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Australians in Italy: Contemporary Lives and Impressions


Bill Kent [editor]; Ros Pesman [editor]; Cynthia Troup [editor]

  1. Download this book
  2. First page
  3. Cover; Copyright and Contributor Information; Table of Contents
  4. Preface
  5. Presentazione
  6. Acknowledgements
  7. Introduction
  9. Ch 1. Australians in Italy: The long view
  10. Ch 2. Twentieth-century diplomatic and trade relations
  11. Ch 3. Some facts and figures
  12. Ch 4. Gaining a foothold: Australian cultural institutions in Italy
  13. Ch 5. Arthur Dale Trendall: A memoir
  15. Ch 6. More than a love affair: Australian writers and Italy
  16. Ch 7. A great tradition revisited
  17. Ch 8. Funghi, family and fables
  18. Ch 9. ‘Everything else in Italy’: A journalist in Rome
  20. Ch 10. Australian artists in Italy: Residencies and residents
  21. Ch 11. Donald Friend: An Australian artist’s affair with Italy
  22. Ch 12. Drawing on Italian art
  23. Ch 13. Rinascimento through a contemporary lens
  25. Ch 14. Australian clergy in Italy after Vatican II
  26. Ch 15. Rome: My two cities
  27. Ch 16. Rediscovering Rome
  28. Ch 17. ‘Unevenly buried’: A personal topography of Rome
  30. Ch 18. Elusive landscapes: Australians and the Italian garden
  31. Ch 19. Educational tourism – cultural landscapes
  32. Ch 20. Carrara: Landscape of stone
  33. Ch 21. Imagining and experiencing Italy in the 1980s and 1990s
  35. Ch 22. Reflections and refractions: An Italian perspective on Australian Studies
  36. Ch 23. Australian cinema in Italy: Sguardi australiani
  37. Ch 24. Remembering Bernard Hickey
  39. Ch 25. Italian Australians in Italy
  40. Ch 26. Washing faces, cleansing hearts: Who am I?
  41. Ch 27. The returned migrants: The Associazione Nazionale Emigrati ed ex Emigrati in Australia
  42. INDEX

Chapter 19

Educational tourism – cultural landscapes

Chris Wood

Chris Wood is the founder and director of Australians Studying Abroad (ASA). He is an associate of the History Department, Monash University. He has taught at The University of Melbourne, Monash University and LaTrobe University, and for the Rhode Island School of Design. He has published two books, on Australian architectural history and on travel (1992), and over 40 articles on tourism theory, heritage and the arts. He has also co-scripted and narrated two documentary films on Tuscan history. His photographs are published in over 150 books, as well as many journals and newspapers, including The New York Times and The Guardian. He is currently working on the second grant awarded to ASA and its university partners by the Australian Research Council. Since founding ASA in 1977 he has led over 120 tours to Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, the USA and Asia for both Australians and Americans.

Educational tourism to Italy, a background

A survey by the Monash University Centre for Australian Studies and Australians Studying Abroad identified over 400 outbound special interest tours being offered in 2005 by Australian tour companies, universities, schools and individuals. These covered many disciplines in undergraduate education, public education, and professional development, as well as hobbies such as painting, creative writing and photography. In 2005 up to 8000 Australian school children, undergraduates, professionals, and enthusiasts departed Australia on special interest tour programs – many of these to Italy. In 1975 probably fewer than 10 such programs existed. Since the largest group of special interest travellers constitutes well-educated retirees, programs will continue to proliferate in the future, as baby boomers seek stimulating retirement activity.

Most ‘special interest’ tour programs might be called ‘educative’ in a broad sense to differentiate them from ‘tourism products’ (such as adventure tourism) whose primary concerns are not cerebral, and to differentiate them from those forms of tourism often dubbed by the specialist travel community as ‘commodity’, ‘package’ or ‘mass’ tourism. Nevertheless, my specific focus here is educational tourism and the way in which it developed in Australia – at first largely during tours to Italy conceived and organised by Australians Studying Abroad, the company I founded some 20 years ago (Wood 1992b).

