One subject I have been mulling over for decades now is the effect of texture upon our lives. My interest in puppetry was essentially an outgrowth of my interest in texture, rather than the other way around. Puppetry struck me as an art that allowed an expression of the textural and the tactile. I was under the impression all along that it was a subject that had been puzzled over for years. Especially by puppeteers. Then I discovered that I was wrong. My musings about texture seemed to be new grounds for inquiry in aiding us to make sense of this age we find ourselves stranded in.
I was discussing this with some puppet folks, who were surprised by my textural ideas. I was actually asked to write a more detailed treatise on texture and puppetry for a publication, though it seems that essay is somewhat orphaned now. But that just means that somewhere down the road I might share it here. Meanwhile as a result of the essay I had written and my further researches into the meaning of texture I also had a chance to give a more in depth lecture on the subject at L’Abri in Switzerland. And that I will share with you now.
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By the way I have recently created a second YouTube channel, The Anadromist, dedicated to my lectures and to discussions of other ideas related to history, culture and the arts. I’ve just had too many notions rambling around in my head to leave simply sitting there where they won’t do much good. So while you are listening to the lecture consider subscribing to that channel. I am trying to build the numbers up so that I can monetize my videos. And also please do consider helping me out through a contribution on PayPal. (Link here and below.) My finances here in Georgia are strangely precarious until October 2019 and I could use really some back up, a little goes a long way here. Thanks.
In the near future I will also be sharing video and audio content that I can’t put on YouTube for copyright reasons. This will be exclusive for folks who subscribe with a recurring payment through PayPal. So if you subscribe now… you’ll get it too. The first piece in a week will be a Lecture on How Noise Entered Music, complete with many musical examples. (This will also be available for those who subscribe later.)
Meanwhile life in Tbilisi is good and very hot. I have a puppet class outdoors of 150 students to teach July 27th. I’m still trying to figure out what I’m making with them. I’ve been seeing some unforgettable dance concerts, musicians, and more puppets are on the schedule. And soon I will interview Giorgi Apkhazava from the new Tbilisi Chamber Theatre. So stick around. Come back soon. And do seriously consider helping out.
July 2nd 2019
Well I’ve been quiet for a little while, catching up with my writing and catching my breath between journeys to Europa. Mostly preparing to leave Alaska permanently. Being back here has been tinged with a kind of nostalgia already. I am doing things that I know I will probably never do again: Picking spruce tips for tea, harvesting devil’s club, drying morels, puffballs and boletes to rediscover in over a year when my container is finally sent to Georgia; Taking people on tours to float down the Chilkat River or to see bears on the Chilkoot; Meeting friends to discuss my plans; Stopping others to let them know that my farewell event will be coming up on September 8th at the ANB/ANS Hall. Plus remembering the things I won’t miss here. Everyplace has its curses. In New York City it was crime, rats , roaches, ultra hipness. Here in Haines it’s small minded pettiness, bovine tourists and other forms of myopia. But there is much goodness and many friends that I will indeed miss.
Meanwhile on October 4th I leave for good. And there has been much to consider. Fortunately last summer’s insane moving crunch has left me in perfect position to move. Everything I own is in unit number 3 at S & W Storage. And I have gone through it all to remove things I won’t need in Tbilisi: lamps, waffle irons, heaters, microwave ovens, anything that simply plugs in and gets hot. Also I’ve put the finishing touches on my boxes and reorganized everything into the most efficient shape. And finally I’ve gone through the last of my mother’s things and mailed off the items connected more to my stepfather Mike’s family. And so my life here seems nearly completely closed down. Only a few final details left. They could be finished in a day. My storage unit is paid through October 2019.
Then there are the more complicated problems associated with my departure. New passport? It arrived last week after being rejected once for too much shadow in my photo I assume, but they didn’t specify. Airline tickets to Paris? Yes. But I still need to buy my December tickets from Paris to Tbilisi. I’m waiting for my funds to resolve a bit first. Train tickets for the Western European portion of my journey? Yes. Though I have to wait until I get to Europe to buy my specific reservations. A rental in Prague for a week? Yes. Though I am reminded how much hotel prices have risen since my first visit to Prague in 2000. Letters to friends in Paris, Switzerland and Germany? Yes and they are waiting for me. My apartment for the first three months in Tbilisi? Yes. Same place. (Thanks Mariam.) Continuity is a good thing.
But there is much I am struggling to get done. I have been working a lot to try to get the money I need to survive until my European money kicks in, which won’t be until early 2019. So after all of this summer’s traveling expenses, which also includes new clothing, a daypack, medical check up, car repairs so that I can sell it in good shape before I leave, and many other sundry things I am hoping my funds will hold to get me through the valley. (You can help out below through PayPal.) And I am trying to get my little book of puppet plays ready to sell before I leave. There are so many other things that I had hoped to finish before I leave. Because once I get to Georgia everything will change. (Mail is terrible there, which is a major problem.)
