Madama Butterfly and the Toy Theaters of Siena: The Davis Theater, Pt. 2


The illustration is of unknown origin. I have borrowed it from The Museum of Everyday Things website, an adventure not unrelated to toy theaters, and worth exploring.             

            The world of toy theatre is filled with eccentrics                                                                                                … Peter Baldwin, Toy Theaters of the World

With our upcoming miniature theater commission nesting in the back of our minds, we set out for Italy in October 1995. Florence was our destination, our home for a month in a one star hotel room at one end of the Ponte Vecchio–a base station for exploration and further travels on our Eurail passes. In particular, we were looking forward to the side trip to Siena to see the antique toy theater collection, which we hoped would furnish us with some greatly needed inspiration–details and stories about the genre, its designs and traditions, as well as about the collector himself, Dottore (Doctor) G. Anyone who collected such a trove was bound to be a fount of information, and a quirky character. To pave the way, I wrote to the Dottore before our departure. From Florence I phoned a few days ahead to confirm the date of our visit.

Up early for the morning bus, we caught the local to Siena, winding through hill towns famous for their wines and music festivals. At 10:15 precisely, as scheduled, we arrived at San Domenico Square. From there we phoned the Dottore, as arranged, about seeing his toy theaters. He said to take a tassi, and that any cab driver would know the way to his home, Villa L’apertita. Our driver denied knowledge of the place, but drove us far out of town on a road that eventually ended in the countryside at a pile of major road construction. The driver shrugged, and abandoned us at a driveway in front of some garages. We took a chance on a path that indeed lead to the door of the Dottore’s villa—a striking and spacious home in the converted stables of a 12th-18th century Tuscan farm. (The house and property can be seen in the book Living in Tuscany, by Leonardo Castulucci).

We knocked. The man who answered looked puzzled, or maybe disappointed that we didn’t look more promising. Or something. I forged ahead in broken Italian about the miniature theaters, our research, etc. He asked if we were there to see the gardens. Before I could answer, we were off on a tour of his espaliered roses, native plantings, views of and from the famed Tuscan hills, along with a people-size small stone amphitheater on the property where he and his friends performed plays, ballets and operas.

Once inside the villa, we discovered the “friends” were luminaries. He was, it seemed, also a collector of famous personages–celebrities whose autographed photos covered every wall and table surface that art and books did not, including the Pope, Fellini, Nureyev, and jockeys of the Palio, Siena’s famed breakneck horse race. For winter entertainments they used the indoor theater built into one room of the house.

Eventually the Dottore led us back to the rooms of toy theaters–a museum’s worth–many commercially produced, some one of a kind, the simple and ornate, a good number made by famous scene designers, and many inscribed to “Nanni,” our host. Some were made from stone or wood, but mostly from paper, with hand-cranked scenic cloth or paper curtains, wobbly scenery, and dollhouse miniatures in varying scales. Every one was different and every one triggered our curiosity. The Dottore spoke animatedly about each piece he rushed us past, underlining the value and rarity of it all, and refusing to slow or answer our questions.

Finally he stopped before a paper theater set for Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Only the elaborate proscenium faced out, with the theater itself recessed into the wall, behind which our host disappeared. The familiar notes of an old recording of the opera rose, along with the lights and curtain to a performance of the final act. The ship steaming across the back of the stage, the paper doll characters playing the scene were all on strings guided by the Dottore, who sang softly along behind the heartbreaking music until, finally, his voice quavered and broke, as it no doubt did in every performance. The music ended abruptly, the curtain squeaked down. After a few moments, our host reappeared and ushered us back to the enormous living room, where he left us. After some noisy negotiations with the housekeeper, he returned with two juice glasses of wine, and, Noel recalls, a cup of dry roasted peanuts.

The Dottore was then called away for a lengthy phone call. Noel and I sat mostly in stunned silence, sipping our wine and soaking it all in–the house, the collection, the performance, the collector. When he returned he had called a tassi, and, end of play, showed us the door.


Before I leave the Dottore, to wade, next time, into our own toy theater, I’ll leave you with this final quote from Peter Baldwin’s book:

 I will go so far as to suggest that it is these things—trifling things—that the world stands most in need of, and that the weighty ones are absorbing all our strength…might it not be wiser and more sociable to concern ourselves with trifles for a few decades…I have seen in most lands that I have visited, even miniature theatre held by grown men…to be…of great value.

Edward Gordon Craig 1932



About smallhousepress

In 1974, my husband Noel and I began building aged miniature houses for collectors and museums. We were 70's dropouts. We quit our careers in advertising--art director and writer, respectively--and escaped Los Angeles in a VW camper and a Bug for a simpler life on the coast of Washington State. From a tiny studio in our home, we built 64 houses and buildings. Our specialty was aging--making a structure that reflected the scars and wrinkles of time, the elements, and human habitation. In the 80s we began teaching our techniques in workshops around the country, and I began to write our how-to's in Nutshell News and Miniature Collector. In 2000 we migrated across the Columbia to Astoria, OR, where , in 2011, we retired from miniatures. We are Fellows of the International Guild of Miniature Artisans and taught at their annual school in Castine, ME. By avocation I am a writer and poet. The blog is my way of working back into a writing routine, as well as recording what we did, and what we learned along the way.
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8 Responses to Madama Butterfly and the Toy Theaters of Siena: The Davis Theater, Pt. 2

  1. Carol Girgis says:

    What a wonderful, wonderful story – having experienced much the same kind of “treatment”, I have the great empathy for your (probably) stunned response. I do so love your postings.


  2. Lorraine heller says:

    This story drew me into the Dottorres eccentric personality.I would have loved to share the experience with you.Thanx!!

  3. Barbara Ann Shields says:

    What a delight Chapter 2 is! And what a character Gordon Craig was. Altho hard to work with- he did make a contribution to the elements of mini-theater . So glad you had the chance to meet with Dottere – be it ever so weird! And yes, I agree I fear we of the mini mind set have a touch of the whimsy! Barbara Ann

  4. As a collector of miniature theaters, from paper to lithographed or painted wood, I am looking forward to re-vsiting Florence this summer where I first became aware of them….and then discovered Pollock’s upstairs shop in Covent Garden/London…even took a taxi alone to their original museum, one of the spookiest places I’ve ever visited, except for the puppet museum in Lyon. Looking forward to watching the progression of your detailed theater under construction.
    Molly Cromwell

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