The end of the 18th century had already confirmed the puppets’ success and fortune in Milan. And not only for the ancient masks of the Italian Comedy but, above all, for a new funny character particularly loved by the Milanese public: Gerolamo della Crina. We have no exact news about his birth, as it always happens for the characters become famous, but it was probably born at Callianetto, a small village near Asti, towards the first half of the 17 century as entertainer of a large public in the squares of villages and small towns. In the 18th century he is the main character of the performances of the puppeteer Sales to whom he caused a lot of troubles for the homonymy with some real people that boasted of noble birth and famous relationship. In Genoa, in fact, Mr. Sales was asked to leave the city because the Doge Gerolamo Durazzo didn’t like a puppet, always ready to throw arrows to the powerful and winking at the public, to have his own name.
He moved to Turin, but they weren’t well accepted there, too; in a period under the French domination, the local authorities didn’t want the people happily crowd Borgo Doragrossa, to see the half-serious drama: “Artabano tiranno universale con Gerolamo suo fido scudiero” (Artabano, universal tyrant with Gerolamo his faithful squire). Consequently the Police sent puppets and puppeteers away from the city, because there was a clear allusion to Napoleon Bonaparte, the future emperor, and to his brother Joseph.
Milan, on the contrary, enthusiastically accepted this funny wooden character who wore a dark red 17th century uniform bordered light red and, a remarkable white tie aroeund his neck. He also wore red socks and black shoes with a big buckle, he had a biretta on his head, a clear reference to 18th century fashion, and spoke a language that reminded the Milanese people of an independent and free county: the Piedmont. He moved and tossed on the stage, he put his hands on his hips turning his head now towards his interlocutors then towards the public and drank a fifth of good wine that a small tank, hidden in the superior hole of his body, gave back, when the curtain dropped.
Giuseppe Fiando was the puppeteer who gave life to this character; at first he performed it in a “room” at the Dazio Grande Hotel, near Duomo Square, and then in a palace of the Law Courts Square, today Mercanti Street.
A painting by Angelo Inganni, representing the Duomo Square from the side of the “Loggia dei Mercanti”, shows the “plancia” (as in the past were called the illustrated play-bills of the puppet performances, divided into quarters that represented the scene action most important moments) with the announcement of the Theatre Fiando performance, called Gerolamo, taken from a crime news, happened in Holland: “La luna del 13 Marzo con Gerolamo avvocato difensore” (The 13th March moon with Gerolamo as defender).
Mr. Fiando’s ability and the richness of his performances had a so great success in the following years that, with a decree of 24th March 1807, the Bellarmino’s Oratory , situated in Beccaria Square, where today stands the famous statesman’s monument who the Milanese people entitled the square to, was given to him.
The room was changed into a theatre by one of the Piermarini’s pupils and the facade was realeased by Tazzini. It’s important to remember that in Milan there were a lot of puppet theatres and all of them were very popular such as Lentasio, the Saint Antonio, the Santa Redegonda and the puppeteers acting there were very famous: Mr. Re, Mr. Nardi (who played the character of Gianduja) and Mr. Macchi. But Mr. Fiando’s repertory was able to face all that competition, including a mechanical theatre at Porta Orientale, also for his punctual persistence in asking the local authorities for giving hospitality in his theatre to performances of different kinds. The puppet repertory was, however, of great appeal not only for its variety, but also for the deep attention our puppeteer gave to the performances that had a great success on the city stages: dramas and tragedies performed by real actors (“Temistocles” by Metastasio, or “Alvaros, mano di sangue” by the well-known Bon), the ballets by the great choreographers and dancers of the Theatre La Scala such as “Prometeo” or “Il noce di Benevento”, the fairly tale “Il mostro Turchino” and “La regina serpente” by Carlo Gozzi, the adaptations of famous novels such as Robinson Crusoe, the several comedies performed by the masks of the Italian Comedy and the great melo-dramas with small orchestra (Mr. Giovanni Ricordi played the violin at the Gerolamo Theatre) and live singers. In the second half of the century the Town Council decided Fiando’s destiny: the demolition of the theatres Fiando, Daverio, Merola, Carretti.
