LOS ANGELES — Since it was first published 140 years ago, The Adventures of Pinocchio has become an international best-seller, captivating generations of children and adults the world over. The whimsical story of a wooden puppet who dreams of becoming a real boy has been translated into 260 languages, making it the most translated book besides the Bible and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince (1943). Written by Italian author Carlo Collodi, it was originally released as a weekly serial called The Story of a Puppet (La storia di un burattino) in a magazine for children. Since 2019, there have been no fewer than four film versions released, including Disney’s avoidable 2022 remake and Guillermo del Toro’s critically lauded adaptation.

Now, an LA museum dedicated to Italian-American culture is taking yet another chance on Pinocchio. A Real Boy: The Many Lives of Pinocchio at the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles (IAMLA) examines the character’s legacy and enduring appeal — from its origins as an Italian children’s fairy tale to its growth into a global cultural phenomenon — through toys, books, costumes, drawings, and, of course, marionettes.

For many, the show is an introduction to the relatively little-known museum, a hidden gem in downtown LA. According to a representative, tens of thousands of people have visited A Real Boy since it opened last November.

The show has brought in new visitors who hadn’t heard of the museum. (photo by Lex Ryan, courtesy IAMLA) 

“This has been our most popular exhibition to date. We’ve brought in people who had never heard about the museum before,” Executive Director and Co-Founder Marianna Gatto told Hyperallergic. “This exhibition opened the floodgates.”

IAMLA opened its doors in 2016 with a mission to showcase the history and culture of Italian Americans and Italians in the Western United States, and specifically in Los Angeles. Through its collection of 6,000 objects — including the material culture of early Italian-American life, Lady Gaga’s Versace dress, a Jacuzzi water pump, and Tommy Lasorda’s jersey — the museum’s permanent exhibition showcases the journey of Italian Americans from the early waves of explorers and immigrants to notable figures who have left their imprint on American culture.

LA is not the first US city that comes to mind when discussing Italian immigrants, overshadowed by New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. But the LA Metro area is home to half a million Italian-Americans, the fifth largest such community in the nation. The city’s cultural history is filled with notable figures of Italian extraction including author John Fante; artist Simon Rodia, who created the iconic Watts Towers; and Sister Karen Boccalero, a nun who co-founded the long-running community arts space Self-Help Graphics in 1970 — not to mention the prominent Italian-Americans in Hollywood.

Gatto, a native Angelena and descendant of Italian immigrants, noticed this lack of visibility early on. “Growing up in LA, there’s tremendous history here, but there weren’t many resources that spoke to that,” she said.

Museum visitors viewing the IAMLA permanent exhibition. Displayed on the screen is an excerpt from a chapter of the exhibition that explores the ways in which Italian Americans have shaped the nation’s culture. (photo by Taso Papadakis, courtesy IAMLA) 

As a college student, Gatto first encountered the historic building that now houses the museum, the former Italian Hall, a community space built in 1908 in what was LA’s Little Italy.

“It struck an emotional chord with me. I wanted to see it as a museum,” she recalls. The push to found IAMLA began in 1988 with fundraising for the restoration of the building, which had fallen into disuse and disrepair. There was also pushback from groups who felt that the establishment of an Italian-American museum would negatively impact El Pueblo de Los Ángeles, the historic center of the original Spanish city of Los Angeles, which includes several structures with historical significance to the city’s Spanish and Mexican past. Currently there is little evidence of this conflict — outside of a display as part of the museum’s permanent exhibition — as the Italian-American Museum sits harmoniously within the larger El Pueblo, layered palimpsests of the city’s interwoven histories. Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros painted his 1932 mural “América Tropical” on the exterior wall of the Italian American Hall, where it still sits, visible from a viewing platform across El Pueblo.

A Real Boy features toys, books, costumes, drawings, and, of course, marionettes. (photo by Lex Ryan, courtesy IAMLA) 

A Real Boy, on view through June, begins with Collodi’s original story — a much darker and more gruesome fable than Disney’s 1940 animated film, through which many Americans were first introduced to the tale. In this version, more akin to a Grimm Brothers fairy tale, Pinocchio is tortured and mistreated throughout, his feet are burned off, and he is hanged from a tree by a malicious fox and cat in a moral parable with Biblical overtones, from the Prodigal Son to Jonah and the Whale.

The exhibition branches out to explore how the story has evolved ever since. The largest lender to the show was naturally the Collodi Foundation in Florence; however, several objects reveal Los Angeles connections. The two first edition copies of Pinocchio on view — in English and Italian — came from the University of California, Los Angeles’s (UCLA) Special Collections, while a Pinocchio marionette hanging nearby was crafted for Disney by the beloved LA puppeteer and marionette-maker Bob Baker in 2000. Animation cels from Disney’s original film are also on view.

In January, the museum hosted a performance by puppeteers from the Bob Baker Marionette Theater in conjunction with the exhibition. “We were delighted to see 200 kids, a generation that has grown up with devices, fixated on this centuries-old art form,” Gatto said.

Romero Britto sculptures of Pinocchio (photo Matt Stromberg/Hyperallergic)

The third and final room explores Pinocchio’s legacy in the wider spheres of art and culture, from art and design to music and film. Alongside objects and artwork from France, Italy, Japan, and the Soviet Union, this gallery features Oscar-nominated costumes designed by Massimo Cantini Parrini from Matteo Garrone’s 2019 Italian-language Pinocchio film, which “attempted to capture the extreme poverty of the original story,” Gatto says.

“Why do people all over the world, generations later, still find such relevance in the story?” Gatto pondered. “Pinocchio is a story of redemption, of our evolution and growth as humans, as we try to become more moral beings.”

Editions of Pinocchio (photo by Lex Ryan, courtesy IAMLA)
Carlo Collodi, Le Avventure di Pinocchio (c. 1883, first edition) (photo by Lex Ryan, courtesy IAMLA)

Matt Stromberg is a freelance visual arts writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to Hyperallergic, he has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, CARLA, Apollo, ARTNews, and other publications.