There is a puppet theatre in Santa Monica called Puppetolio. I have never been inside but, much to my family’s amusement, and sometimes chagrin, I love making up words and I can’t walk by Puppetolio without having to repeat the name dozens of times. I love the sound of it, it fills my mouth the way most satisfactory words do. But puppets are for kids and I have no interest in sitting among an audience of five-year olds and watch wooden beings on strings going through improbable adventures. My inner child has been dormant for quite some time.
Puppet shows were common place in Italy when I was growing up, and I spent my fair share of Saturday afternoons in puppet theaters, familiarizing myself with characters such as Harlequins, his girlfriend Colombina, the savant Balanzone and silly Pulcinella. Wearing their costumes at Carnival was commonplace. And then there was Pinocchio which, in my house, lived in an enormous red tome with color plates – Pinocchio was the ultimate puppet and, as my friend Luisa is wont to remind me, it was a fairly traumatic tale for children with the mean fairy, the horrible cat and fox, and even death making an appearance in this tale meant to dissuade us from lying.
But puppets were not always made for children’s amusement. There is a long theatrical tradition of marionette making and staging that dates back, well, originally from ancient Egypt, when priests would attach strings to the figurines of gods and impart holy messages for the masses.
The most famous and venerated marionette company in Italy is Carlo Colla and sons. The Colla family has been performing at their theatre in Milan (and touring around the world) since the end of the 1700’s. Marionettes have always been made in-house, as well as sceneries and costumes – a tradition often passed from fathers to sons – and still are to this day.
The Colla company functions as a regular theatre company would: staging shows, creating yearly calendars, touring schedules, rehearsals, costumes, with the added work of making puppets too. Their archive includes 2,700 marionettes and some shows have featured up to 300 of them.
Usually there is a puppeteer per marionette but dancers, that require extra strings for more verisimilitude when mimicking real ballerinas, can require two puppeteers working in tandem.
This year’s repertory includes fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty, The Magic Flute but also a rendition of that seminal work of Italian literature, Manzoni’s Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed).
During the 19th century, when Italy went through a turbulent time of partition, upheavals, wars and, finally, unification, puppet shows were a vehicle for political messages and metaphorical tales. They were the mass media of the time, spreading culture through Shakespearean shows and tales of Napoleonic wars.
The Carlo Colla company is keeping this tradition alive, the way so many Italian artists and artisans do, ushering their crafts into the 21st century. So, if you happen to be in Milan, check out one of their shows. Definitely not your typical child’s fare.
All images from Carlo Colla & Figli