But only two years later, on the square opposite the Law Courts, a new puppet theatre was built: the Theatre Gerolamo. Mr. Paolo Ambrosini Spinelli designed it, and Mr. Rivolta and Pellini realized it. They were the two master builders who followed the building of “Vittorio Emanuele Gallery” on a plan by Mr. Mengoni. A journalist of that time described the theatre as a very smart one, for its small columns, the iron beams, the golden stucco decorations, and the flowery embellishment on the vault. Two years after its inauguration, the Regional Theatre debuts at the Theatre Gerolamo, and, for some time, it will alternate with the puppets’ performances until 1871, when they will become the only ones in the place just built for their needs. Only sometimes the Regional Theatres will go back to the Gerolamo. The Fiando’s Company, directed by the famous puppeteer’s widow, presents a rich new programme alternating great successfully performances with new productions. Particularly interesting were, in these years, the shows imported from Paris, with Gerolamo and Meneghino acting contemporary events. We must remember the 1897 and 1898 shows, the last one, at the end, showed the Italian Risorgimento protagonists playing cards interrupted by God who was going to send somebody to cause confusion on the Earth.
After ten years, the Fiando Family leaves the theatre that, having a new manager, will give hospitality to the most famous puppet companies of that time, the Zane Company, that will successfully go back to the Gerolamo in stages, until the triumph of the Ballet “Excelsior”, the Company of Antonio Colla and Sons (Antonio was Giuseppe’s eldest son) that, in different seasons, acted performances such as “Guarany” and “Dogali” obliging the authorities to be present fearing new popular agitations against the colonial policy, and Gorno Dell’Acqua Company.
In 1906 the manager Gittardi, director at the Gerolamo, decided to have wooden actors no longer as he had been unsatisfied with the other puppet companies. But when he went to Vigevano to see “Pietro Micca” by the Carlo Colla and Sons Company, he engaged those puppeteer for that season and the following ones. So the Carlo Colla and Sons Company made its entrance at the Gerolamo Theatre in Milan, where it will remain until 1957, charging the management of the theatre in Beccaria Square, too, since 1911. But if we really want to know the Collas’ history we have to go backwards for nearly about a century.
Not far from the Cathedral of Milan, between the “Corsia dei Servi” and Beccaria Square there was St. Martin Lane. Here nearly at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century stood the building that belonged to Giovanbattista Colla, a rich merchant owner of a wood, coal and fodder shop (“sostra” was the name given to those places), supplier of the Imperial Austrian Army first and then of the French Army when they invaded Italy.
In 1805 he christened his son Carlo Gaspare Gioachino (better known as Giuseppe) in St. Mary’s Church, today St. Charles’s Church, having Don Gioachino Valcharzer Cordoba as godfather, son of the late Don Pietro of St. Holy Sepulchre’s Parish as it can be seen in the baptismal certificate signed by the parish priest Borroni and found in the parish archives.
The godfather’s resonant name underlines the important friends who probably crowded the rooms of the Collas’ house and were present to the puppet performances acted there far amusement. In fact Mr. Colla, according to the custom of that time, had used one of the rooms to act some performances. For this reason he had a puppet theatre built there supplied with some scene-paintings and puppets about 40 cms. tall.
The puppet performance at the home theatre was a custom in use both in aristocratic and middle class families as Goethe bears witness when his “William Maister”, child, sees David against the giant Goliath in the enchanted Christmas atmosphere of his grandmother’s house. The young Carlo Goldoni too, in the Wipack’s delights, when he was guest of the Earls Lantieri, became a puppet player using a richly, decorated small theatre, with sumptuous scene changes, performing “Hercules’ Sneeze” on Martelli’s verses and Hasse’s music. The precious theatre materials kept at the Borromeo Palace on a small isle of Maggiore Lake, built by well known artists, represent a rare and important document of that custom.
