Poetry in Colour between Phantasy and Reality

24th October 2016 - 21st May 2017

Poetry in Colour between Phantasy and Reality
Cantastorie of the Families Maldera and Parisi, Puppeteers, in the Würth Collection

An exhibition in cooperation with Kunsthaus Zürich

Palmerino, Panel 32, Tempera on Paper, 149 x 198 cm

With Cantastorie, Museum Würth enters into the tradition of that name, which has already become historical. “Cantastorie” were Italian puppeteers and itinerant singers who performed the old stories of Odysseus, Charlemagne and the Saracens, the infatuated Orlando Furioso, and famous bandits, relating them in endless episodes recast in ever fresh ways.

Cantastorie were also an alternative to the great theatres and opera houses, a contrasting program built of plywood and papier maché, a “theatre for the people” performed in brashly painted sets. The marionette player, whose roots may well have lay in a fairground sideshow, needed no more than a stick, a pointer to underscore the pathos of his declarations about the abuse of power, hate, love, jealousy and guilt. In the wink of an eye, the stick could metamorphose into a hero's sword. It was effects of this kind that made the performances direct and compelling. The puppeteer assumed every role in the play, altering his voice to suit, singing and declaiming. Only a split second was needed for conquerors to become victims, enemies lovers.

Storie di Napoli, Panel unnumbered, Tempera on Paper, 149 x 180 cm

A short time ago the Würth Collection was able to acquire a valuable store of approximately 250 large-format Cantastorie paintings, background sets in tempera depicting Christian and heathen kings and knights, lovely and sometimes belligerent ladies, sorcerers both male and female, and legendary beasts, created by the marionette-theatre families of Parisi and Maldera. After first performing in Naples, the two families were then active in the environs of Foggia, in Apulia. Though the themes of the colourful scenes (Gerusalemme liberata, Orlando, Erminia della Stella, etc.) derived from classic Italian literature and art, the content of the imaginative historical stories is certainly no longer familiar to the general public. Based on the set paintings, they could be revived in a highly entertaining way, reflecting not so much stylized high culture as vital, earthy and colourful adaptations and paraphrases of historic material.

The paintings, dating between 1900 and 1948, reflect the inimitable touch of the Parisi and Maldera families. Together with the scripts they conveyed great literary themes, at first to changing audiences as the performers moved from town to town, then in their own theater in Foggia. While the images were regularly replaced by new ones, continually expanding the visual storehouse, the script books were the true family treasures, never being lent out or reproduced. Instead, the scripts were simply rewritten when they became dogeared. Recently rediscovered, they can now be exhibited alongside the illustrations, their revealing comments shedding light on the scenes.