the search for an expressive space, that makes the most of the puppeteers’ and storytellers’ techniques, languages that are not exhausted or out dated, making an attempt at a theatre of truth and poetry.
This search has been going on for more than thirty years, today if has turned into a fertile land that finds new energy in the re-invention of the theatre and in its mingling with other genres, where puppets, puppeteers artisans, fighters, actors and knights meet under the stars of the theatre.
Besides production, the company is involved in promotion.
They organise a Festival called ‘La Machina dei Sogni’ (the Dream Machine) that has reached its 21st year and that over the years has managed to establish a fertile collaboration with artists, operators, cultural institutions giving life to creative paths, exchanges, productive and formative moments, managing to understand and welcome all that which is new and positive moving in the world of art and performing arts.
On the 18th May 2001, The Puppet Theatre was acknowledged by U.N.E.S.C.O. ‘oral and spiritual patrimony of mankind’.
To have been awarded this acknowledgement, the only one in the European cultural panorama it has been necessary to cross and accept a number of challenges; first of all demolishing and then reconstructing.
The puppet theatre is no longer what it once was, it no longer has a traditional audience, On the other hand any form of fixation in one period or another is unconceivable and in the same way it is there is surely no fanaticism on passive transmission. The need to hand down this art has been felt for a long time; an art that once had numerous pupils or the sons of puppeteers, in a more organic way.
To transmit this theatre it has been necessary to approach, to enchant young people not only with the performances but with a whole series of activities that draw the starred outline of an art that is still alive and away from compromises. The creation, once again of Mimmo Cuticchio, of a school for puppeteers open since 1997 is an important step in the evolution of the puppet theatre. The formation of young people with many competences (painters, sculptors, stage designers, puppeteers) and the need for a continuous and constant apprenticeship are the pillars of an artistic teaching that cannot let up. The pupils, between the ages of 18 and 30, are prepared for the dictates of a’ complete art’ and the project comes to life at the end of the third year when the pupils are allowed to take part in a performance directed by Mimmo Cuticchio.
The project, which took off with the best of wishes, takes advantage of the collaboration of prestigious cultural institutions on a European standing like the ‘International School of theatre Anthropology, l’Ecole Supèrieure Nazionale del Arts de la Marionette di Charlville Mezièrès, il Corso di Laurea in DAMS and the ‘Dipartimento della Communicazione Letteraria e dello spettacolo dell’Università di Roma Tre, le Cattedre di Storia del Teatro and Drammaturgia dell’Università de L’Aquila, L’Accademia Nazionale d’Arte Drammatica Silvio D’Amico di Roma.