Certainly none of the Colla Family would have ever imagined that the private amusement could give origin to the real puppet Company. In fact they were obliged to leave Milan to go somewhere else for a reverse of fortune due to the situation of those very difficult times.
We have no news either of what happened in the years immediately after the purges of the Congress of Wien, about the ones who had had relationships with the French, or about the never-ending wonderings the family was forced to after leaving Milan. Only since 6th March 1835, while the Company was performing at Borgo Vercelli on a ledger, were written the wonderings in the several villages and small towns of the Piedmont county, the performances, the takings and the costs. This date can be officially considered the beginning of the professional activity of the Colla Family, guided by the thirty-year-old Giuseppe Colla.
It is funny to notice how the repertory of this period has very little in common with the other puppet companies. The titles of the performances like “Le prigioni di Lambergher” (Lambergher’s Prisons), “La venuta dell’Anticristo” (The Antichrist’s coming), “Il creditor burlato”(The joked creditor), “Il sacrificio delle Vergini” (The Virgins’ sacrifice), “Gli equivoci in confusione” (The confused misunderstandings) can’t be found in the other companies. We can think that there was an own production and that the Collas got their tales from sources completely unknown to the public of the big cities, but nearer to the popular tradition and based on a more genuine and immediate theatre conception. This assumption is greatly confirmed by the mask character of the performances, Famiola, unknown to the puppet companies that, during those years and in the following ones (al least until 1861) gave performances in the different counties of Northern Italy.
Famiola is the Italian for the Piedmontese “J l’ai fam” (I am hungry) expression that the particular character said getting out of an enormous egg, standing out on the stage. This kind of effects was common to the characters born from the popular imagination. In fact Fiando too, had already performed the comedy “Il povero superbo ed il ricco ignorante con Gerolamo nato dall’uovo” (The poor arrogant and the rich ignorant with Gerolamo born from an egg). A century later, exactly in April 1908, the puppeteer Campogalliani performed for the Milanese public “Fasolino che nasce e muore dall’uovo” (Fasolino that was born and died from an egg).
Famiola wore a pair of trousers, a waistcoat and jacket made of red cloth and white bordered, red and white socks, black shoes with an 18th century buckle, a black wig with an up pigtail tightened by a red ribbon, a red skull-cap, a showy green bow-tie around his neck, a mixture of colours that couldn’t be ignored in Piedmont!
During those years in which the Italian history and, in particular the Piedmontese one, was preparing for important events, the activity went on with the usual rhythm, respecting the same itineraries in the choice of the places where to give performances. As those places didn’t have a normal theatre, without the possibility of giving hospitality to “real” actors and singers, they began to accept the wandering puppet companies (and in particularly the Colla Company) with great pleasure; they enthused the adventures of Famiola, a dumb-deaf deceitful fool to help a master unfairly persecuted or a wrathful Sultan’s naive interlocutor, always trying to join lovers separated by an ineluctable destiny.
The interest that the public felt for the repertory comedies that preceded ballets with a historical background such as “L’incendio di Mosca” (Moscow’s Fire) or a mythological one like “Plutone” and “Minerva” mingled with the deep-felt ardour of the new times when the Colla Company performed “La battaglia di Palestro” (The Battle of Palestro).
In fact, at the end of May 1869, Giuseppe Colla found himself in the middle of that battle and so he could see (from afar) the struggle between the Piedmontese and Austrian Armies, giving his precious help to the population. And the public enthusiastically welcomed the performance that showed events only confusedly echoed.