And so what am I doing once I leave?
On October 4th I leave on Alaska Marine Lines’ ferry for Juneau. I’ll spend a night at the Best Western Hotel then ricochet from Juneau to Seattle to Portland to Reyjavik to Paris. Then I’ll spend a couple of weeks in Paris with the Carons decompressing from all of my summer finalities. I’ll then spend two weeks at L’Abri in Switzerland where I hope to give two lectures: one on rediscovering beauty; one on the meaning of texture. Then I have been granted a four week residency at the International Institute of Puppetry in Charleville-Mézières France.
At that point several things will happen: I will give a presentation on the state of this Gravity From Above documentary project. And then there is an important moment for both the life of the project and my own future. I don’t know how they will decide. (There have also been changes in the leadership since I was last there.) I will also interview more students for the project as well as do more research on the project especially for older imagery and cinematic images. All in all it looks to be a time to keep an eye on.
Then at the beginning of December I will travel up to northern Germany to visit good friends and then slingshot over to Prague for my final Gravity From Above interviews and images. Then I will return to Paris to wrap things up to go to Tbilisi, Georgia on December 14th.
When I arrive in Georgia I will immediately go to work getting ready to edit Gravity From Above on professional equipment. I will also check in with Nini Sanadiradze at the The Union of Tbilisi Museums at start to prepare for a tojina conference in late January. And thus my new life begins.
Watch this to be mesmerized by the dancers at Erisioni that I saw last March.
And so is this the finish line for Gravity From Above? Maybe. Or close to it. The end is in sight though. I still have to get my translations done. I still need to get music composed and recorded. I’ll probably need a few shots that I forgot about. I will need to get the films and their rights. But that’s what I’ll be working on from October to January. And how much of what gets done depends on what the International Institute of Puppetry provides.
Oh! And then there is trying to get the thing seen!!!
And so maybe there is more left than I thought. But we are certainly closing in on something!
And dear readers, friends and puppeteers I still need your support. The challenge isn’t over.
But thank you so much for helping me get this far.
August 26th 2018
I jumped up on the all night train from Milan to Paris. I tried to open the door to my three person birth. It was locked, then undone, and I was welcomed to share the compartment with an Italian IT technician named Filippo on his way to Paris to work on a job. He and I were fortunately the only two sharing the room. He took the darker top bunk on the mistaken, we discovered in the morning, notion that some of the lights didn’t turn off. I was happy with the bottom bed, after taping something on the lights to cut down the glare. In the morning we had a interesting discussion about video games and fiction. After I told him about some of my stories, one will be self-published this summer. He demanded I give him contact information so that he could read my work and follow my progress. That was somewhat flattering I must say. Now let’s make good on that.
I arrived in Paris and rode the metro and bus out to my European home with the Carons out in the Ile de France. I had picked up an annoying, but not debilitating, minor cold in Rome that would linger for over a week. And so I used my down time in Paris to rest, see a movie (Les Gardiennes was a French World War I film that met my hunger for something grown up in this childish age.) and basically take it easy before going to London to visit the Quay Brothers. Before I left I dropped in on a store near Place de Republique called Heeza that I had bought a few odd items from online. Back in 2016 I had come here to search Heeza out but they were not open. But this time after a little effort I managed to get in. (There is no storefront.)
Once inside I met the owner Pierre who was an affable Frenchman who had very eccentric and intellectual interests in things like old silent film, primitive cinema, odd animation (lots of Švankmajer and Starewitch), a limited choice bandes dessinées (French and European comics), not to forget strange postcards, old fashioned games, and flipbooks. More importantly he stocks recreations of pre-film optical devices like the praxinoscope, the thaumatrope, the zoetrope, the phenakistascope, the camera obscura and of course the magic lantern. (If you got even two of those names you’re doing well. Go check out his site. Fantastic stuff.) Plus books on all of this. We discussed puppets in animation. And he was curious himself why he didn’t have more on the puppets. I ended up buying a mysterious DVD by Patrick Bokanowski call L’Ange (The Angel) a favorite it turns out of the Quays.
As we were talking a couple of Ukrainian clowns walked in. (You really can’t invent this sort of thing. And what is it with clowns on this journey?) Now they weren’t dressed up! And they were on their way to Bordeaux to perform. Nevertheless we had a fascinating discussion about clowning techniques and how this little store was a perfect lure for truly intriguing people. I told the Quays later in London that they had to drop in sometime. You get the point. (Look them up online!)