Clearly histories of European travel abound, and there is much discussion concerning destination, but the history and theory of Australian educational tourism have received little scholarly attention. Tourism academics, meanwhile, tend to focus on quantitative traveller surveys; few treat tourists as individuals. The behavioural, cognitive and epistemological aspects of tourism have largely been ignored. Comparisons between educational tourism and home-based campus teaching are scarce. Although there is very little theoretical writing on educational tourism, organisations running overseas education programs seem to share certain implicit assumptions about ‘what they are doing’ (Staiff 2001). These ideas have evolved through the practice of organising and teaching on tours; they have been shaped by travel history, and by discourse on the meaning of ‘place’; on the history of peoples, and on the themes of identity, tradition, custom and ritual. Indeed, the development of educational tourism has been a meandering intellectual journey, which nevertheless parallels in interesting ways recent scholarly interest in historical geography; world history; the history of objects, identity and collective memory; spatial history, and ethnogenesis. This parallelism has probably resulted from the pervasiveness of modern tourism. In addition, the forces of globalisation, and the resultant compression of space and time (Kern 2005), have also enabled scholars to travel more easily and encouraged them to look beyond texts for new kinds of evidence. Meanwhile ontologists have been exploring the central role of a phenomenology of ‘place’ in shaping identity (Casey 1993; 1997; 2001a; 2001b).

Italy’s powerful visual culture has profoundly influenced the civilisation, manners and collective memory of Europeans, and their travel interests (Brewer 1997, 206). Anglophones have long been among the keenest of Italophiles. The Grand Tour to Italy laid the foundations of modern educational tourism, inspiring early American university courses abroad (Towner 1985; 1996). Educational group travel developed earlier than package tourism, which was a postwar phenomenon. Drawing on the rich tradition of educational tourism, and on the strength of Italy’s cultural heritage, Australian educational travel evolved and matured during the 1970s. Because educational travel largely concerns ‘seeing’, the pioneering disciplines were consequently art history, architectural history and archaeology. The Western Australian Institute of Technology (‘W.A.I.T. Abroad’) and the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology began study tours in the mid 1970s. In 1976 LaTrobe University organised a three month tour from Greece to London for some 230 students from all Melbourne tertiary institutions. Australians Studying Abroad (ASA) began in 1977 from this project. Early ASA programs took place during university vacations and complemented art history curricula. An Australian version of the North American student year abroad system was envisaged, but in the 1970s equity issues confounded these plans, and so ASA initiated public programs. Within the university sector, educational tourism subsequently emerged once more in the 1980s: Sydney University Continuing Education, Alumni Travel, and Wollongong University’s Odyssey Travel were formed in the 1980s and 1990s. Also in the 1990s Monash University’s History Department and the School of Fine Arts at The University of Melbourne commenced intensive courses abroad in Italy.

The first ASA tours focused on the Western visual tradition and on continuity in art history, using young scholars resident in Europe to give lectures and lead site visits dealing with period-specific styles in Rome, Florence, Venice and Paris. Distinguished guest lecturers included Joan Barclay Lloyd, Marilyn Perry, Christine Smith, Joseph Connors and Neil MacGregor, who provided specialised expertise, while Australian group leaders established and kept intact the overall conceptual framework of each course. This balance between specialist material and a general overview persists in ASA tours. If Australian educational tourism grew not from mass tourism but through the contributions of such Australian and overseas academics who organised and taught on tours, it has also been nurtured by the ideas of an impressive and eclectic range of novelists, philosophers, critics, commentators and scholars; a list too long to enumerate here. Educational travel did not evolve because practitioners read the work of authors as diverse, say, as Benedict Anderson, Michael Baxandall and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, and then applied the authors’ ideas to designing and running tours. This would be far too linear and tidy a proposition. In a sector that has stumbled toward its present shape, perceptions and half-formed theories developed ‘on the road’ have gained form and clarity, and have been enriched by the discovery of apposite authors and texts. Such, in this writer’s experience, has been the highly experimental nature of educational tourism’s development.

