Representation of Islam in the puppet play Opera dei Pupi: Orlando Furioso and Islam

In the previous blog, I analyzed the representation of Islam/Saracens in the poem Orlando Furioso.  ‘The raging Roland’, is an epic poem from the Italian poet Ludovico Ariosto. The poem was first published in 1516 and the third and final version in 1532.[1] The story is situated against the background of the war between the Christian emperor Charlemagne and his Christian paladins, and the ‘Saracen’ King Agramente and his army who are crossing the seas to Europe to avenge his father’s death. The background therefore refers to a story of Christians versus Muslims. The most important plot is that of the paladin Orlando, a foremost knight of Charlemagne, and his unrequited love for the pagan princess Angelica. She falls in love with a wounded Saracen knight, Medoro. Orlando forgets his duty to fight for king Charlemagne and Christianity and becomes mad. When he regains sanity he kills King Agramente. Another important plotline includes the love between the female Christian warrior Bradamante and the Saracen Ruggiero. They too have to endure many ups and downs. Ruggiero converts to Christianity and kills Rodomonte, a Saracen who accuses Ruggiero of being a traitor to the Saracen cause. The poem has been very influential in European literature and has many adaptions such as stories, operas, music and art. The following explores the transformation of the poem into a puppet play.

Many of those who have been to Sicily know about the Opera dei Pupi. The Southern Italian tradition of puppets is part of the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List and started in the nineteenth century.[2] The puppeteers chose to tell stories based on medieval and Renaissance literature, including chivalric stories of the lives of saints, heroes and bandits, and also the Italian poem Orlando Furioso.  It used to be especially popular in Sicily and even today the puppets are still popular, mostly among tourists. In Sicily there are two traditions: the Palermo and the Catania style. The two traditions differ in size and weight of the puppets; in some aspects of the mechanics and the maneuvering system; and in theatrical and entertainment concept. In the Catania area, the chivalric repertoire is much wider than that of Palermo.[3] It is to this genre that Orlando Furioso belongs.

This puppet play is still performed in Sicily today.  I base my analysis on a YouTube video of a puppet play of Orlando[4] performed by the Fratelli Napoli, a company that has been in the puppet business since 1921. It is a performance of about half an hour and it is completely in Italian. For those who do not speak Italian, I would still recommend to see the performance, since the puppets are very beautifully made and they tell the story without your having to understand the words. In the analysis I have put my (somewhat limited) Italian language and visual analysis skills to use and I will show you the play’s representation of Islam. Since my Italian is not good enough to analyze the underlying meaning of sentences, I will primarily focus on the images of the puppets. I also attempt some analysis of the conversations between the characters.

The first interesting and noticeable thing is the use of the term Islam. In the beginning of the play, when the story is introduced, the narrator states it is a fight between Islam and Christianity. In the poem of Ariosto, Islam is not a common term. Rather he uses Saracens or Arabs. In Medieval literature it was common to use Saracen as a term for Islam. It was often used to portray pagans, non-Christians. The two terms became so intertwined with one another during Middle Ages, they were used interchangeably.[5] While the debates over the origin of the word ‘Saracen’ are not germane to this discussion, the change from ‘Saracen’ in the poem to ‘Islam’ (or ‘Muslim’) in the puppet play reflects terminological changes over time; through this small detail we can see already see a way in which the poem has changed over time.

The play starts with the introduction of five characters: King Charlemagne, his three paladins – Orlando, Bradamente, and Rinaldo – and the King’s brother in law, Gano di Maganza. The last character is not a character of the poem Orlando Furioso; however he is well known from a French epic poem called La Chanson de Roland, published before Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. Gano betrays the army of Charlemagne to the Saracens. This shows that adaptions of the poem have combined many different plots of Orlando, thereby changing the original poem of Ariosto throughout time. Let’s go back to the play and specifically to Gano. Even if you did not know Gano’s story, you would know he is not similar to the others. He is portrayed to look and sound like a ‘bad guy’ – similar to fairytales, when the evil people are always easily identifiable against the innocence of the good heroes. While the king and his paladins are wearing bright colors, such as red and gold, Gano is wearing darker brown. Gano has sharp and dark features in his face. His facial hair makes him look angry, while the facial hair of Orlando is refined and playful. When Gano starts to speak it becomes even more obvious that he is portrayed as a bad person. One by one the five characters start to speak; first Orlando, who has a deep voice, then Bradamente, a woman’s voice, then Orlando, who has a slightly higher male voice. And then, Gano.. His voice is low, dark and, in my view, sneaky.[6] You know he is up to no good.

Why is the representation of this Gano, count of Maganza, important for the play’s depiction of Islam? We have just seen some ways in which the play portrays ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Let’s see how Islam is portrayed in the play. The first ‘Saracens’ or Muslims appear only nearly at the end of the play.