In 1861 with the founder’s death on 21st May at Soresina, the structure of the Company changed because Antonio, Carlo and Giovanni, the only survived sons, decided to divide among themselves the “theatre building” (that is the name given by the puppet companies to whole complex of puppets, spare heads, dresses, scene- paintings, promptbooks, etc) and they founded three different companies: Antonio, after an association with the puppeteer Croce, died without heirs; Carlo gave life to the Carlo Colla and Sons Company (we are talking about now) and Giovanni formed the Giacomo Colla Family Company, today known as “Gianni and Cosetta Colla Puppets”.
Carlo Colla started to write his Company’s story at Broni on 22nd August 1863.
The small towns and the villages almost disappeared to leave place to, in the Company’s itinerary, more important centres. It was a sign that the professional activity had improved qualitatively and so the Company could satisfy a more and more demanding people. The moving became less frequent as the Company remained in each place for about three months; one year it went to seven places all situated between the Piedmont county and the Oltrepò Pavese, area where the Collas were well known.
In 1889 a serious disease to the throat struck Carlo obliging him to reduce at first, and then to leave, his work as Art Director of the company, definitely. He couldn’t perform the mask of Famiola any longer.
The sixteen-year-old Carlo, the eldest son, suddenly had to replace his father in the engagements and the expires concerning the artistic activity. In the following years he made business, planned the Company’s moving co-ordinating the exigencies of the montage and taking down of the stage materials, met theatre managers not always well disposed towards a young man.
In starting his career Carlo had followed his Uncle Antonio’s success with great admiration, observing the refined handling technique, the precious and elegant scene preparation, the theatre solutions that had had a great success at the GerolamoTheatre in Milan. He understood that it could be possible to prepare performances through a serious work in the phase of study at first, and then in the phase of realisation. Above all he knew that a great Company would be born if he had succeeded in making his brothers understand that it was possible to do something important, co-ordinating the different abilities.
The result was the first creation of “Excelsior” a ballet that was created during one of his military leaves, at Caluso, in 1895 with the title of “Civiltà e Progresso” (Civilization and Progress). The young director’s creativity was surely influenced both by the great theatres with real actors and by the companies that had acted in Milan (without forgetting his admiration for Uncle Antonio!). The sense of the scene, the immediate relationship between the puppet theatre and the public, found their right importance not only in what the booklet by Manzotti required, but also in the severe understanding of those historical events that shining allegory (mirror of an age and its illusions) asked the magic irony of the wooden heads. The Mens and Bellio’ scene-paintings, the light effects, the wonderful dresses, the several stage effects, the delicious gesture of the two hundred and fifteen characters acting there, were the expression of a puppet skill that was getting more and more evident.
Carlo definitely became the company director at the end of 1896, taking the place of his brother Giovanni, who had substituted him during his conscription and took the acting of Famiola again.
The following years saw the preparation and the staging of performances inspired to important themes that allowed all the great grip plays to triumph.
A particular touch was also given to the “acting way” that all the puppeteers kept on effected pompous and bombastic tones; Carlo preferred a technique more tied to the estrangement and based on particular tonalities that took the place of the facial mime that the small wooden characters couldn’t use to express feelings. So their acting became exterior reality of a soul that the face puppet characterization already foresaw in its immobility. The association of the four brothers became important for the way they devoted themselves to the different actings and the amazing ability in changing the timbres, going from the baritone register to the tenor one, to the falsetto and the caricature.
They had a great success and the company’s moving started to include big cities too, among which Parma, where the Collas arrived in 1899 at St. John’s Theatre with the new production “Da Port Arthur to Tokio” (From Port Arthur to Tokyo), followed by “La serenata di Pierrot” (Pierrot’s serenade) in 1900. There the performances satisfied the extremely exigent Parmesan public, who wanted the Collas (become really famous) for years, with theatre seasons that lasted about eight months.
After several repeated meetings, the Public Administration intervenes and lets the Colla Company properties be housed in the municipal stores. Short time later after the Collas’ leaving, the theatre was declared National Monument and passed in administration to an other important Milanese Theatre, the “Piccolo Teatro di Milano”.