Well eventually it was time to grab the old Eurostar chunnel express and zip over to London. I arrived on a wet London afternoon. And cursed the whole payment system for the London Underground. (Less than three days and more than $45 on spent on the Tube.) I was scheduled to drop in the next morning on the animating brothers so I did the appropriate thing. I went to the IMAX theatre where they were still showing Dunkirk. Since I had missed it in Alaska, this was my chance to see this perversely adult summer World War 2 epic with massive sound and huge screen. And I was duly impressed. I’m still weighing my thoughts about the film.
There was an degree of pressure at the Quays Atelier Koninck QbfZ. A mysterious benefactor had about a year and half earlier commissioned the Quays to make a film. Not a specific item for him personally. But, generously, to do what they did best. Make their own idea into a film. Institutions around the world aren’t exactly lining up to fund their films in this age of bottom line financial mania. The Quays were actually mid-way through another project when this person approached them. But since it was digital and he being interested in film rather than digital creations, he wasn’t so keen on it. One of his stipulations was that it be shot on 35mm film stock with their old cameras. But he basically said here’s a certain amount. Would you like to make a a real film out of it? What could they say? Why, yes! And now he was coming to check out what they had done on the 19th of December. And I had arrived on the 12th. So essentially my visit was a break in round-the-clock filming and editing (digitally then transferred back to film stock).
Well the brothers carved out a couple of hours in the morning. As they said in an email “Why don’t you come at 10am and we’ll throw you out at noon.” Sounded fine to me. We met as old friends and immediately traversed a wide variety of subjects from Sicilian marionettes to the Symbolist works of Marcel Schwob, whom I had been reading. We mentioned Bulgakov’s Heart of the Dog as an opera with puppets. There were storage problems for their arcane studio, moving things up into the rafters to create something like a balcony. Evidently Švankmajer’s new film Insects is finished and will have a special Vimeo showing soon if you look for it. We also passed through subject of texture. They discussed their project, which at this moment officially is being called A Doll’s Breath. And the music for it is being done by Michèle Bokanowski, Patrick’s wife. And they seem quite pleased with her style.
Well time was passing and the hour of my ejection was coming. (Not exactly at the stroke of noon.) So I began wandering through their studio to photograph their oddities. It was something I’d always forgotten to do before. Several of the puppets for A Doll’s Breath were on hand. And I was allow to capture them. And there was a small set where they were still filming. I also was granted access to photograph that as well. Their place is quite thronged with strange little visual discoveries. Like the framed piece that they have had for many years that they never clean, except for one spot revealing a small face. At one point I realized that they had turned off the light for their little set. Rather than ask for the lights back I decided to take a picture in the darkened conditions, which seemed more appropriate.
Finally it time allowed us to talk a bit more while sharing a bottle of very dark wine I had brought from Sicily and some potent brie interlarded with truffles from France. For a little creative inspiration I promised to bring them a dried salmon head back from Alaska next time I visited. Alas it was time to leave them to their metaphysical activities. We would indeed see each other in the next year. After a fond farewells I ambled out into the gray London weather gladly satisfied that I’d crossed the channel to catch up with the Brothers Quay.
Next time we wrap things up in London and Paris before the big journey to Georgia
From the Chopin Airport in Warsaw, Poland waiting for a flight to Tbilisi
PS. An abscessed tooth, London Tube costs, all the other stuff I’ve mentioned in my earlier postscripts. After doing my budget its clear things have become tight for Georgia. So really if you can thrown in a few coins in my PayPal account that would be greatly appreciated. It’s simple and effective. Click here.
My road did indeed lead me to Rome on a 13 hour train ride from Palermo, which also included driving the train onto a ferry to get it across the Strait of Messina. I arrived, late of course, at night in the Eternal City at my hotel a few blocks from the Vatican, where a woman, whose accent I guessed, much to her surprise, as Ukrainian, was waiting for me and late for her dinner. And soon I was back on the streets of Roma where I discovered that everything near a tourist site is expensive and nearly everything seems to be a tourist site. But I strolled over to Saint Peter’s Basilica in the dark and reflected on the fact that I was truly in Rome for the first time in my life.
Now the reason I had never come to Italy before was mostly out of (a perhaps not misplaced) humility. There’s just too much history here. And I love history. Researching this trip I discovered that state of Tuscany alone has more cultural and historic treasures than any other single country on earth. And while you are rereading that line let me then add that Italy in total has more historic and artistic treasures than the rest of the world combined. That’s why I’ve never been here before. It is impossible for me to consider Italy as a quick vacation stop. And for that reason I didn’t even consider going to Florence or Venice. There’s just too much to see. There’s even a Florentine Syndrome that relates to people trying to squeeze in too much of Florence in too few days. The eyes just get clogged and one is unable to take anymore visual splendor. So Palermo Sicily was my specific introduction to the Italian world. And this would be an introduction to Rome. And if I was fortunate I’d be able to see a puppet show while I was here.
