At first, I wrote off this impromptu puppet show as nothing more than a kooky one-off, another random occurrence in bohemian Barcelona. But when a second marionette show turned up in another hole-in-the-wall bar a few weeks later, and then a third, it occurred to me that the city might actually be in the midst of some kind of puppetry renaissance.
My hunch was confirmed when I talked to Toni Rumbau, a puppeteer and author who publishes a trilingual online magazine devoted entirely to puppetry. “When you talk about puppets, the majority of people say it’s for children, but many of these shows are really for grown-ups,” he said when I tracked him down at his airy office workshop overlooking Las Ramblas.
In Catalonia, “the classical puppet tradition is not very rich compared to Italy, France and Germany,” he explained as two hand puppets for one of his upcoming shows lay lifeless on his desk. “But what is very rich is all this popular iconography for the feast, for the street.”
Rumbau was referring to the myriad street festivals that celebrate Catalonia’s heritage and very often feature at least a couple of large papier-mache figures known as “gegants i capgrossos,” or giants and large-headed dwarves. Towering as high as 15 feet, these figures first appeared around 1400 as a way for the Catholic Church to convey Bible stories to an illiterate public by essentially staging puppet shows. Today, the giants represent noble lords and ladies or just people from the neighborhood (each barrio has its own set); some perform specially choreographed dances with their giant partners.
La Casa dels Entremesos, a museum in Barcelona’s Born district,is home to dozens of gegants i capgrossos, as well as bestiari, or beasts. These dragons, vipers and eagles are at their most spectacular during the after-dark correfoc parade, a fiery highlight of the La Merce festival that takes hold of the city every September. It’s an allegory about demons breaching the gates of hell, in which the fearsome beasts are outfitted with madly spinning fireworks that rain sparks down on thousands of huddled onlookers.
By the early 20th century, hand puppets could be seen in Barcelona cafes in shows that discussed current events and the pressing issues of the day. “They were very sophisticated, talking about what happens in the street and political questions,” said Rumbau. “Of course, that disappeared with the dictatorship.”