The Sicilian Puppet Theater of Agrippino Manteo (1884-1947)

The Sicilian Puppet Theater of Agrippino Manteo (1884-1947)

The Paladins of France in America

By Jo Ann Cavallo

Anthem World Epic and Romance

This study reconstructs the history of the Manteo family marionette theater in New York City, provides translations of eight selected plays and 270 extant summaries, and offers comparative analyses uncovering how Agrippino Manteo’s scripts creatively adapt Italian Renaissance chivalric poems and nineteenth-century prose compilations.

EPUB, 328 Pages


June 2023

£17.99, $27.99

PDF, 328 Pages


June 2023

£17.99, $27.99

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About This Book

Sicilian puppet theater is a unique nineteenth- and twentieth-century popular theatrical tradition based on the masterpieces of medieval and Renaissance chivalric literature. It flourished not only in southern Italy and Sicily, but also in the diasporic Italian urban communities of North and South America and North Africa, bringing immigrants together for nightly performances of the same deeply cherished chivalric stories. Even though this art form was designated by UNESCO as an “intangible cultural heritage of humanity” in 2001, it remains largely unknown today because by the late 1950s Sicilian puppet theater companies had ceased to perform the full Paladins of France cycle that used to extend nightly for well over a year. Thus, the only means we have left to explore the substance of this once widely enjoyed cultural phenomenon are the scripts dating from opera dei pupi’s heyday. Most of these invaluable documents, however, have been lost, while the few sets still in existence are either privately owned by the remaining puppeteer families and collectors or tucked away in the archives of Italian institutions. Thanks to the newly accessible scripts of the preeminent Catanese-American puppeteer Agrippino Manteo (1884–1947), whose career stretched from Sicily to Argentina to New York, students, scholars, and the general public can now explore the cycle of chivalric narratives staged during the golden age of Sicilian puppet theater.

The many delicate hand-written notebooks containing Agrippino Manteo’s dramatic repertory are not only of interest for their historical and aesthetic value. These masterfully executed theatrical adaptations invite readers into a chivalric world featuring knights and damsels from across the globe – from Europe to Africa to East Asia – who share the stage with a host of wizards, fairies, giants, and monsters, in alternating episodes of love, enchantment, adventure, and warfare. The concerns with which they engage, such as justice, identity, duty, love, freedom, and virtue, transcend the categories of elite and folk, local and global, medieval and modern, interrogating what it means to be human.

This book provides the most comprehensive history to date of the Manteo Family's Sicilian Marionette Theater across three generations and brings to light for the first time the contents of Agrippino Manteo’s extensive Sicilian puppet theater scripts, including translations of 8 selected plays and 270 extant play summaries of the famous Paladins of France cycle. Accompanying comparative analyses uncover the creative process of adaptation from Italian Renaissance masterpieces of chivalric poetry to nineteenth-century prose compilations to Agrippino’s opera dei pupi.


“By supplying a human and artistic portrait on the basis of a meticulous examination of sources and documents, Jo Ann Cavallo restores to Agrippino Manteo the rightful place that he must occupy in the reconstruction of the history of this theatrical tradition.”—Professor Alessandro Napoli,Marionettistica dei Fratelli Napoli and Antonio Pasqualino International Puppet Museum, Italy.

"Based on an extraordinarily large number of first-hand sources, this book is both the careful study of a decisive piece in the history of Puppet Theatre and the tale of a fascinating journey from Sicily to Argentina and finally to New York, of a family saga that is at the same time the story of the persistence of a great artistic passion."—Professor Anna Carocci, Roma Tre University, Italy.

"We are fortunate indeed that the Manteo family has preserved written scripts of Italian puppet theater in America and that Jo Ann Cavallo is able to provide a context in the history of literature for what was performed daily for the Italian community on the streets of New York in the 1920s and 1930s."—Professor Charles Ross, Purdue University, USA.

"This book represents important documentation and analysis of the evolution of texts and dramatic prose as well as the way that individuals contribute to a continual evolution of what might be considered fixed texts. Anyone who wants to look linguistically or anthropologically into Sicilian puppet theatre will find this as close to a primary source as they can get without combing through all the items that Cavallo has meticulously done."—Professor Felice Amato, Boston University College of Fine Arts, USA.

"Jo Ann Cavallo’s book brings new insights to those who care about Sicilian theatrical history but also to social historians and general readers who want to understand how Agrippino Manteo captivated the attention of his audiences. This is the only translation into English of a set of scripts of Sicilian puppet episodes. Hence, it will serve as a key reference work now and in the future." — Professor Paula Richman, Oberlin College, USA.

The work is both scholarly and creative. Not only has Cavallo reassembled three generations of the Manteo family and highlighted their sustained efforts, her study also provides translations of eight dramatic plays plus commentary and comparative analysis. Reading through the remarkably rich episodes was not only a learning experience for me but also a mesmerizing and enlightening one. —Sicilia Parra

 Through the in-depth case-study of a family’s New York City puppet theatre, Jo Ann Cavallo offers a meticulously researched and comprehensively crafted description of the Sicilian pupi tradition. In addition to a scholarly investigation of the literary form itself, this book preserves the tangible and intangible history of the Manteo family. With this book, Cavallo provides the intangible counterpart. Her interpretations fill in the gaps and illuminate processes, relationships, and performances and convey how culture evolves—Puppetry International

With this volume, Jo Ann Cavallo offers us a rare gift: the in-depth analysis of a topic that is both rooted in literary sources and the expression of popular culture; of a regional performance tradition that spread through and thanks to the Italian diaspora; and of a neglected subject that deserves sustained attention and additional research. […] The very title of her book pushes us to look beyond national boundaries, as “France” and “America” follow “Sicilian” (and “Italian” does not appear anywhere). It is in this complexity that lies the richness that Cavallo brings to the surface. – Italian Culture

Author Information

Jo Ann Cavallo (Ph.D., Yale, 1987), Professor of Italian at Columbia University, has published widely on Italian chivalric epic, including The World beyond Europe in the Romance Epics of Boiardo and Ariosto and The Romance Epics of Boiardo, Ariosto, and Tasso: From Public Duty to Private Pleasure.


Anthem World Epic and Romance

Table of Contents

List of figures; Acknowledgments; Foreword by Alessandro Napoli; Preface; Introduction; Part One The Sicilian Puppet Theater of Agrippino Manteo and Family; Part Two Select Plays from the Paladins of France Cycle; Conclusion; Appendix 1: Marionettes owned by the Manteo family in the 1980s; Appendix 2: Manteo marionettes donated to the Italian American Museum in 2010; Appendix 3: Extant publications from the library of Agrippino Manteo; Appendix 4: Paladins of France scripts in the handwriting of Agrippino Manteo; Appendix 5: Agrippino Manteo’s summaries of plays in the Paladins of France cycle; Appendix 6: Select Characters from the Paladins of France Cycle; Appendix 7: Manteo family genealogy; Works Cited; Index


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