In 1965, after eight hard years, full of silence and indifference about the future of this artistic and cultural patrimony, Angela, Cesarina, Teresa, Carla, Carlo III and Eugenio Monti (Carla’s son) decide to get the theatre material back and to start the activity again. The following year, at the Catholic University of Milan, an exhibition of the Collas’ heritage of puppets and relevant material, promoted by Mr. Mario Apollonio and Rev. Guido Aceti, one of the highest authorities of the University, is shown.
Then the Theatre “La Scala” asks the Collas to act the famous ballet “Excelsior” for two seasons in a wonderful little theatre (owned by “La Scala”), called “Piccola Scala”.
In the same year the director Mr. Filippo Crivelli, an old fan of the Gerolamo Theatre, preparing the ballet “Excelsior” with the most important dancers of the period, like Mrs. Carla Fracci, Mrs. Ludmilla Tcherina and other famous dancers, for the festival “Maggio Musicale Fiorentino” in Florence, requires the Collas to recreate some small stages with puppets, dresses and scenes in the theatre foyer.
In 1970, Maestro Giancarlo Menotti, the well known music composer also nicknamed “Duke of Spoleto”, who in 1957 had already offered the Collas to move to the small town in Umbria, asks them to take part to the Two Worlds Festival acting “Excelsior”. The Milanese puppeteers will go back to Spoleto in 1971, too, and, since 1990, they have been present there with new and old productions, always applauded by the Italian and international audience.
During the 1970s, the Company makes a very accurate work of philological research, re-writing and recovering what was more worthily in the Company’s theatre material. Since then Mr. Eugenio Monti has been the Artistic Director.
In 1980 the meeting with the theatre organisation CRT offers the Company the possibility of being known all over the world: France, Spain, Germany, Holland, Great Britain, Russia, Hungary, Greece, Czechoslovakia, United States, Mexico, Venezuela, Argentina, Australia.
The Company takes part to important Festivals such as Edinburgh Festival (1983), the Festival of Autumn in Paris (1984, 1987), the Biennial Theatre in Venice (1985), the Festival of Two Worlds at Charleston in the USA (1987,1989), the Festival of Three Worlds at Melbourne (1986), the 1st Festival of the Italian Theatre in Moscow (1990), the Fundateneo Festival of Caracas (1991), the Italian Festival in Buenos Aires (1992), the European Festival in Prague and Budapest (1993) and acts in important places such as Berlin, Freiburg, Nancy, Canterbury, Amsterdam, Leuven, Frankfurt, Cologne, Barcelona, Amiens, Mexico City, and is present to other important cultural events where the Company has “full house” in theatres of six hundred and one thousand seats.
Among the most qualifying productions of these years, we remember: “Prometeo” (Prometheus), “Aida” (Aida), “La Tempesta” (The Tempest) by Eduardo De Filippo and the trilogy “Omaggio a Goldoni” (Homage to Goldoni).
The cooperation with the organisation CRT ends in 1994, when the Associazione Grupporiani directly begins to organize the distribution of the Company’s performances.
Since 1965, when the Carlo Colla and Sons started his activity again, the Company has had a deep transformation towards the tradition of the big puppet companies of the past, for what concerns the puppeteers staff. The old custom of such companies in fact foresaw that only the members of the family could move the puppets, impossible thing in the 1960s. So the Company gathered the last heirs of the very refined ability of handling the wood actors among small balances and threads, with other puppeteers coming from dissolved companies and young people who wanted to undertake the old trade.
Today, Eugenio Monti Colla is the last puppeteer who worked at the Gerolamo Theatre. His ability seems now an incredible natural quality, more than the result of his long experience with small balances and threads. Now the new puppeteers have created the Associazione Grupporiani (whose name comes from its first seat in Oriani Street in Milan).
