Zisa waits for Grandmother’s Sunday lunches with great excitement, first of all for the delicious “timballo di anelletti” and second because it’s nice being all together. Then there’s Great-granny – her grandmother’s mother Giovannina – always smiling and saying witty things. Last Sunday, for instance, Zisa had interrupted the conversation to remind her Mom and Dad to pay for her school trip next Tuesday; they were going to the Puppet Museum to see Sicilian puppets. “What a beautiful program!” Mom had said. “I’m glad the school organizes these cultural activities,” added Grandma. “Yes, of course, it will be a nice morning, you’ll see!” said Dad.
“Hihi,” Zisa’s Great-grandmother chuckled – be careful not to end up like Ruggero! He was about to be locked up in the boarding school for those Sicilian puppets!”
Unfortunately, Zisa didn’t get to ask who Ruggero was, because from the Puppet Museum the conversation slipped to museums in general and why they never got enough funding.
On Monday, Zisa’s teacher taught the class about the Sicilian puppet theater (1) see below for an explanation.
Zisa was amazed to learn that in the past puppet theatres were as popular as the TV is now and to hear howt people used to go every night, elbowing each other to get closer to the stage and hear the stories told by the puppeteers. Zisa was so excited she couldn’t sleep that night, and the next day she got to the museum right on time.
That day the show was “First Love Between Ruggiero and Bradamante”. It told the story of Bradamante, Rinaldo’s sister and brave Christian warrior, who fell in love with Ruggiero, who, being a Saracen, she was forbidden to marry.
Zisa followed the show with great interest, noting the strange reappearance of the name Ruggiero or Ruggero. Her Great-grandmother had spoken about a certain Ruggero, and here was a Ruggero as a knight in shining armor. Was Great-grandmother referring to the figure in the show? What did she mean?
Zisa wanted to know more about Ruggero and asked the puppeteers, who patiently explained:
“Ruggero (or Ruggiero) is a character described in Matteo Maria Boiardo’s “Orlando Innamorato” as well as Ludovico Ariosto’s “Orlando furioso”. He is a young warrior descended from the lineage of Ettore, and the Estense family descends from him. He is also the twin brother of Marfisa and son of Ruggero II. His horse, with a white spot on his forehead, is called Frontinus, while his sword is enchanted and is called Balisarda.
The young puppeteers let Zisa try out the puppet representing Ruggiero. Still, the connection between Ruggiero and Great-grandmother’s comment was a mystery.
After a few days, Zisa went to her Grandmother’s seventieth birthday, all dressed up for the party. She soon was bored though by all her elderly relatives and Grandmother’s friends chatting loudly. Even Great-grandmother looked bored all alone on the sofa, so Zisa took the opportunity to sit down next to her and ask more about Ruggero. At first, Grandmother couldn’t remember the conversation at the table that Sunday, but Zisa reminded her of it.
“Ah yes, we were talking about Ruggero who always went to Ballarò to see the Puppet theater.”
“Exactly! But who was Ruggero? ”
“I was crazy about Ruggero, he was my prince charming, you know. I was the youngest and he was the oldest of our cousins.”
“Was he your cousin?”
“Yes, what a rascal!”
“Tell me about him, please!”
“Well then, take that big photo album, and I’ll show you.”
Zisa went to the bookshelf and took down a huge dusty photograph album, the very old one that no one ever looked at and was so big that they had to lay it down on a shelf. Zisa dusted it with a paper napkin from the party and went to curl up next to Grandmother on the sofa, opening the album on her knees.
Great-granny began to eagerly flip through the thick, heavy pages.
“Here!” – she said pointing to a faded, watercolored photo – “Here is Ruggero with Aunt Agnese and Uncle Guglielmo, oh Aunt Agnese was always so elegant! She was a woman of the world! “. Then, turning the page, she said “Here is Ruggero with Miss Lalla in the Cathedral gardens, Lalla loved him so! “
And Great-grandmother continued: “Ruggero knew how to get everything he wanted from Lalla! He was an only child and at home he got bored, so he talked Lalla into walking all over the old city together. The family lived in a beautiful building on Corso Vittorio Emanuele, the main road known as the Cassaro, and Uncle Guglielmo, a lawyer, had his office in the same building.