First things first. I wanted to go to the Vatican museum. I needed to see the Sistine Chapel. I almost bought a ticket the night before online. But I decided against it for practical and budgetary reasons. I decided to take my chances and stand in line. Curiously the line was less than 15 minutes long, I guess that’s what you get on December 1st. That isn’t to say it wasn’t crowded inside. It was 11:00 and pretty much like a cattle car. I learned long ago how to visit museums from a lecture by Dr. Hans Rookmaaker, you don’t mosey and look at everything. Especially in crowds like this. You save your eyes, avoiding Florentine Syndrome, and go straight to what you want to see. And so I passed up as many gawkers as I could, dodging in and out of the human traffic, using mi scusi and permesso often to push my way passed the bovine hordes. And at last I arrived at the place. And even with the relatively crowded room, the museum guards regularly saying ‘No Photo!’ to the selfie addicts I was able to find enough space to pause and explore the Michelangelo’s Last Judgment for ten minutes and the ceiling for another twenty. I was completely impressed by the life sized figures being sent off to judgment. Having seen them largely in coffee table books. Even the grandest off them does no justice to the size and intensity of the work. I was also caught off guard by Michelangelo’s various uses of trompe l’oeil, which did literally deceive my eyes.
I spent another couple of hours in the museum, basking in the statues and Raphael’s The School of Athens among many others. And I ended up walking through the Sistine Chapel once again. And I was glad I had gotten there early. Now it was so overcrowded that the assemblage were standing shoulder to shoulder. But at least I had had my time for reflection earlier.
The next morning was Sunday and so I walked the few blocks to Saint Peter’s Basilica to see Pope Francis give a short message at noon. While there I decided to walk through great church. It was indeed more than suitably impressive. Massive. Yet light as though floating somehow. I came up to Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s great Baldacchino. Far grander than the photos had given me any notion of. And I continued making a loop along with many others, though it felt much less crammed with tourists than the museum had been. I almost left St. Peter’s when I noticed a group of people gathered around something. I was looking for Pope John Paul II’s tomb. And then I realized I was standing in front of Michelangelo’s Pieta. This depiction of Mary holding the lifeless body of her son, with young face and aging body is easily one of the greatest works of art ever made. Carved in marble, or should I say revealed in marble, for the carver’s art is not like the painter. The carver removes pieces very carefully to find this image. And as I was standing in front of the Pieta I was suddenly moved so deeply by it that I almost burst into tears. There was something in the face. That Michelangelo had found somehow the perfect face of tenderness and sorrow in the beauty of his Mary. And also knowing what it meant to my mother, one of the few artistic visions to haunt her, maybe because I was her only child, her son. But also the consolation in the face of Mary and that stark need we often crave when confronted by some of life’s darker tidings. I had to control myself so as not to be reduced to tears in public.
A little later it seemed anticlimactic to be out in the piazza with thousands of others as the Pope, the size of a postage stamp, gave his message. But it was good to know that on some level this journey had received the Pope’s blessing. And as I passed among people from so many countries again I choked up a little at the sight of Germans who were singing and dancing.
My task for the rest of that Sunday, perhaps a bit too ambitious, was to find two more Bernini sculptures hidden in obscure churches and find the burattini (Italian for both puppets in general and also hand or glove puppets) featuring commedia dell’arte characters. So I hopped on bus from near the Vatican and ended up somewhere further up the Tiber River. I was looking for the Church of San Francesco a Ripa in Trastevere with the funerary statue of the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni. I arrived to find the church locked for lunch. (!) And since this was Rome lunch would take over two hours. So I decided, sensibly, to find my own lunch. I wanted something authentic. And I found it. A little pizza place called Don, which served Napoli style fried pizza. (?) And that was a bit like a small round calzone that was fried on both sides in hot oil. Absolutely sensational. Biting into it released steam, everything completely fresh. Overwhelming satisfaction. (Not a pineapple to be seen anywhere on the premises.) Eventually I went back to sit on the church steps. A mother and daughter from Connecticut and New York City respectively came to wait, another half hour, with me. The daughter worked at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. And she was here exactly for the same reason that I was. Bernini!
When at last, late in traditional Italian fashion, we were let into to see the Bernini it was indeed as awe inspiring as imaginable. The Blessed Ludovica Albertoni reclined in a nook of the church. A euro turned on a lamp to illumine her. A fence kept us a few yards/meters away. But I also appreciated the statue without the light. Cloaked in shadows. Exquisite. Profound. Bernini’s work has the ability to say many things at once. And this mysterious statue is a prime example of that.