The Associazione Grupporiani (under the artistic direction of Mr. Eugenio Monti Colla) has bettered and made perfect a series of laboratories for the upkeep of the theatre building and for the creation of new performances.
The public doesn’t generally know that group members also restore the old theatre materials. Puppets need particular cares that include, for example, a hem sewing or the putting of new soles, as puppets, walking on the stage, wear out heels and soles, just like real actors do. Wigs, then, must be combed and dressed each time and customs must be cleaned, mended and put away.
The scene-paintings, all made of paper, must be always controlled and reinforced where the folds have weakened the structure and the stage machines must be checked at every performance.
This daily activity made the laboratories of the Associazione Grupporiani become the most expert and qualified in the restoration of puppets coming from public and private collections.
For this, it’s important to remember the restoration made on the puppets materials of the Museum of Novara, of the Rissone Foundation (property of Actor Museum of Genoa), of Cenderelli Collection (property of Puppets Museum at Campomorone).
Thanks to the great ability and skill in carrying out and to the richness of the used materials, the Associazione Grupporiani is often asked to realize puppets for collection taken from the classic repertory or from historical avant-garde as, for example, “Il Cavaliere errante” (The wondering Knight) by Kokoschka, made for the Guggenheim Museum of New York.
These laboratories also make complete new staging each time when the old material is not sufficient and the proposal of a new text creates new necessities.
It’s consequently easy to understand why part of the Associazione Grupporiani’s activity also concerns internal or open stages. The stages take place in Milan or abroad, for example, the ones organized in Berlin in 1992 and in 1993 for the Tanzwerkstatt.
Many people of the theatre world address to the Associazione Grupporiani to have their contribution for artisan creations as it happened for the making of man-size puppets, based on a design by Renato Guttuso for “La Foresta: radice, labirinto” (The forest: root, labyrinth) in 1987, the scene-paintings for “La finta semplice” by Mozart at the Scientific Theatre of Mantova, for the scenes and customs of “Orfeo all’Inferno” by Offenbach for the A.S.L.I.C.O., for the customs of “Il flauto Magico” by Mozart, directed by Mr. Arruga in occasion of the Ravenna Festival, for the customs of “Nobless oblige” by Santucci and “La Maschera” by Bertolazzi, directed by Mr. Crivelli, both at the “Franco Parenti” Theatre in Milan.
The Associazione Grupporiani also makes experiences about other techniques typical of the animation theatre: in 1983 realizing a performance of body expression and shadow technique, under Mrs. Cesi Barazzi’s guide, in 1988 carrying on “La famiglia dell’Antiquario” (The Antiquarian’s Family) by Carlo Goldoni for puppets and in 1990 creating a small theatre with black figures whose characters acted in a TV serials for children.
Today the Carlo Colla and Sons Company, besides going on with the activity all around Italy and abroad, follows a policy of permanent presence in Milan at the Atelier Carlo Colla and Sons (the former laboratory transformed by Grupporiani in a theatre of two hundred seats), near his own seat, with performances for schools and a repertory addressed to amateurs and to a learned audience. The most important productions of these years are: “The legend of Pocahontas”, “Alladin’s Lamp”, “The magic fifer”, “Prince Igor” and “Sheherazade/Petruschka”.
The cooperation with some musicians such as Mr. Antonio Sinagra, Roberto Cacciapaglia, Alfredo Lacosegliaz, Paolo Vaglieri, Danilo Lorenzini, already successfully tested during some events dedicated to Goldoni and Colombo, allows the analysis and the getting back of the musical repertory for puppets, that saw, above all in the 18th century, the contribute of great composers.
The Associazione Grupporiani goes on with laboratory and teaching activities that are its own characteristics and proposes itself as referring point to companies and international groups that follow the tradition or the research, at a high level, of the animation theatre.
Since 1994 the Associazione Grupporiani has opened a preparatory school for the ones who want to work in this particular branch of the Animation Theatre, the Fiando School, from the name of the first puppeteer of Milan.