Saturday, May 15, 2010

Italian journey, 9: Orlando Furioso

Saturday, May 15—

ONE OF THE BEST books I've read preparing for this sojourn in Sicily has been Henry Festing Jones's Diversions in Sicily, published I think in 1908. (I downloaded it from Project Gutenberg and read it on my iPad.) I don't know anything about Jones, except that he was English, apparently wealthy enough to travel at leisure, and well educated in the liberal arts.

In addition he was very good-hearted, keenly observant, intellectually curious, enthusiastic, and patient. He must have made a wonderful traveling companion.

Of course the Sicily he writes about has vanished, at least from Palermo, the only part of Sicily we've yet experienced. His Sicily is incredibly poor, travels on foot or by donkey, lives in what most of us would call squalor. But the people he describes — soldiers, hotelkeepers, little boys, facchini, coachmen — mostly share his intelligence, patience, and amusement, if not always his literacy and the experiences of his travels. Some of them may be ignorant, superstitious, and gullible; but all seem to be reasonable, courteous, and good-humored.

His descriptions — of towns, landscape, conversations, the visual appearance of the people he meets — are detailed without being tedious, evocative without sensationalism. The conversations he records seem accurate and always interesting, and when he retreats into his own thoughts they're generally fascinating. He describes, for example, remembering how migrating birds do or do not skip over an island before lighting on the next by making an analogy with singers who make a wider major second when singing up the scale, a narrower one when singing back down; and his description will make sense, I think, to a musical dillettante as well as to a professional, and teach something about music to the tyro along the way.

Much of Diversions in Italy involves Sicily's traditional puppet theater, and Jones's descriptions made me long to see an example. Today we finally got to one, and it was just as he described it. We had a hell of a time finding it, because we stupidly never did buy a street map to this city. (Too late now: we leave tomorrow morning.) It turned out to be down by the waterfront behind a street market in a broken-down part of town.

(There are many of these; we've been living in one. Streets are narrow and far from straight; many if not most lack any sign of name; the streets are full of garbage; a number of buildings are still bombed-out, lacking roof and interior walls.)

A discreet signboard stood in the street outside the door to the Teatro Carlo Magno. The door stood open; there was no one in the ticket office. A young man sat on a chair toward the front of the otherwise empty auditorium which contained nine rows of benches, just as Jones describes. I couldn't understand his explanation of when the spettacolo would begin; he spoke mostly Sicilian. After a while another fellow turned up; he said the show would start in five minutes. We stepped outside for a moment; when we returned a young couple had turned up with a little boy maybe five years old.

We sat in the second row, behind them, and wondered what would happen next. An elderly man, a little lopsided and wearing the ubiquitous cap, who we'd noticed lounging about outside, walked up toward the stage, sat down at a little pianolike instrument, and began turning its crank: an out-of-tune mechanical piano it was, and it ground out the overture. I noticed suddenly that both the young men I'd spoken to had disappeared behind the scenes.

The curtain went up and a master-of-ceremonies puppet greeted us, explaining what the evening's program would be. The little boy had gone up to the edge of the stage and began asking questions of the pianist, who lifted him onto his knee, holding him aboard with one arm while turning the crank with the other.

Then the action itself began. Orlando, splendid in his armor and his bright green plume, met the bealtiful Angelica. He dispatches her infidel kidnapper, then duels and almost kills his cousin — Rinaldo, is it? — before recognizing him. He travels, for some reason, to Hell and back, slaying the Hippogriff, withstanding temptresses, bargaining with a devil. Then he kills a number of infidels, decapitating a number of them, splitting one.s head vertically, completely cutting another in half.

All the while the action is described and the puppet actors speak, in a number of passionate voices. Horses neigh; terrible birds squawk. The temptress's head suddenly turns into a skull before our very eyes. The bodies pile up. Knights, Angelica, the Priest, giants (one with one eye, a Cyclops), monsters, all pace, strike attitudes, converse, above all battle.

We were utterly captivated, both delighted and absorbed. It was funny and it was profound. And it was very very old: you could see why this narrative mode would survive.

Afterward we talked a little with the second fellow, who turned out to be the reciter as well as the chief puppeteer. I do all the voices, he told me. Who wrote the words, I asked. It's all improvised, he answered, but the subject is always Orlando Furioso, from Tasso, you know, Tasso and a few others. (He specified their names, which struck bells, but don't stay with me.)

The little boy turned out to be his son: he had in the meantime crawled up onto the stage and was sorting out the pile of dead and decapitated Saracens. It's a family affair: the man at the piano was apparently Signor Puppeteer's father, and his father had painted the scenes.

We were allowed to handle one of the puppets: it weighed a good twenty pounds. Ingenious wires and strings make it possible for them to draw swords, ride devils, lift their visors; above all to adopt lifelike attitudes while conversing. We went next door to the laboratorio, the "ospedale delle pupi," where puppets are repaired and repainted when battles have got out of hand; it was an impressive operation, though housed in what might have been a shabby (and dodgy) body-and-fender shop.

What it all amounted to, I thought to myself as we walked home, was pride, resourcefulness, literacy, imagination, respect for tradition, dedication, poetry, magic. It was exactly what Henry Festing Jones had described, a hundred years ago. I hope it goes on forever. Some things, I think, do.

Notes on our meals during this trip can be found, as always, at Eating Every Day; photos of Campania can be seen at this webpage; photos of Palermo can be seen here.

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