Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Fall 2009 Newsletter

Before and After: Stanley Marcus Collection of Marionettes

The conservation department of the Harry Ransom Center is responsible for the care and preservation of the Center's collections. Their work makes materials accessible at the Center. This feature highlights repair and conservation work on collection items.

Marionettes: before. Click to enlarge.

Marionettes: before

Marionettes: after. Click to enlarge.

Marionettes: after


The Stanley Marcus collection of Sicilian marionettes, constructed between 1850 and 1960, consists of 60 marionettes and a backdrop curtain. The marionettes, which were originally purchased by the entrepreneur Stanley Marcus in 1960, form a troupe of characters from the religious allegorical poem "Orlando Furioso." The figures represent three groups: Christians, pagans, and animals. Characters include Charlemagne, Orlando, various Frankish knights, moors, princesses and other female characters, horses, demons, dogs, and mythical creatures.

The marionette tradition in Sicily began in the 1850s when Sicilian wood carvers were inspired by Italian Ludovico Ariosto's epic poem "Orlando Furioso," a legend that emerged (with vast embellishment) from the eighth-century life of Roland, one of Charlemagne's knights. These plays emphasized chivalry and swashbuckling adventure, and dramatized the conflict between Christianity and Islam. The stories became standardized and were highly popular in the marionette theaters of Sicily for centuries. In the last ten years, marionette performances were revived, and television was used as a means of continuing this popular tradition.

The figures, which are made of painted wood and metal components, stand about four feet tall and are dressed in fur, leather, cloth, and metal armor. The human marionettes have wooden heads, torsos, hands, and legs. Their arms are made out of folded cloth. A few figures have glass eyes, and some even have human hair adhered to their head. Protecting the marionettes posed a particular challenge.


This housing solution was inspired partly by concerns about dust generated by modifications to the Center's heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems. During this and other construction projects, conservation staff assists in protecting collection materials from damage.

The housing created for each marionette consists of a polyester cloth cocoon with an adjustable cone-shaped top that prevents damage to the feathers and other delicate materials of the headdresses.

Drawstrings at the top and bottom of the cloth secure it over a cardboard disc. The open edges of the cloth covering are then closed with cloth tape ties. A digital photo of each figure is attached to the cocoon to aid in identification.

A cloth accessory bag with a drawstring was made for the character's associated weapons and for fragile feather components. The feathers are protected from crushing in a Mylar tube with a crimped bottom inside a cloth bag, and the bags are hung around the neck of the marionette.

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