As is the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, which I was also on my way to see in another church in another zone. A steady rain began to wash the streets, making it all the more meaningful to step into the dry Baroque church Santa Maria della Vittoria. This Saint Teresa is a little more well known than the Blessed Ludovica. Simon Schama spent an hour discussing it on his British documentary, The Power of Art. And there were a few more visitors. And indeed the image of the angel plunging the arrow into Teresa is potent and sensual. Beautiful beyond a mere description. My photos hardly doing it justice. The whole church was indeed a dark Baroque masterpiece on ornate emotion.
But sadly I realized that my camera battery was nearly dead and I had left my spare at the hotel. Thus I had to forego the puppets I had come to see. And they weren’t performing the next day. Alas…
On my last full day in Rome I walked among the ruins of the Colosseum, but didn’t go in. The tourism seemed too thick, too much like a theme park. I eventually walked by a far too bustling Trevi Fountain, where my coin dutifully disappeared and made haste to leave the area. But not before seeing the Pantheon. And this proved to be the highlight of my tourism day. This really was the greatest Roman building from ancient Rome. After being converted into a church it had remained in use since its construction. It was the largest structure made of unreinforced concrete in the world. And completely majestic. And because it was free the crowds weren’t too oppressive. And just as I left the area I found one last great Bernini sculpture, a great Baroque elephant in a small piazza. And my esteem for his work grew with my discoveries. (Not too forgot his contributions to St. Peter’s Basilica itself!)
Over all while I was made many crucial discoveries in Rome, Palermo really was the highlight of my time in Italy. Yet I can fully imagine coming back here and making another round of aesthetic searches. My understanding of sculpture took on a new depth, having stood before Michelangelo’ and Bernini’s works in the ‘flesh’. I saw that sculpture in many ways was the noble cousin to puppetry. But for now I was tired. I had picked up a little sniffle from the Metro while I was there. I would be happy to return on an overnight train to Paris.
17 / 12 / 2017
My primary reason for coming to Palermo on the island of Sicily in Italy was not to see the mysterious hanging corpses of the Catacombes Dei Cappuccini (though I confess that was quite high on my list of reasons) but rather to see some other antique pendulous figures, Opera Dei Pupi, the Sicilian Marionettes. Whose lineage goes back perhaps 250 years to the late Eighteenth Century with versions being referred to in both Naples (Napoli) and Sicilia. Now stringed marionettes as we usually think of them go back much further. But the Sicilian versions developed in a very specific way that continues down to this date.
Opera dei pupi does not mean ‘puppet opera’, they certainly aren’t performing Verdi with these marionettes, then again as Enzo Mancuso pointed out, marionette isn’t the right word either. The Italians have the word marionette and they have other words for puppets too, burratini are hand/glove puppets, fantoccini are trick puppets. In fact the word for all types of puppets considered together is burratini. But pupi are the puppets that are specific to this Sicilian style. They have a couple of strings, real marionettes can have nine or more, and they also have a metal rod attached to the head and often to one hand. This is quite similar to the puppets at Toone in Brussels, whose style is derived from Sicily, although no one can quite point to exactly when and how. Possibly through a wandering puppeteer. But another feature, and this is similar to Toone as well, is the size of the pupi. They are one third scale, one third the size of a human being. And since there is wood involved, this makes the pupi quite heavy. Then there are major differences between the Toone style and the pupi, obviously the Belgians didn’t quite get the whole recipe for their pupi influenced marionettes.
One difference is that the pupi are almost always heavily armored, which, while the metal is light, adds even more to the weight, I didn’t see any women behind the scene hefting these weighty figures, unlike in Brussels. Next the pupi often perform feats that require much more mechanical invention. So both Toone puppets and Sicilian pupi will feature decapitation during a fight. But for the Toone puppets to pick up a sword or any other objects is a lovably clunky affair. The pupi on the other hand simply reach down to the scabbard pull out a sword and then have a hard clanking fight with it. And then they put it back with ease. And all of this happens gracefully, seemingly in one motion. Also not only do the pupi lose their heads, but their faces are slit in half, whole bodies sliced down the middle, legs separated from torsos, arrows launched into the knights and much more. During their plays there has to be a big battle scene. One brave character, usually Orlando, stands against all comers.
