Art & Culture

The fascinating world of puppets

Adriano Ferraiolo, the founder of the National Puppet Theater, tells us about the life of those 500 characters of the Neapolitan tradition he interpreted.

By Vito Pinto, photo by Gianni Grattacaso

Every time Adriano Ferraiolo, founder of Teatro Nazionale dei Burattini,  opens the curtain on his tiny stage, he welcomes anyone to join a world of fantasy and dreams. He gives voice to numerous characters from the local heritage: Pulcinella, Felice Sciosciammocca, Teresina, Papele nas’ e,’ Mocarbolone, Boroboa, and more, he adds as time goes by.

A never-ending tale

He gives a stage to different stories that have one thing in common: they manage to make people of any age laugh and leave with a lighter step on their feet. Stories that he collected around the magical neighborhoods of Naples, stories he made himself, and even stories from the local heritage that he adapted with great skill. Adriano shows us a little black notebook like the ones he used during his school days: “Do you see this? It’s a Commedia from Gennaro Petito, Antonio’s brother, the greatest Pulcinella that ever was”. On the ruled notebooks, tales are written down with delicate calligraphy and, along with photographs, certificates of attendance at events, and newspaper articles, compose an extraordinary personal archive.


Adriano stops himself for a second, looking at the words carefully written down with quill and inkwell, which was very common in the past; he looks torn about sharing more secrets. “I want to show you something important to me,” he says in the end. He takes out a wooden box, and he shows us a black leathered mask. “This belongs to Pulcinella, and it was the one used by Antonio Petito,” he says in a whisper. We can suppose that this was the same one that Antonio’s father, Salvatore Petito, used for years before passing it on his child on his last show on the San Carlino stage in Naples. A moment of pure emotion that is almost impossible to describe with words because some feelings can only be experienced and treasured in one’s memory.  The same place where the fantasies of a child, the dreams of adolescence, and all the love one has experience in a lifetime can be found.


Adriano Ferraiolo spends his days working in a little and crowded studio where he takes care of all of his puppets, which are now more than five hundred. But he doesn’t do it because he needs to. Instead, he does it because he would feel like dying to stop. This is the reason why, even if he’s 75 years old, he still tours around Italy with his little magic box to spread happiness and bring a smile to children’s faces. Adriano is the fourth generation of his family that keeps this business alive, and his children are already ready to follow his steps.

The power of irony against arrogance

“I died of laughter,” the Italian poet Giovan Battista Basile wrote in the Neapolitan dialect in the Pentamerone, The Tale of Tales, to describe what happens every time in a town square a puppet show takes place. It all goes back to the Italian tradition. As soon as Pulcinella shows up indeed, with his white loose-fitting blouse and the black mask, ready to make fun of you with his typical irony, it’s impossible not to laugh. It’s all in that grassroots spirit of the familiar tropes of mocking snobby nobles, wealthy people who think that they can buy anything with money, bullies who believe that they can abuse the more vulnerable people without facing the consequences.

Parthenope, the siren

Puppet theatre may appear easy to do, but it’s a very intricate form of art in reality. Adriano alone does up to fifteen different voices to put on a show called “Na’ camera affittat ‘a tre” (a room for three). A story of everyday life that he came across in the streets of this unique city that, according to mythology, was founded on the tombstone of Parthenope. To describe Naples, the German philosopher and intellectual Johann Gottfried Herder wrote: “Partenope sang this way, as she felt a sweet pain/ Her voice was like an arrow straight to my heart.” The list of great actors and writers that gave their voices to the puppets’ stage is long and egregious: Eduardo Scarpetta, Raffaele Viviani, Antonio, and Gennaro Petito, Eduardo De Filippo. “My great grandfather worked with mechanic puppets, but my grandfather Pasquale was a theatre actor. One day, the company he worked for had to shot down, so he found himself jobless; he didn’t lose hope, though, like a true man from Naples. He knew a puppeteer guy, and they arranged a deal together: my grandad would’ve given him acting lessons in exchange for the chance to learn how to work with puppets. That’s how Pasquale started, and even if the duo separated after a couple of months, my grandad created the “teatrino” (little theatre) and began traveling around Italy.” says Adriano.