The first appearance is around 28 minutes into the 37 minute performance. However, when they appear, they have many shapes and forms. The scene is about Orlando defeating the Saracens all by himself. One by one he is slaughtering the men. The first person that appears has a pointy helmet, long eyebrows, and a mustache that reaches his chin. He has a bald head, with a long braid. He seems to portray an Asian soldier. The next person Orlando is fighting looks very different: he has a turban and mustache, and he has puffed pants, resembling a representation of a Middle Eastern soldier. Then there are multiple black soldiers. Some of these soldiers also wear a turban and puffed pants; however not all of them are similar.

Supposedly, they represent the African Arabs. None of the soldiers has the shining silver suit of armor that Orlando has; rather they have colorful clothing and some golden pieces of armor. None of these soldiers has a name or story. Some do speak but in gibberish, what supposedly resembles a language. All these representations are varied and it shows that there is not one image of Islam the play is portraying. Not everyone is black, or white; not everyone is wearing a turban; all seem to have different backgrounds: Asian, Arab, and African.

The final fight is between Orlando and a Saracen from Tartary. He introduces himself; however it is unclear to me who he represents. He wears a turban and has puffed pants, however he is wearing more armor than the other fighters. He has the same voice as the ‘bad’ person Gano. He has a big moustache and a pointy beard. He also has long hair. Even though he resembles the ‘bad’ Gano slightly, the soldier does not look as ‘evil’ as Gano. He has less dark features, which makes his facial expression less sneaky and angry. Moreover, he is wearing colorful clothes, instead of dark colors. In the end, Orlando wins the battle, kills the soldier, and runs off with Angelica.

The story of Angelica falling in love with a Saracen soldier is left out, and in the end she is together with Orlando. In the poem of Ariosto, Orlando does not end up with Angelica. Rather he finds his true purpose (again) and fights for his religion.

I have primarily focused on the Muslim men that are portrayed in the play. There are only three women in the play. First, Bradamente, one of the Charlemagne’s soldiers: she has blonde hair and wears armor. There is also Alda, bride of Orlando, who is begging him to stop follow Angelica. She is also not in the original poem of Ariosto. Alda has blond, long hair and wears a white wedding gown. Lastly, there is Angelica, a pagan princess. She has long dark hair, wears colorful clothing and golden jewelry. Her features are different from the other two women, who are blonde. Every men Angelica meets falls in love with her, which falls into the trope of the sexualization of women of the East. On multiple occasions she is saved from danger by men, especially by Orlando. This points towards the fact that the story is about the hero Orlando, who fights courageously against Saracens and in the end is together with the most beautiful woman in the story.

The poem of Orlando Furioso is very different from this version of the puppet play. Since the puppet play is only half an hour and the poem of Orlando Furioso is enormous, the puppeteers chose to portray only some segments of the story. Moreover, since the poem is so old and many adaptions have been made, the original version is mixed with all other versions. The representation of Islam in the puppet play is varied. There are many representations of the enemy of Orlando/Christianity. Many of the Muslims wear a turban and puffed pants; however, not all of them. They are portrayed as having different backgrounds, even though the story of Ariosto clearly states that the African king Agramente is the aggressor in the war and it would therefore have made more sense if mostly African Muslims were in the war. This performance of the play seems a story of Orlando as a hero, rather than the fight between Christianity and Islam, which appears as a background to the chivalric romance, rather than as the primary plot. Orlando is both superior in the fights against many different Saracens, and he ‘gets the girl’: a relationship with Angelica. A more thorough analysis of the puppet play would analyze the many other versions of the play and adaptions of the poem for the different representation of Islam (and Orlando) through the years.



[1] Charles S. Ross, “Introduction”, Ludovico Ariosto, translated by David R. Slavitt, Orlando Furioso, A New Verse Translation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010),, ix-x.

[2] “UNESCO – Opera Dei Pupi, Sicilian Puppet Theatre,” accessed January 18, 2020,

[3] For more information on the Opera dei Pupi: The Napoli Brothers tell an extensive history on their website. For those who do not speak Italian: there is not much detailed information on the puppet play in English available unfortunately. “La Storia Dell’Opera Dei Pupi – Fratelli Napoli,” accessed January 20, 2020,

[4] Opera Dei Pupi – L’ Orlando Furioso, accessed January 20, 2020,

[5] John V Tolan, Saracens Islam in the Medieval European Imagination. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 127-128.

[6] Listen for yourself in the YouTube video from 4:50: Opera Dei Pupi – L’ Orlando Furioso, accessed January 20, 2020, com/watch?v=iwtwFK9dHfs.

Laurie Wissink

February 2020