The family was respectable and in good standing, but Ruggero loved the narrow alleys around the Cassaro, towards the Capo and Ballarò markets. It wasn’t very fitting for Ruggero to be there, but Uncle Guglielmo didn’t know that Ruggero made Lalla take him through the mazes of sultry dwellings.
Ruggero was fascinated by that life: the markets, the people shouting in the street, the laundry hanging above, the water vendor, the cabinet maker, the basket maker, the storyteller, the cart builder, and especially the young brats who seemed to have much more fun than he was allowed to.
More than anything, however, he was attracted to a puppet theater that was in the Ballarò district at that time.
Families like ours didn’t go to puppet theatres in those days, so it took Ruggero a few months to convince Lalla to buy tickets for both of them to go to a show.
Lalla certainly regretted that! The puppet theater became Ruggero’s obsession!
He not only made Lalla spend a fortune on theater tickets, but he also wanted to go see puppets behind the scenes before and after the show. He liked to watch the puppeteer and his children practice moving the puppets, the grandfather making the puppets, the wife who sewed their costumes, the uncle who painted the backdrops, another uncle in a shop next door beating copper to make their armour, and yet another uncle making horses and dragons out of papier maché. He even liked to read the story lines the puppeteers transcribed in old notebooks only to recite the tales by heart. Ruggero, only too happy to be named just like one of the French Paladins, had become one of the family; the puppeteer adored him even though he lived in terror at the idea that Ruggero’s father would find out and come angrily crashing in one day to take his son home. Guglielmo was an influential man and could easily have the theatre closed if he wanted. But fortunately he was too busy in his office and Aunt Agnese with her parties, so it took them months before they realised Ruggero’s secret life, and then only because some local gossip went around saying that the lawyer’s son was roaming dirty streets with his nanny.
And then it was the end of the world!
Shouting and ranting! Mixing with the populace! With ill-bred people! Aunt Agnese pretended to faint and at the height of the commotion Uncle Guglielmo threatened to fire nanny Lalla and shut Ruggero up in the National Boarding School.
Zisa finally understood what Great grandmother meant that Sunday dinner! She also thought her father was right in saying her mother came from a snobbish family who looked down on everyone.
It was funny because Zisa herself went to the “National Boarding School” (Convitto Nazionale) and she thought it was a wonderful place with many courtyards and nice teachers. But she had seen old photos hanging in the corridor
But once, Zisa had seen old photos – like the ones her Great grandmother had – hanging in the corridor, with sad and serious-looking children. She also remembered a picture of the dormitory at that time, a long, dark and spooky room with lots of beds all the same.
Great-Granny continued: “I don’t know if Uncle Guglielmo was serious, but Ruggero went to sleep in terror, and Lalla was sobbing all night. Ruggero felt guilty for her but above all he was afraid of being locked up in the boarding school, without the freedom to wander the streets of Ballarò.
And the next day, Ruggero’s first day at the Boarding School he broke out! When all the pupils were lined up in the lobby at the end of classes, he took advantage of a moment of distraction by the guardian and began running at a breakneck pace, managing to get out through a side door that was often open. He ran and ran until he got to the narrow street of the Ballarò theatre.
Ruggero found the puppeteer at work in the laboratory and ran sobbing to him, telling him in tears how his parents wanted to lock him up in boarding school, begging him to take him with them, and promising to help out in the theatre as he claimed to have learned the art by then.
The puppeteer didn’t hesitate for a moment; he grabbed Ruggero’s arm and walked with him to Uncle Guglielmo’s study. Meanwhile, Lalla, after waiting in vain for Ruggero at the front door of the Boarding School, looking for him in every classroom, asking the guardians and teachers if they had seen him, finally realised that he had escaped; at that thought she felt ill and fainted. A young teacher found her unconscious in the corridor, picked her up and took her to the Rector’s office for help.
Uncle Guglielmo had therefore had no warning of Ruggero’s escape, so when he saw the puppeteer in front of his desk with his child he shouted:
Who are you? – What are you doing with my son?
I am the puppeteer of Ballarò.
Aha! So it’s you! You who have led my son astray! I’ll have you locked up in jail!
But the puparo was a master storyteller, capable of holding his own in front of any Court Prince, much less Uncle Guglielmo. Without giving time for him to reply, he launched into an anthology of medieval prose, leaping from Boiardo to Ariosto to tell of the noble deeds of Charlemagne and the paladins of France, about Orlando and Rinaldo, the rivalry for Angelica, of Ruggero and Bradamante, all the time displaying a remarkable culture and an articulated mastery of language.