The multifaceted nature of educational tourism

Mass tourism (or service tourism) is a vast, intricate, and extremely diverse global industry concerned primarily with the provision of services such as accommodation and transport. It shows little interest in quality of information; indeed, it often treats information as a commodity (Wood 1992a). By contrast, educational tourism is concerned principally with subject matter (Wood 2001). This difference – seldom noted by theorists – is simple yet deeply significant. Mass tourism frequently stereotypes people and their practices, tending to rely on anachronistic images culled from sources such as imperial propaganda (Cannadine 1983, 156), or on nineteenth-century images of nations as primordial and perennial entities (Hitchins 2005, 44ff). Mass tourism also conveys the significance of photographable monuments (Jenkins 2003, 306) through ‘landmark statements’. Educational tourism, on the other hand, attempts to set regions, precincts, monuments, rituals and customs in their religious, social, political, aesthetic, and historical contexts. Australian educational tours visiting Siena, for example, began in the late 1970s to interpret that famous late medieval city’s historic fabric through the frescoes Allegory of Good Government; Allegory of Bad Government, and Effects of Good Government on Town and Country by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (c. 1290–1348), located in the town hall. A focus on these images was part of an attempt to show how the communal government sought to shape and give symbolic meaning to Siena’s urbanism, architectural styles, and even to the construction materials of buildings.

Educational tourism also differs fundamentally from knowledge acquisition on a university campus. Whereas training in a tertiary discipline, for example, requires the acquisition of specific, specialised, assessable aptitudes, educational tourism eschews precise goals and entreats individuals to test their particular experience of the world by confronting it with the spatial and temporal vastness and complexity of larger realities. To educate travellers is to cultivate in them the desire to know and understand more. ‘Educated traveller’ is therefore an oxymoron, and good educational tours face a conundrum: to succeed, the path that such tours present to knowledge and understanding must be without end. This consideration, of course, diametrically opposes educational tourism to commodity tourism which sells ‘product’ that by definition must be ‘complete’ to satisfy its market.

Educational tourism’s unique and essential quality is that it is a reflexive process of apprehending the nature of ‘being in the world’, which is a moral aim. It cannot be otherwise because travellers journey ‘elsewhere’, beyond parochial spatial and intellectual confines, exploring the peculiar epistemological relationship of specifics to universals. This helps to explain, in part, why educational tourism was shaped by travel to Italy. Italy’s attraction to Europeans has evolved, on the one hand, from sensual encounters (as exemplified in the novels of E. M. Forster and Thomas Mann), and on the other, from awareness of journeying beyond specifics to apprehend universals (Pemble 1996). Encounters with Italian art, wine, fashion, cuisine and music may enchant in specific ways. But with its deep imperial roots and its creation of a universal Church, Italian culture has shaped perhaps countless western cultural norms and concepts. On account of its geographical location, Italy has served as a crossroads in European and wider world history. A city such as Rome shaped western urbanistic values; Florence produced ‘global’ cultural heroes like Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Adding to the country’s attractions, Italians value their cultural heritage in unique ways, and, on the surface at least, Italian civic life appears seamlessly linked to its past (Putnam et al. 1993).

When describing the activities of ASA in 1999, Amira K. Bennison of Cambridge University gave a clear idea of that which educational tourism in a larger sense seeks to be, and to achieve:

Australians Studying Abroad programs visit numerous countries to explore a varied range of themes from contemporary art and literature to the evolution of regional or national cultures over many centuries. All tours share a belief that learning is as much an act of imagination and experience as a garnering of information based on the assumption that an intimate relationship exists between geography, history and culture. ASA tours aim to give participants unique insights into different cultural traditions by travelling to the places where each tradition evolved, and tracing how climate, geography, demography and politics interact to create specific types of art and culture. The physical experience of different landscapes, environments and peoples with their myriad colours and scents is the first step to understanding different cultures. ASA tours ask their participants to go a step further and use the present in combination with artefacts from the past to imagine the march of history or the context of a particular literary or artistic genre. By travelling within specific countries or regions through varied urban and rural landscapes, many tours trace the routes of trade, demographic movement, and cultural exchange, thus giving tour participants the opportunity to become part of the drama themselves. Group leaders and lecturers accompany each tour to help participants to interpret the cities, monuments and landscapes through which they pass and the customs, rituals and performances they witness by means of a combination of evening lectures; gallery and museum tours; performances and site visits. On many tours local guest lecturers provide additional insights into their region or a particular aspect of its culture.