And then there is the noise, like Palermo itself, these are loud puppet shows. One young girl brought to an evening show kept her hands over her ears from the moment she entered the theatre until about two thirds of the way into the show when she finally just gave in and went with it. And the puppeteers wears a special wooden shoe to make even more noise on the wooden stage. And other special devices are used backstage to create more sounds. And finally it is all topped off with a special hand cranked player piano device that was obviously created over a hundred years ago and gives the action a charming antique chaos as pupi clash while the actors’ voices are histrionically exaggerated with vocal quavers and taunts. And when you get a whole room full of children who laugh and cheer at every act of violence and special mechanical trick you get the full dissonant catastrophe. All in all quite a spectacle!
My first stop was at Il Museo internazionale delle marionette (the International museum of puppetry), one of the best puppet museums I’ve yet discovered. (Someday I should list the various puppet museums I’ve visited.) Naturally one assumes that they will have a very thorough display of Sicilian pupi, and they most certainly do. Along with hand burratini, featuring commedia dell’arte figures and many other classic European puppets. But beyond that they had quite a full representation of puppets from China, Japan, Southeast Asia, Indonesia, and Africa. Plus a few Modernist puppets. All in all a worthy collection complete with a pupi theatre. And an interesting selection of books for sale. Now the difficulty with the museum from my perspective was that it was difficult to communicate with the front desk staff because English is simply not well spoken in Sicily. Eventually I bought a ticket and looked to find someone who could help me. I did find a woman who spoke a bit of English. She then introduced me to Monica Campo who was fluent. They told me that I could come back the next day at noon and would be granted an interview with the director. Well that was good news. And I would certainly return.
On the following day, Monica greeted me, I had come early to set up my tripod and camera. And to get a feel for the light. Eventually I was introduced to Rosario Perricone, il direttore. Rosario was a man in his prime, several days growth of stubble, a trend down here, and obviously a very intelligent and vigorous man. When I first started Monica translated line for line. Then Rosario had another idea. He would speak for a while and she would summarize. And so he began. It was like turning on a fire hose. He spoke in lightning speed for about 15 minutes. Probably containing 40 minutes worth of any other interview I’ve done. Surprisingly I was able to follow the general tone of what he was saying. I knew enough Italian, Latin, French, Spanish, plus theatrical and puppetry words to hear a variety of concepts being addressed. When he finished I turned to Monica with a smile as if to say ‘Well?’ She smiled back. Rosario left the room for a while as I discussed the impressions I had of what he had said. Then Rosario returned and we did this a couple more times. I also got an answer to a question I’ve had for a while: What is the oldest continual puppet theatre in Europe? And the answer technically still is the Toone theatre in Brussels. But there has been a family with a longer history in Sicily, going back to the late 18th Century. (I would have to get the interview translated to tell you the name.) At one point I asked about the point of puppets in the 21st Century, when we have so many other kinds of entertainment and art mostly coming at us through screens. Uncharacteristically he struggled for his words and then carefully said a couple of sentences. We could all tell that something worthy of the subject had been said. Even Rosario asked for a copy of his statement. I won’t give my impression of it now, except to say that, yes, we do in fact need puppetry in this time. (Monica will help translate this for me later.) All in all it was an excellent interview and prepared me to see a real show of the opera dei pupi.
One teatro dei pupi had responded to my translated messages, Opera dei Pupi teatro Carlo Magno Enzo Mancuso. I stumbled around near the docks until I came upon the teatro on a narrow side street festooned with graffiti.I had been supposed to come earlier, but that was at the exact same time as the interview the Rosario Perricone. So I had to honor my earlier commitment. That was fine. Enzo and crew were happy to have me no matter what. I attended two performances, the first an evening show, which was sparsely attended. The next morning at 10 a show packed with children between about 7 and 10 years old. The shows were similar. The audiences were not. The children howled and squealed with delight. Though their guardians shushed them, sometimes making more noise than the children in doing so.
But in both cases we were treated to the legendary exploits of Orlando, who fought off the Moors near Poitiers in France around the time of Charlemagne. This was about as gleefully politically incorrect in this age of hyper-sensitivity as you could want. And as relevant. Many folks have forgotten how close the Islamic invasion was to sweeping into all of Europe. And these stories keep that fact alive. And as far as I could tell the Islamic side was treated fairly in these legends as portrayed in these Sicilian narratives. In the past the story of Orlando Furioso was done as a long continuing saga. Some versions had over 300 parts. With a heavy reliance on cliffhanger endings. But as Rosario explained to me by the 1960’s the Opera Dei Pupi was pretty much dead. People just didn’t want these old fashioned things anymore. But there was a revival ironically through left wing political sources, just as they had been behind the folk music revival in America. And one of the things that happened was that the plays became self contained. No more endless cliffhanging, no more long drawn out legends. The same stories of Orlando and Renaldo would be told. And there were many different stories. But now they resolved. Slowly also they attracted a tourist audience as well. And they were played for school children. As I witnessed.