Uncle William was at first curious and then spellbound by these narrations, so in the end the puppeteer proposed an agreement.
Ruggero would go to the theater only once a week, on Thursday, provided he was accompanied by his father to protect him from the “danger in the narrow streets”.
That’s impossible, I can’t hear of this! – Uncle replied – I work all day long and I don’t have time for this nonsense! ”
“And how did it end?” Zisa asked apprehensively.
“Well, to that the puppeteer replied: We have a show at seven that professionals of your stature sometimes attend”.
“Uncle Guglielmo was only waiting for an excuse, since he was already convinced. He was in fact dying of curiosity to go to the puppet theatre since he was a little boy. So Ruggero and his father began to attend the theatre every Thursday. They actually both really enjoyed it, since they had never done anything together before. When he grew up, Ruggero became a puppet collector, and when he died there were so many of them that the family donated them to the Marionette Museum.”
“And Lalla? -asked Zisa – Was she fired?”
“Can you imagine Aunt Agnese without her for even a day? Dusy as she was with her society life! Miss Lalla stayed with the family until she married the young school teacher, the one who had taken care of her when she fainted. ”
(1) “The sicilian puppets theater”
The “Opera dei Pupi” is a tradition that dates back to the eighteenth century, when Sicilians began to use the puppet theater to tell stories of Charlemagne’s paladins.
The puppets are traditionally carved in blocks of beech, olive or lemon, about 75 cm tall. They are small works of art finely decorated in every detail and, thanks to their rope joints and their metal armour, they give life to colourful and noisy battles. The puppeteer’s skill, as well as his ability to act, lies in the dexterity with which he makes the duels resonate with background noises such as feet stomping on the stage floorboards. Until the sixties, the puppet theatre was the only kind of popular entertainment and people religiously followed their favourite characters’ episodes, taken from the novels and poems of the Carolingian cycle, from the History of the Paladins of France and from Orlando Furioso.
The Carolingian cycle consists of songs by courtly poets and jesters of the early Middle Ages, which were later recounted in the poem by Matteo Maria Boiardo “Orlando innamorato” and Ludovico Ariosto’s “Orlando Furioso”. It is a complex of songs of deeds in medieval France, centred around the figure of Charlemagne and celebrating his exploits and those of his faithful, among whom the nephew Orlando is the most important. The paladin Rinaldo is instead a cousin and a rival in love with Orlando over the beautiful Angelica. Besides the vicissitudes of the paladins of France, the puppeteers sometimes mix in references to contemporary political events, using fiction to mock the politically powerful of the day.
Unfortunately, television has by now replaced Sicilian puppets in the hearts of Palermo’s citizens. Some surviving theatres are attended mainly by school groups and tourists. The association “Figli d’arte Cuticcho”, however, carries out an excellent job of maintaining the tradition of the Opera dei Pupi, also managing to redevelop the area surrounding the theatre itself; Via Bara all’Olivella is now pedestrianized and rich in local crafts stores. Mimmo Cuticchio, heir to his father Giacomo, is also an important figure in the tradition of the Sicilian “Cunto”, a storytelling technique which he has performed all over the world, obtaining numerous international awards. In 2015, the Cuticchio family’s puppet collection was acquired by the Fondazione Sicilia and is exhibited in Palermo at Palazzo Branciforte.
The world of the Opera dei Pupi can also be visited at the International Marionette Museum in Palermo, founded by Antonio Pasqualino, a well known Sicilian puppet collector.
Another family of puppeteers continuing the tradition is the Argento family, with a theatre located in some rooms of Palazzo Asmundo, on a side street off the Cassaro. They also have a small workshop where they make puppets according to tradition, which are sold to the public in Corso Vittorio Emanuele close to the Cathedral.
In 2008 UNESCO registered the Opera dei Pupi among the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, after having originally proclaimed it in 2001, as the first Italian Heritage to be included in this list. In addition, the “Cunto” of Mimmo Cuticchio has also been included in the UNESCO’s Oral and Intangible Heritage.
The National Boarding School (Convitto Nazionale) is now named after the judge Giovanni Falcone, an illustrious alumnus barbarously killed by the mafia on May 23rd 1993. Today, it is a modern school with excellent teachers and beautiful spaces to move and play.
Ruggero is part of the Zisa dolls family.