Although teachers of visual disciplines first organised tours, educational tourism has become increasingly interdisciplinary, multifaceted and inclusive, and now attempts to synthesise knowledge rather than pursue the aims and methodologies of any one specialism or subject. It differs fundamentally from at least some scholarly research in presenting regions, countries, provinces, cities and landscapes in all their diversity. Nevertheless, to shape its narratives educational tourism must draw upon scholarship in various disciplines, which involves an understanding of scholarly methodologies, and respect for the rigorous standards of formal scholarship.

In the case of ASA, this interdisciplinary approach evolved particularly on tours to Italy. Influential works in the field of Renaissance studies such as Rab Hatfield’s article on the confraternity of the Magi (Hatfield 1970), and Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy by Michael Baxandall (1972); later Italian urban histories such as Rome, Profile of a City, 312–1308 by Richard Krautheimer (1980), and the Laterza series La città nella storia d’Italia and, latterly, studies of city and countryside by Denis Cosgrove and Daniels (1988; 1993), Vito Fumagalli (1994; 2007) and Chiara Frugoni (1991), have progressively enabled tour lecturers to adopt an interdisciplinary approach to the breadth and intricacy of Italian urban and landscape history.

Although practitioners of educational tourism use scholarly texts to prepare tours, and most tour participants read to prepare for programs, when travellers confront places and human practices ‘on the spot’ they learn primarily by decoding what they see, hear, smell and touch – not by reading a text in situ. Tour lecturers must therefore assist their listeners to analyse these sensations. The long-standing Anglo-Saxon awareness that Italy educated the senses (Brewer 1997, 206) honed this approach. More specifically, Italians’ subtle and pervasive use of gesture in contemporary civic life and social ritual; the meanings conveyed by gesture and comportment, and their deep continuity with the past as revealed in historic descriptions and handbooks of manners (Martines 1979, 94ff; Wilson 2005, 139–140), have led educational tours to explore the interconnected meanings of space, form and social activity in Italian life, past and present.

The past in the present, identity, reflexivity

Travellers inevitably experience the past through the lens of the present. Educational tourism therefore differs from many specialised university courses that aim to teach the history of specific periods in order to train students in specialised methodologies and skills. Whereas a campus-based course on Renaissance Florence does not deal with the city in the eighteenth, nineteenth or twentieth centuries, educational tours to Florence confront travellers with streetscapes and buildings of widely varying ages, alongside contemporary objects, signage and activity. It is impossible to ignore these layers and juxtapositions, but who would wish to do so on an educational tour? Educational tourism, like the discipline of world history (Mazlish 2005), does not focus on the past per se but on the relation of the past to the present, and thus on the travellers’ place in the world – for place links the past to the present (Malpas 1999). As illustrated by the following examples, what might be deemed interference by a student of a particular period becomes a virtue for educational tourism.

Australian historian David Garrioch has written of attempting to peel off layers of modern noise in old European cities in order to explore the semiotic meanings of traditional sounds such as the toll of bells (Garrioch 2003). An educational tour – equally interested in lost sounds and the original significance of those that survive with ‘thinned out’ meanings – would not, however, attempt to bypass contemporary noise but endeavour to hear the past through the present. The Moroccan city of Fes, for instance, can be fruitfully ‘listened to’ in this way: before the advent of amplified recordings, religious space in Fes was demarcated by the sound range of calls to prayer from neighbourhood mosques that defined the socio-religious territories of kinship, merchant and artisan groups. Nowadays, the overlap of amplified recordings has created new sound geographies in that city, as in many Islamic cities.

