The puppet theatre known as the Opera dei Pupi emerged in Sicily at the beginning of the nineteenth century and enjoyed great success among the island’s working classes. The puppeteers told stories based on medieval chivalric literature and other sources, such as Italian poems of the Renaissance, the lives of saints and tales of notorious bandits. The dialogues in these performances were largely improvised by the puppeteers. The two main Sicilian puppet schools in Palermo and Catania were distinguished principally by the size and shape of the puppets, the operating techniques and the variety of colourful stage backdrops.
These theatres were often family-run businesses; the carving, painting and construction of the puppets, renowned for their intense expressions, were carried out by craftspeople employing traditional methods. The puppeteers constantly endeavoured to outdo each other with their shows, and they exerted great influence over their audience. In the past, these performances took place over several evenings and provided opportunities for social gatherings.
The economic and social upheavals caused by the extraordinary economic boom of the 1950s had a considerable effect on the tradition, threatening its very foundations. At that time, similar forms of theatre in other parts of Italy disappeared, some of them to re-emerge some twenty years later. The Opera dei Pupi is the only example of an uninterrupted tradition of this kind of theatre. Owing to current economic difficulties puppeteers can no longer make a living from their art, prompting them to turn to more lucrative professions. Tourism has contributed to reducing the quality of performances, which were previously aimed at a local audience only.