From a generation to the other

Pasquale was traveling around with his child, who began acting when he was eight years old. Adriano was always by his father’s side and grew up and debuted when he was thirteen years old to keep the tradition alive. “My first show was in 1957 – Adriano shares with us – We were working in a town square, and my brother asked my help because he had some trouble with his throat. I was terrified because I never did a whole show by myself, but my dad told me that I would’ve let down my family if I choose not to do it. So, I gathered all my courage and jumped into the scene. The first few lines were a disaster, but I started to change voices a bit after a while, and I could hear people laughing. In the end, it was a success because people had fun”.

A challenging art

Adriano has around 500 characters lined up in his studio, the testaments of 150 years of family history. Alghero Noschese, a famous Italian actor and impersonator, once said after attending a puppet show: “This is an art, and it’s a challenging one.”

People’s theatre

When Adriano talks, you can see all the South of Italy spirit in his gestures. It’s all linked to the neighbors of Naples where his grandfather grew up, to the Salerno’s putielle (traditional ceramics), to the people of the south of Italy that are just like him. “When I step into my studio, and I see my little stage here, ready to come alive, I start my day smiling. Thanks to my puppets, I can show myself and give the right interpretations of real-life moments. It often happens that people come up to me to share details of their lives and, when they do, I think about the best way to put those stories on my stage. My little theatre stage is everything to me. It’s how I turn reality into an illusion”.

The Grammar of fantasy

His eyes sparkle as he says: “Every story has its happy ending because people need to go on with their day happily, not troubled. So even in the play “Pulcinella sentenced to death by guillotine,” Pulcinella has a happy finale, and the bad guy gets punished as he deserves. And when the judge asks Pulcinella if he’s satisfied with the verdict, he answers that yes, he is, but he would be even more relieved if he had the forgiveness of the audience.” Adriano never follows a script. Instead, he relies on his memory and sometimes even improvises drawing in the crowd. This is how he plans his shows, and it’s something that comes from the Ancient Greek theatre tradition, which was instrumental for this part of Italy.  It’s the art of inventing stories, so dear to Gianni Rodari that the author wrote a book called “The grammar of fantasy.”

Thousands of voices

We could make a list of all the awards and prizes that Adriano Ferraiolo and his family won all over the world, but it would be just a cold inventory that doesn’t even come close to represent how their art is respected. Nonetheless, the accolades are part of the family archives, and they are lovingly treasured. In an era where everything is digital, though, and the technology allows us to experience new things without the need to step outside, it’s natural to ask ourselves if the puppets show is still enjoyable for the general public. The answer is simple: yes. Yes, because people still gather in the cities’ squares around these miniature stages and, today, just like years ago, they are enchanted by the voice of Pulcinella. And that is the voice of Filippo, who started with his puppets during a carnival in 1860. It’s the voice of Pasquale Ferraiolo, of his children Francesco and Salvatore, Pasquale Jr and Vittorio. The voice of Adriano, the last one of an extended family tradition where his predecessors acted in theatres, among military men, during seminars, at seaside resorts, and even on television.

Magic box

In his “The grammar of fantasy,” Gianni Rodari writes: “What I try to do is to look for the fixed aspects in the magic’s gears, for the unwritten laws of the invention so that anyone can experience it. Even if the Romantic era tried to describe it as a complete process full of mystery, the act of being creative is in anyone because it’s something innate to human nature. This is the reason why playing with imagination and being happy while doing it. It’s within everyone’s reach”—the brilliance of art, the art of brilliance. This is the same idea Adriano Ferraiolo follows every time he gets behind that magic little black box known as the “puppet theatre.”

(Translation by Michela Pandolfi)

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