To pursue a detailed understanding of the interrelationships between past and present was the purpose of ASA’s film documentary project Two Tales of Tuscany (Broadbent et al. 1995), which developed through the experience of taking tours to Italy over many years. This work examines the history of Tuscany through the evolution of one great building, the villa-palace of Montegufoni in the Val di Pesa on the Via Volterrana. Beginning as an eleventh-century stronghold of the feudal Ormani family, this building complex became a Renaissance and baroque villa belonging to the Florentine Acciaiuoli family, only to be transformed into the Tuscan retreat of the English Sitwell family in the early twentieth century. At present the villa-palace serves as holiday apartments. Two Tales of Tuscany offers a rich appreciation of this transformation, its context, and the layered evidence for it.

In addition to questions of place, educational tourism seeks to explore questions of identity through Benedict Anderson’s concept of imagined communities (Anderson 1983), and by a resolute insistence that identities change over time; that they change according to occasion, and according to the observer and the observed. Reflecting in 2001 on his book The Tourist Gaze, John Urry (1990) noted that whereas in 1990 he had treated objects of tourists’ gaze as static, since that time globalisation has vanquished stasis, and travellers now journey in a constantly shifting, reflexive, world (Urry 2001). If perhaps things have become faster since 1990, ASA had already learned vividly before then – especially through reflexive interactions with Italians – that identity is never a static object of the gaze. Italian imagined communities change constantly according to situations: depending on the context, they can be a family or street; a neighbourhood or a city; one part of ‘Italy’ as opposed to another, as when northerners call southerners arabi (arabs), and are in turn described as tedeschi (Germans). Such a kaleidoscope of meanings exists in part because travellers constitute actors on the ‘occasion’ in which community is imagined. A nineteenth-century scholarly traveller such as John Addington Symonds (1840–1893), for example, was never sure if the Italians he met were being themselves or acting in a way they believed themselves expected to behave (Pemble 1987, 263ff).

Further to identity, the open-ended process of exploring the nature of ‘being in the world’ can be enriched by exploring the suppositions, sensations and deductions of earlier travellers. This again involves reflexivity, between people, places, the past and the present, and the particular and the universal. Villas in the Florentine countryside and Palladian houses in the Veneto speak to modern travellers of the inspiration their builders had derived from reading the Latin authors Vitruvius and Vergil. They speak as well of the symbiotic relation of the city to the country in Italian history, and simultaneously of the appropriation by Grand Tourists of a great cultural ideal through their engagement with Italy. As John Pemble (1996) has argued, Venice itself stands for a place that became an idea largely through travel. Past travellers’ reactions, of course, were often ambivalent and inconsistent. Matthew Arnold (1822–1888) famously stated that ‘Italy is Life’, while others of his era deplored its decadence and depravity. Many visitors were entranced by Italy’s historic environment but avoided the company of Italians. Reading about these past ambiguities helps modern travellers to evaluate their own behaviour, and to understand their experiences of their tour more fully.

During educational tours, reflexivity, and a focus on process, foster a certain meandering narrative rhythm. Quite unlike a well-run campus-based course, tour commentaries tend to ramble from topic to topic. There is a synergy between this meandering and the uneven rhythms of a journey itself. This often anarchic process educates the traveller in the complex ways described above, but can also provoke the tour leaders and teachers themselves to develop new ideas and novel juxtapositions of fact and concept. A number of scholars who have taught in ASA programs have observed that the experience led them to take up fresh directions for research. In brief, travel to ‘elsewhere’, can lead to the leaps of perception and imagination that Arthur Koestler believed to be the root of creativity (Koestler 1964).

As educational tourism has grown and diversified from the 1970s onwards, a new theoretical framework has been required to account for the encounters it affords – and to describe the distinctive emphasis it gives to the layering of civilisations, cultures and transformations through time. Throughout its history ASA has sought to create such a conceptual framework, ‘on the job’ so to speak; in the mid to late 1980s, efforts in this area were further stimulated when the company’s model of educational tourism, which I have sought to describe here, was used as a basis for cultural tourism policies generated in Australia by state and federal governments, and overseas. Now it is possible to speak of conceptual frameworks for places (Wood 1992a) and of a theory of cultural landscapes (Staiff 2001). This theory was conceived, born and raised on Italian educational tourism programs that sought fresh perspectives on travellers’ diverse encounters and interactions with other peoples, thoughts, images, objects, times and places.

