This large knight standing almost five feet tall is a rod puppet known as Orlando Furioso. He is dressed in a full suit of armour with a sword and a shield suspended from an arching metal rod to support the set on the red carpeted base. He was made and used by Miquel Manteo at his family's theater at 109 Mulberry Street in New York City, 1928-1935.
Orlando Furioso is based on the eighth-century tale of Roland, a Frankish knight who served as a commander on the Breton border of Charlemagne's great empire. In 778 A.D., as Charlemagne's army returned from fighting the Saracens in Spain, the rear guard was cut off by hostile Basques at a pass in the Pyrenees and Roland was killed. A French legend was born and the epic tale "The Song of Roland" is thought to have first appeared sometime in the 11th or 12th Centuries. Embellished over the years, the story of Roland moved into Italy during the Renaissance and Roland became Orlando Furioso. A story of medieval chivalry, Orlando Furioso became a stock character in marionette theaters throughout Europe and by the sixteenth century he was most popular in Sicily.
Originally from Sicily, Manteo's father, Agrippino, son of a puppeteer, emigrated with his family to the United States in 1919 and established the Manteo Family Sicilian Marionette Theatre on the lower east side in Little Italy. It was a family business and everyone played a role in the puppet productions. Adults and children alike made and dressed the puppets, created stage sets and performed. Miguel generally played the part of Orlando. The puppets stood between 4-5 feet tall and weighed up to 100 pounds apiece. The bodies are made from one solid piece of wood and slots are cut into the form to attach free moving hinged legs. The bodies of the marionettes were expertly padded and outfitted to create a life size character and dressed in luxurious fabrics of silk and satin. The soldiers wore full suits of armor that were hammered out of brass plates and elegantly embossed and each one held an iron sword. But due to the weight of the puppets they could not be held up but instead were hung over a railing on a bridge that was built above the stage where the puppeteers worked. The marionette was manipulated using two steel rods; a thick iron rod attached to the sword controls the right arm while a hooked iron rod extends down the center of the head that operates the torso. The legs hang free.
In 1928, Manteo moved his theater to a larger space on Mulberry Street where the entire family spent their days in an attic workroom repairing the marionettes, mending torn costumes and polishing armor. Miquel expanded the collection to include over 300 puppets. It took over 13 months to enact the complete saga of Orlanda Furioso in 324 episodes. Originally, the dialogue was in a Sicilian dialect, but was translated into Italian and English. The theater closed in 1947, but the Manteo family continued the tradition through three more generations.
The creation and history of Manteo's large puppets are a tradition passed down through the generations. Miguel, who considered the puppets "works of art", donated this puppet in 1980 and was awarded the National Heritage Award in 1986 for his contribution to American culture.
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