Now one of the most fascinating aspects of the children’s show was that Enzo, a swaggering burly guy capable of lifting the heavy pupi and making a lot of noise, introduced the show by explaining to the children the difference between history and legend, and about the time of Charlemagne. Now when I say that he introduced the show, please do not imagine someone getting up to talk for a few minutes and then saying ‘Okay let’s watch the show!’ Oh no. His introduction lasted easily a half an hour. And he asked the bambini questions and they asked him questions. And he poked fun at them. And they poked fun at him. All the while he went into great detail about opera dei pupi. And after the rip-roaring show he came out again and showed us many of his special effects and devices, how the swords were done, the strange sounds they made. It was absolutely fascinating. And once again I realized that how you deal with children says so much about the culture. Watch the pupi was in fact a step on the road becoming Sicilian. And in the incredible battles and over the top noise and wild language there was something deeply Sicilian in all of this. And one thing you can say, Sicily is not a society for wimps. And Orlando is incredibly furioso.
Enzo and his co-performer Giovanni Battista Rappa didn’t speak much English but they were magnanimous and welcoming all the same. I was treated well as a fellow puppeteer and as someone who had entered another country with it’s own rules. Not Italy. Not Sicily. Not even Palermo. But the Opera dei Pupi. And I was extremely grateful to have entered this strange, unique, utterly human world of puppets and puppeteers.
On the train to London from Paris
After getting lost in Genoa I ended up on La Superba, a massive ferry the size of cruise ship run by the Grandi Navi Veloci (GNV) on what was supposed to be a 17 hour run down to Palermo in Sicily and ended up in, what I later discovered was typical Italian style tardiness, at 21 hours. I shared a room with a rugged and overly clean Italian truck driver. (I counted three showers during our voyage.) He slept most of the trip, except for the 3 hours spent playing arcade shooter games. And at one point he said to me, almost in disbelief, “You no sleep?” But apart from the usual 8 hours of sleep I am accustomed to, I did not sleep. Instead I wondered around and explored the vessel. And I ate a long meal for lunch and wrote.
But I did have one big worry. The Wi-Fi (say ‘wee-fee’) did not like my credit card. And having had problems in the past with my cautious bank back in Alaska suspecting fraud, even when I’ve been merely over the border in Canada, the thought of having the money spigot turned off mid-trip was not pleasant. And so task number one upon our late arrival in Palermo, was to get a few more euros from a ‘bancomat’ and to determine my financial state. Thusly I was suddenly, without much of a clue, on a warm, what to my Alaska blood felt like mid-summer, December evening thrust into the traffic maw of Palermo. But then I noticed something curious, as I tried in very broken Italian to communicate my need, that the Sicilians were indeed quite friendly. Though I met very few Palermitanos that spoke English I always received help when I gesticulated, and hand gestures are the order of the day, since Italians are fluent in that. And yes, I did still had a connection to my bank. I could breathe easier. All I had to do was find the B & B La Fenicia and to get there I had to find a bus, a sweaty proposition, and when I did hail a bus the driver waved me off when I tried to pay and took me straight to the station, which was near my gracious and friendly hosts Nadia and Ninni at the B & B. And so I after indulging in a spleen sandwich from a vendor in a cart across the street from La Fenicia I settled down for the night happy to be in Sicilia (See-cheel-ya) and with no idea what I would find.
Well after far too organized Switzerland to have one’s next town be Palermo Sicily is to all at once be slapped in the face by trash on every street and the noisiest city I think I’ve ever been in, and I used to live in New York City. Yet what a lively town! And made up of some of the most talkative people on earth. Renown for it’s street food, pane ca meusa (spleen sandwich) was just the beginning. And pizza? Yes! This was real Italian style pizza. One individual pizza averaged about 4 euros ($5). And fresh? Like the tomatoes were growing yesterday. And when I told my hosts Nadia and Ninni about the American penchant for putting pineapple on pizza at first they were uncomprehending. And then they laughed at the joke. After 16 years in New York I’d been too bitten by the Italian (Sicilian) bug to do anything but concur. And that’s the thing. In New York City most Italians are Sicilians and so this culture did not seem that foreign to me. And I was happy to see the Old Country.
And so then there was exploring the town. I walked through Ballarò Market area, which was fantastically labyrinthine and exotic, filled with marzipan in the shape of fruits, unbelievably long light green Italian zucchinis and Mediterranean seafood of all descriptions. All being hawked by a chorus of street vendors chanting their wares. Then I just rambled aimlessly for a while. And Palermo is a great town to just come upon some forgotten cobble stone street corner decorated by the statue of a saint under dilapidated buildings.
