What is a Marionette?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A marionette is a type of jointed puppet which can be made to move with the assistance of strings pulled from overhead. Czech, Italian, and German marionettes are particularly famous, and these European nations also have a long history of marionette performance. It is possible to see many fine examples of antique marionettes in museums, and new puppets can be purchased from artisan crafters as well as shops which stock European curiosities. In regions of the world where marionette theatre is still performed, it is well worth attending a performance, as this ancient art is quite interesting to observe.

The Czech Republic, Italy, and Germany have a long history of marionette performance.
The Czech Republic, Italy, and Germany have a long history of marionette performance.

In Italian, a marionette is known as a fantoccino. The word “marionette” is itself derived from the Old French mariole, meaning “musical instrument.” In cultures with a tradition of marionette performance, interested people can learn the art of manipulating marionettes from skilled performers. It does take work to learn to operate a marionette properly; talented performers can create surprisingly lifelike performances with their puppets.

The first marionettes appear to have emerged around 2000 BCE in Ancient Egypt. Excavations of Egyptian tombs have revealed puppets crafted from a wide variety of materials. Some of these puppets were quite ornate, and they appear to have been used in staged performances. The art of puppetry spread to Greece and Rome as well; although few examples of Greek and Roman puppets exist, works of Ancient art depict marionettes in action, suggesting that many people were familiar with them.

The construction materials used to make a marionette vary widely. The most basic puppets are made from wood, while china, bone, and horn have also been used historically. Depending on the crafter, a marionette may be designed to go through multiple costume changes, sometimes with ornate miniature clothing crafted in silk and linen with accents in jewels and precious metals. Extremely high quality dolls are also very well articulated, and capable of being moved in a range of ways.

In the 1800s, marionette operas were quite popular in many parts of Europe. Puppets were also taken on the road, performing a variety of shows for country audience as standalone events or as part of fairs and circuses. Several very old marionette theaters continue to present marionette shows to the public in Europe; in Salzburg, for example, the Salzburg Marionette Theatre performs Mozart operas.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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