Cantastoria (also spelled cantastorie, canta storia or canta historia) comes from Italian for "sung story" or "singing history" and is known by many other names around the world. It is a theatrical form where a performer tells or sings a story while gesturing to a series of images. These images can be painted, printed or drawn on any sort of material.


Picture stories in Asia

In 6th century India religious tales called Saubhikas were performed by traveling storytellers who carried banners painted with images of gods from house to house. Another form called Yamapapaka featured vertical cloth scrolls accompanied by sung stories of the afterlife. In Tibet this was known as ma-ni-pa and in China this was known as pien or transformation story. In Indonesia the scroll was made horizontal and became the wayang beber and employed four performers: A man who sings the story, two men who operate the rolling of the scroll, and a woman who holds a lamp to illuminate particular pictures featured in the story. Other Indonesian theater forms such as wayang kulit shadow play and wayang golek rod puppet shows developed around the same time and are still performed today.

In Japan cantastoria appears as "etoki" or "emaki" in the form of hanging scrolls divided into separate panels, foreshadowing the immensely popular manga, or Japanese comics. Etoki sometimes took the shape of little booklets, or even displays of dolls posed on the roadside with backgrounds behind them. In the 20th century, Japanese canndymen would bicycle around with serial shows called kamishibai where the story was told to a series of changing pictures that slid in and out of an open-framed box. Some kamishbai shows had a peep show element to them, where a viewer could pay extra to peer through a hole and see a supposed artifact from the story.

Picture stories in Europe and the Middle East

Depiction of a Dutch liedjeszanger ("song-singer") and his Bänkelsang from the 17th or 18th century

In 16th century Italy prayers would often be sung in the presence of illuminated scrolls while secular society produced the cantambanco or "singing bench" where a person would stand on a bench point to pictures with a stick.

In Spain this was called retablo de las maravillas ("tableau of marvels") and under many other names.

The singing bench migrated northward to Central and Northern Europe where it served as sensationalist quasi-news about murder, fires, death, affairs, sex scandals and the like. Performers of such controversial bench songs were seen as vagrants and troublemakers and were often arrested, exiled, or ostracised for their activities.

In Persia, parda-dari (cf. India's paradari) banner artists had the foresight to paint a handsome police officer in the corner as a fail-safe against the wrath of police harassment—the narrator would be relating the tale of a hero's exploits and when a cop would appear in the crowd the narrator would point to the cop on the banner and shower the character with flattery in the context of the story.

In Czechoslovakia banner shows were called Kramářská píseň, in Hungary Képmutogatás , and in Germany itinerant balladeers performed Moritat or Bänkelsang (bench song) banner shows for four centuries until the Nazis put the practice to death in the 1940s.

The German Bänkelsang survives in Bertolt Brecht's Threepenny Opera and in the performance work of Peter Schumann.

Picture stories elsewhere in the world

In aboriginal Australia storytellers paint story sequences on tree bark and also on themselves for the purposes of performing the tale.

In the 19th century giant scrolling moving panorama performances were performed throughout the United Kingdom and United States. The 20th century has seen cantastoria employed by the radical art, theater and puppetry movements to tell stories from perspectives outside of the mainstream media, especially by the Bread and Puppet Theater. Elements of picture storytelling can also be seen in the portable mural-posters of the Beehive Collective.


  • Mair, Victor H. Painting and Performance: Chines Picture Recitation and its Indian Genesis. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1988.
  • Too Many Captain Cooks film by Penny McDonald starring Paddy Wainburranga

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