Case in point: Sicily, a cultural landscape of the imagination

The following account takes ASA’s approach to educational tourism, as explained above, to describe and reflect upon a perennially popular Sicilian tradition, that of puppetry.

Situated close to North Africa halfway between Gibraltar and the Levant, throughout its history Sicily has thereby attracted invaders who have markedly shaped its cultural landscapes. The Muslims are considered by many to have benefited the island; the Spaniards exploited it with burdensome taxes (Backman 1995, 91). Sicily’s poor were also oppressed by the island aristocracy – by the mid nineteenth century, the aristocracy’s oppressive need for wealth wrought social and ecological disaster. The celebrated novel The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (first published in 1958) dramatically describes Sicilian aristocratic life at the time of the Risorgimento. Indeed Sicily’s geographical landscapes and fascinating polyglot culture have inspired a number of Italy’s greatest writers.

Turning left at Via del Corso opposite the cathedral of Palermo we enter a tiny alley. It is 6 o’clock in the evening in early December; soft, isolated lamps shine in the dimness. A large open door reveals a smallish room, its walls brightly lit and hung with riotously coloured paintings of knights and dragons. Signora Argento offers us a glass of sweet Sicilian wine and we seat ourselves. Her husband Vincenzo tells his family history; his great-grandfather established their company, the Opera dei Pupi di Vincenzo Argento e Figli. He then retreats behind a curtain with his sons and daughter.

Cunning Rainaldo and cross-eyed Orlando – comrades-in-arms – have lost their hearts, their friendship, and their sense of purpose to Angelica, who often wears the feather headdress of an American Indian (Pasqualino n.d., 4; 1989, fig. 19). She is actually a princess of Cathay, with magical powers, and has come to France on the pretext of finding a husband, but with the hidden intention of killing knights (Croce 2003, 62). On their way to Paris to be married, Orlando and Angelica, who kiss with smacking lips in the Sicilian mode, encounter Rainaldo. He challenges Orlando for Angelica’s affections. In a glade of unconvincing trees, the two knights trade threats and insults: the inflated meanings and strident, assertive tones of these exchanges accent their knightly status (Buonanno 1990, 327). At last, haughty altercation exhausted, they resort to combat. Iron swords crash furiously though ineffectually against tin armour. The long plumes on their helmets whip wildly as the swing of their swords transmits rhythms through their arms and shoulders to their heads. Evenly matched, they will undoubtedly wear themselves out.

Enter Malagigi, cousin of Orlando and Rainaldo, whose name was Onofrio before he was adopted by the great magician Merlin (Croce 2003, 70). Malagigi carries Merlin’s sword; Merlin taught Malagigi his trade, and Malagigi is now the most powerful of magicians, having defeated the Muslim magus, Tuttofuoco. Malagigi realises that Rainaldo and Orlando will bring disaster upon themselves, so he summons Nacalone, one of the many devils he commands. Nacalone is livid red, his hair singed by the fires of hell. He has horns and so resembles Pan, except that he also has wings that sound like great winds when they flap (Croce 2003, 71). Malagigi instructs Nacalone to scare Angelica so she will flee to Charlemagne in Paris.

The great Frankish king sits in his fairytale court arrayed with a mélange of motifs from the Renaissance, the baroque, and the comedie française (Pasqualino 1989, 80–83). His fury is regal. How can his two champions lose sight of their quest to kill as many Muslims as possible? Charlemagne threatens to throw Angelica into prison if she will not tell him where her suitors are fighting. When finally she tells him, he incarcerates her anyway for diverting the knights’ attention. Knowing how to manipulate his none-too-intelligent warriors, Charlemagne summons the lovesick pair and offers the hand of Angelica to whomever can kill and maim the largest number of unbelievers. Purpose remembered, the protagonists join battle with a motley crew of growling giants, hissing dragons and squealing janissaries. Of course Rainaldo and Orlando do not understand Islam. They simply hack their way through the enemy in a battle made uneven by the manipulations of their Christian creator. He pulls invisible strings and Orlando’s cleaving sword cuts neatly across a Muslim, slicing him in two. The ‘bastard’ wails and his guts roll out on the ground. The guts are made from multicoloured streamers.

