Part XLIX: Orlando and the Puppets of Sicily, Syracuse, Sicily
Morning, Syracuse, Sicily
Morning, Syracuse, Sicily

The last day of September and the end of the second month of our trip. One more month and we are finished, a fact that does not bear contemplation. The days and cities are slipping too quickly past and far too soon we shall be wrapping up our epic journey, leaving Europe for the dull shores of the New World.

Most of today was spent dodging the threat of rain, Gray clouds drifted past overhead, but with the exception of the odd rain drop here and there, the day remained mostly dry. There is a large contingent of American tourists in town today: you can hear the flat nasal tones of Midwest English spoken in the streets, shops, and restaurants. The tour groups seem to come in national waves. Today the Americans, yesterday the French and Germans. There is a dock that takes small cruise ships on the other side of the bridges. I don't know if this is the source of the groups or if these are people riding tour buses around the countryside on package Sicily tours. What is always funny is the tour groups that speak Italian: Milanese, perhaps, down from the North to see the rustics customs of the Sicilians.

We decide to take in some of the artistic treasures of Syracuse, and so, late in the morning, set off for the Mueso Bellomo, Ortigia's regional art gallery. Culture, that's what we are after on this trip. Our walk to the Museo would have been a bit simpler if I had brought the map with us. I was confident, however, that I knew the general locale it haunted. After a few circuits of the southern tip of the island, I popped into a souvenir shop and checked the map in the back of one of the city guidebooks. Just where I thought it was. Souvenir shops—jolly useful things to have around.

The reason I hadn't seen the Museum the first time we passed it was because it was tucked away behind scaffolding and a wall of builder's plywood. "Restauro," read the sign—closed for restoration. That seems to be a theme here in Sicily. The theater is closed for restoration, the fort at the island's tip is closed, several churches are restauro. And when something is restauro, no one gets in. It may be months or years before a site reopens and no alternate arrangements are made for visitors (like closing part of the site or, in the case of an art museum, moving exhibits to an alternate venue).

Street Art, Syracuse, Sicily
Street Art, Syracuse, Sicily

So, with tears in our eyes, we decided to have a wander up toward the puppet museum, which wasn't closed for restoration. Sicilian puppetry is evidently an old but dying art form. Ortigia is one of the few towns where shows are still held in a 30 seat puppet theater. The museum is dedicated to the Vaccaro and Mauceri families, who revived Sicilian puppetry during the twentieth century.

The Museum contains a collection of puppets, which stand between three and four feet tall. Rather than being operated by multiple strings, each puppet has a steel rod running down through its head and spine. A second steel rod connects to one arm and a rope to the other. The rods are probably necessary because of the greater size and mass of the puppets.

Around the corner from the museum is the puppet theater and a puppet maker's workshop. We watch the puppet maker hammering decorations into a bronze shield for a few minutes and then book seats for the evening performance.

Evening, Syracuse, Sicily
Evening, Syracuse, Sicily

On our way back to the flat, we stumble across a bookshop with a sign that offers Italian language lessons. We have been investigating the possibility of expanding our knowledge of the language, so we enter. A brisk young woman with wild black hair tells us a bit about the course. Normally classes run for a week, four hours each morning, but since we are leaving on Friday, we will need accelerated classes. Two days, three hours each day. We sign up. It will evidently be a full immersion course, for she says, as we are leaving, “This will be the last English you hear me speak.” Hmmm.

After dinner (in which Mary tries a pizza with broccoli on it—will the nightmare never end?) and a fruitless expedition shooting pictures beneath the gray skies, we head back to the puppet theater. The evening's spectacle is entitled Orlando al giardino incantato di Drogantina (Orlando in Drogantina's Enchanted Garden). It is the story of a questing knight, Orlando, who is searching for Princess Angelica. The Princess has been sequestered in the kingdom of Catai by her father who wants her to marry another king. Angelica is disconsolate because the man she loves, Rinaldo, does not love her. She, as far I can gather, has never heard of Orlando, the hero of the story.

Evening, Syracuse, Sicily
Evening, Syracuse, Sicily

Well, it is all very confusing, especially since all of the dialog is in Italian. Orlando fights and defeats several enemies: two giants, a cyclops, and the Indovino, which looks like a large muppet with wings. We especially enjoyed Orlando's epic battles, with him flailing about the stage, whacking his opponents with the flat of his sword. He frees a young girl who had been captured by a giant and a band of Franciscan friars who were being held by the Cyclops. Eventually he encounters a woman in the woods bearing a cup, and for some reason, drinks the potion she offers him. He grows rigid and an evil woman appears on the scene (Drogantina, from the title). She summons a demon who carries Orlando off to her enchanted garden, where ghosts and withered knights dance with demons.

The curtain falls. Orlando has been captured, Angelica is not rescued, the quest has failed. It is like a Chinese movie where the bad guys prevail and then ride away laughing. It is a Sicilian commentary on life: most quests fail, and successful heroes are few and far between. We are on the right road in life when a woman pops out of the woods and offers us a gin and tonic, and asks us to sit and talk with her a while. We know we shouldn't but we do. We are led astray to our doom. Meanwhile love laments what it does not have, pining for something unreachable in place of the good we possess. A play that reflects the vicissitudes of real life, rather than happily ever after. Strange, but fun.

Piazza Duomo, Syracuse, Sicily
Piazza Duomo, Syracuse, Sicily
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Copyright, 2017 Richard J. Goodrich