Rinaldo: An Anti-State Hero in Sicilian Puppet Theater
Although Rinaldo di Montalbano (or Renaud de Montauban in French) was not originally part of the Roncevaux legend, his figure readily lent itself to a narrative in which Charlemagne played a problematic and sometimes outright negative role. Renaud was involved in an ongoing conflictual relationship with the emperor since his initial appearance in the medieval French romance Les quattre fils Aymon. Luigi Pulci draws upon and further elaborates these tensions at the level of both word and deed throughout his epic poem Morgante (1483). Although Orlando is likewise disgusted by Charlemagne’s unjust actions on various occasions, from the very first cantare which recounts his angry departure from court, Rinaldo is the character who most consistently and prominently plays out the opposition between individual rights and unwarrantable state power. This essay examines some ways in which Sicilian puppeteers interpreted and refashioned the Charlemagne-Rinaldo contrast they inherited from Pulci and later sources in order to express their own narrative preferences and political ideologies.
Rinaldo — the most beloved character in traditional puppet theater — was commonly understood to represent an opposition, and even threat, to political power. When in the 1880s denunciations of Opera dei pupi’s “maliciously destructive spectacles” appeared in newspapers, one self-proclaimed patriotic journalist evoked Rinaldo as the embodiment of lawlessness when proposing “the quick and immediate closing” of puppet theaters. Giuseppe Pitrè brushed off these attacks on puppet theater in the press by attributing such censure to “the delicate nerves of some representatives of the fourth power of the State” (p. 270). Yet Pitrè not only discredited journalists by branding them as an unofficial fourth branch of government, he also went on to downplay the genre’s potential seditiousness by claiming that, on the contrary, the plays inspired ethical behaviour and valorous action.
Pitrè’s contemporary Pio Rajna accounted for Rinaldo’s legendary status in popular culture by noting that the knight “did not fight on behalf of a religious faith, but instead to defend his rights and his independence” (p. 37). Writing a century later when puppet theater had lost its traditional public, Antonio Pasqualino could offer a more sociological interpretation to explain both Rinaldo’s wide popular appeal and his perceived threat to the established order: “The puppet theater public, more or less consciously, identifies the contrast between the sovereign and the rebellious vassal with that between the powerful and the poor, the groups who dominate and those who are dominated” (L’Opera dei pupi, p. 117). The banished (i.e., bandito) Rinaldo could be likened to the figure of the bandit (also bandito, in Italian) who in popular Sicilian culture “represents for the people a hero who had the courage to rebel against an unjust social situation, trying to obtain justice with his own hands, against the ruthless law of the state” (Ibid., p. 120). Unlike the legendary and morally ambiguous local bandits, however, Rinaldo:
is free to be right and, although he is not able to prevent the treachery of Gano and the blindness of Charlemagne that bring ruin to the paladins at Roncevaux, he is destined to undertake the just revenge and to ascend to heaven in the guise of a saint. He is therefore a triumphant instrument of an imaginary revolt, free from the sense of guilt and the contradictions that accompany bandits in popular nineteenth-century literature and also certain rebel barons from medieval chivalric literature (Ibid., p. 121).
Interviews that Pasqualino carried out in the post-World War II period demonstrate the extent to which the genre’s potential to critique political power was consciously understood by puppeteers themselves (Ibid., p. 117). According to the puppeteer Nino Canino of Partinico (province of Palermo), Charlemagne was the character most hated by the public next to the universally despised Gano. As other puppeteers explain, the emperor is compelled to listen to the traitor not only because the two are related by marriage, “but also because Gano is very rich and furnishes the gold necessary to rule” (Ibid., p. 118).
While one might be tempted to point to anti-imperial sentiment in the nineteenth century or resistance to Fascism during the early twentieth, the anti-authoritarian stance embedded in these chivalric narratives is not restricted to a single historical period, but spans the centuries from Luigi Pulci’s fifteenth-century Florence to contemporary Sicily. As Pasqualino has argued, “one of the principal reasons that explain the continued success in Sicily of chivalric legends is the exaltation of individualism that one can read in them and in particular in the legends of the rebel barons” (Le vie del cavaliere, p. 98).
The full essay, entitled “The Ideological Battle of Roncevaux: The Critique of Political Power from Pulci’s Morgante to Sicilian Puppet Theatre Today,” can be found in Luigi Pulci in Renaissance Florence and Beyond, eds. James K. Coleman and Andrea Moudarres (Turnhout: Brepols, 2017), pp. 209-32. http://www.brepols.net/Pages/ShowProduct.aspx?prod_id=IS-9782503574394-1
Pasqualino, Antonio. L’Opera dei pupi. Palermo: Sellerio, 1989.
——. Le vie del cavaliere. Milan: Bompiani, 1992.
Pulci, Luigi. The Epic Adventures of Orlando and His Giant Friend Morgante. Trans. by Joseph Tusiani. Intro. by Edoardo A. Lèbano. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.
Pitrè, Giuseppe. “La letteratura cavalleresca popolare in Sicilia.” Romania 13 (1884), 315–98; reprinted in Usi e costumi, credenze e pregiudizi del popolo siciliano, vol. 1 (Catania, Clio, n.d.), pp. 119–336.
Rajna, Pio. “I ‘Rinaldi’ o i cantastorie di Napoli.” Nuova antologia (December 1878), 557–79.