Victory comes as broken Moors pile up around our heroes. Rainaldo and Orlando each retire to court to claim Angelica’s hand. She is there, a somewhat facile creature whose dolly-bird demeanour underlines the idiocy of their misplaced passion. An argument ensues about who has butchered more of the infidel. Their scores are even. And anyway, the whole escapade is a sham because, as Charlemagne reminds them, they are both already married and their obsession is inappropriate. The imperious king throws Angelica back into prison (he also seems to have an eye for the princess). She later escapes and eventually marries a lowly page of King Dardanello, called Medoro.

This episode belongs to a vast, predictable cycle that was played out each year by Charlemagne’s court (Buonanno 1990, 324). Until quite recently at least, every incident was entirely credible to audiences, who invariably interjected. So real were its protagonists that now and then someone would get too wound up in its tragi-comedy. Once, for example, an audience member bought a traitor puppet after a performance, hanged it from a tree, and blew it to bits with a shotgun. He was so infuriated when the traitor reappeared next evening that he rioted and broke up proceedings (Pasqualino, n.d., 7).

After the show, Signor Vincenzo introduces us to the characters as if they are his children. Everyone is related to everyone, like a huge Sicilian extended family. He explains the characters’ virtues with pride and their faults with indulgence. Each puppet is ‘he’ or ‘she’, never ‘it’.

Puppetry was imported to Sicily from Naples in the early nineteenth century, and with it the garish colours of French popular theatre. In Catania, Sicilian marionettes reach a metre in height and support themselves on non-articulating legs because they are so heavy. The marionettes of Palermo are slightly smaller and lighter, and have articulated legs: in Catania, therefore, people call Palermitans ‘crawlers’. Strings guide some body parts of the Sicilian puppets, but heads and sword arms are steered by iron bars, enabling the knights to draw and swing their swords. The puppeteer twists the puppet’s head bar which makes the character walk by setting up a rhythm through its body that swings its legs. As its head turns left its right leg steps out, which fuels jokes in mainland Italy about the way Sicilians walk. This method of making puppets walk, Vincenzo boasts, was invented by his great-grandfather.

In Naples, the puppeteers’ stories were often about mafiosi. The Sicilian epic of Charlemagne is possibly a mix of half-remembered sections of the Song of Roland (Orlando in Italian) and the practice of public storytelling believed to have descended from medieval Sicily (Pasqualino 1989, 21). Peripatetic storytellers wandered the island’s small villages telling the stories of medieval knights. Storytelling died out but the tales were preserved in the exploits of tin-armoured puppets in tiny backstreet theatres. This was once a ‘people’s theatre’, and although protagonists were real to the naïve and credulous, innocence masked an undercurrent of incisive derision. Peppered through the narrative were scurrilous off-the-cuff asides about the corruption of the government and the peccadilloes of the princelings who exploited the people.

Sicilian puppetry is undoubtedly a chaotic mix of anachronisms (Buonanno 1990). It can exemplify the way in which – despite often vague commonplaces about the contributions of successive invaders to Sicilian history – Sicilian life is flavoured by the presence of memory manifest in the cultural landscape. So in Sicily, a traveller may encounter encouragement to ponder the nature of memory without worrying too much about the accuracy of any one historical ‘truth’.


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Publication information

This chapter is from Australians in Italy: Contemporary Lives and Impressions, edited by Bill Kent, Ros Pesman and Cynthia Troup (Monash University Publishing: Clayton, Melbourne. 2010). For more information about this book, or to purchase print copies, please go to

Australians in Italy: Contemporary Lives and Impressions

   by Bill Kent [editor]; Ros Pesman [editor]; Cynthia Troup [editor]