And that’s what I found so intriguing about the town. That beneath its layers of grit there was a vitality few towns have: Loud Palermitanos yelling from balconies to each other. Children playing on a safe bustling street corner in the evening. When they saw my camera they all wanted me to take a photo! And this same liveliness certainly extended to the puppet shows I saw. There were a few tourists there. But certainly not like Rome or London. And plenty of obvious recent immigrants. But then again Sicily has always had people dropping in (or invading) from all parts of the Mediterranean world, and beyond. Normans, Moors, Romans and the ancient Greeks have all left their mark. But in the end, those that stay become Sicilians. Sicily if just too much itself to be colonized and digested by the outside world. Where else would you see gangs of guys and girls with scooters (Vespas!) and small motorcycles hanging out behind the McDonald’s at the only mall in town, popping wheelies and coming their hair back in 2017? It’s an infectious culture. Everything is a lengthy conversation, backing the car into a parking space or discussions about the contemporary state respect for la famiglia.
On another journey through Palermo after trying to get my shoes repaired and being so tempted by a new pair of Italian boots that just felt so comfortable, while being unable to justify the cost, or the weight of lugging around my Doc Martens, and after I passed the Quattro Canti, the four way divider of the old town, I came upon the Pretoria Fountain, where strange animal heads spouted water amongst what originally were scandalous nude statues below a homemade banner that denounced the mafia. And in the midst of this scene a fashion spread was being shot featuring a willowy brunette model moving with curious rhythms on the steps. Somehow this mixture of archetypes captured an aspect Palermitan life for me. And so I stuck around to try to use the contradictions to create something for myself.
By far what made the strongest impression of my five day sojourn in Palermo was a visit to the Catacombes dei Cappuccini. A true city of the dead. Back in 1500s the Capuchin monks started to hang and dry the corpses of their dead brethren. Eventually the custom was adopted by many others as well and continued until approximately 1920. 8,000 corpses now hang in this underground mausoleum. Not skeletons, but desiccated humans in their finest. Palermitanos used to come in and point to a spot and say “I want to hang there.” And so I came to have a look, to confront my own mortality in way.
Descending into this dark world after paying my 3 euros I soon found myself engulfed in dried bodies. They surrounded me from above and below. I carefully peered into their faces. I found myself often passed by others who were obviously just walking through the place as quickly as they could. But I wanted to see. Some bodies were more or less skeletons. Others had a layer of shrink wrapped human leather covering their faces. Often there was the indignity of that expression that comes in time as the gases of the body leaving through the mouth creating the appearance of howling. There were bodies behind fences, bodies in boxes, bodies in vaults, in the marble floor below, bodies standing in alcoves, bodies reclining. And sometimes, when I really began to take it in, I would look up and see the skull of a cloaked figure, sockets without eyes, glaring down on me. Then look away directly across from the glaring skull to find a leathery figure gaze cast off into heaven as if to plead to God on behalf of the human lot.
And then came the inexplicable things. One section was for young children only. The dark sorrow here was beyond measure. Each of these children had been accompanied by mournful Italian wailing as they were placed here. Lives ended too soon. In another hall there was a nearly animated preserved young boy in a glass case. The monks had perfected a kind of embalming technique. Then there was a chamber for virgins, at the beginning of a hall for women. This too had a great sorrow attached to it. Girls in white. Hanging on a wall. Nothing of them left in the world but these remnants of their physical bodies.
And then looking further down the hall of women I would occasionally be arrested by the appearance of a woman, whom in her day must have truly been a stunning beauty. You could tell by the structure of her face, the parched skin clinging to her features, how this woman must have stopped hearts as she walked down the street. And yet here she is, just a lifeless doll on a shelf. And I thought about this: someday everyone I know will be this way. We shall all be stiffs in the ground. (Unless you escape up the crematorium’s smokestack.) Right now my mother looks like this. All of my good friends will end up like this. I will become death myself. My bones leeched of their essence. The howl of indignity on what is left of my visage. And so…
And so we live today. Not foolishly. Not addictively. Not proudly. But humbly, knowing we only have an allotted time to walk around. And then we shall be no more. (I’m not dealing with afterlives right now.) Then we too shall be corpses in the ground. But I can hear those folks who say “But I want my ashes to be scattered to the wind.” Yeah fine. But you might be doing this because you can’t face the meaning of the skeleton. But that’s one reason I came to Palermo. I knew this was here. I wanted to face death and consider my own. Which really means to consider the point of one’s life. And that I did. A frightening proposition.
But reason number one for coming? L’opera dei pupi. The Sicilian marionettes. One of the oldest styles in Europe. And my adventure among the pupazzi was just beginning. But first give me another arancine followed by a fresh cannoli!
Life and death indeed!
On the Rome to Milan train
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