Girart de Vienne and Stack o’ Lee

It’s August in Turin, and last week most people are still away for their summer vacation. The streets are ghostly quiet and there are about two-thousand variations of the following sign pasted up on roll-down security doors in front of shops:

Closed for holidays from 04/08 to 19/08


The big nationwide summer holiday here is Ferragosto, which means ‘holidays of Emperor Augustus,’ who inaugurated them way back in 18BCE. Festivities this year were overshadowed by the partial collapse of the Morandi bridge on August 14, which killed 43 people. Genoa has effectively been cut in half, and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has declared a year-long state of emergency in Liguria.

So it was, in a city largely depleted of citizens and somewhat dispirited by heat and disasters, that we decided to go to the Charlemagne exhibition titled “Carlo Magno va alla Guerra” (Charlemagne Goes to War), an exhibition evoking courtly life in the castles of Piedmont and Valle d’Aosta in the 1300s. We set off on a walk to the Palazzo Madama in Turin’s historic center.


The palace from the tower side.


The Palazzo Madama is an amalgam of several key phases in Turin’s civic history. In the beginning of the first century BC, the site where it stands was occupied by gates of the city wall. These were called the Porta Praetoria, with two 30-metre towers that still stand, as you can see. Here’s a representation of the Roman gates (in ruins) hand-drawn by  Francesco Corni in his book Turin: A Capital City (2015).


Porta Praetoria


When the Margraves of Monferrato conquered Turin in 1280, they closed the ancient gate and built a stronghold around it. Today, the numerous niches in its red-brown brick walls form the perfect perching place for dozens of swifts, that swoop out and feast on mosquitoes and biting gnats.




In 1637, Christine Marie of France (acting as Regent for some duke) chose to live in it, but with renovations. She fixed up some of the interior rooms and covered the court. Sixty years later, Marie Jeanne (Madama Reale, for whom the palace is now named) spruced it up even more, getting the architect Filippo Juvarra to design a new Baroque palace in white stone, though only one side of it was ever completed.




Anyway, the exhibition was here. We entered the palatial doors dripping with sweat (having walked half-an-hour in the mid-day swelter). A woman appeared in front of the second entrance door telling us in no uncertain terms that we had to leave our bags in the lockers provided.  I kept interrupting her to ask where the ticket office was, as I’d been rehearsing it in my head and didn’t want to forget. Luckily, her irritation at my interruption was balanced by her puzzlement at my odd Italian.

As soon as we walked in, our eyes were drawn to the huge (40-metre long) mural around the walls. This had been removed from Cruet Castle in Savoia. Each of its panels depicted an episode from the chanson di geste of Girart de Vienne. In addition to the painting, there were about fifty other objects of the age designed to assist you in imagining what life might have looked like in a castle in Savoia between 1200 and 1300.


These painted wooden statues:



This water jug (aquamanile):

The water comes out of his head


This fancy chest:



But, without a doubt, the main attraction is the big mural showing the adventures of Girart. The chanson de geste or ‘song of great deeds’ was composed by Bertrand de Bar-sur-Aube at the end of the 12th century. At the beginning of the poem he describes himself as a ‘clerc’ (cleric) but nobody knows anything else about him.

The poem tells the story of the four sons of Garin de Monglane and their battles with the Emperor Charlemagne. The sons are named Hernaut, Girart, Renier and Milon. Hernaut’s son becomes enraged when he hears the Empress bragging about how she humiliated his uncle Girart. This saucy character is a good-looking widow whom Charlemagne promised in marriage to Girart. However, as soon as Charlemagne personally sets eyes on her he decides to have her for himself. After that, she tempts Girart, who nobly refuses her advances because of his loyalty to the King. As a kind of revenge, when Girart enters the King’s chamber to give him the kiss of fealty (on the foot), the queen sticks out her foot so he ends up kissing that instead. War breaks out. Incidentally, this fits in with a European tradition of didactic stories warning rulers not to let lust, or even husbandly affection, get in the way of managing the barons–The Iliad and The Story of Deirdre have a similar moral.


The widow (left) is giving Girart the eye, but he’s doing the stop sign, “I don’t think that’s appropriate, ma’am.”




There is a full English translation of the whole thing here.


Chansons de geste

  • Were on average about 4,000 lines long
  • Dealt with heroic deeds and wars, usually in the time of Charlemagne (8th to 9th centuries)
  • were set in France
  • were meant to be sung or recited to accompaniment
  • were performed by minstrels in a public square or at court
  • Were composed between the 12th and 15th century
  •  were composed in ten-syllable lines

Last night I was busy reading another chanson de geste, possibly the first of the 80+ that survive, The Song of Roland, translated here by Jessie Crosland.


Every stage of The Song in Roland in one picture! Grandes Chroniques de France, St. Petersburg, Ms. Hermitage. fr. 88: (Niederl. Burgund, Mitte 15. Jh., Exemplar Philipps des Guten), folio. 154v


I found it a little tedious. You can see what’s going to happen a mile away, there’s a ton of repetition and it takes its sweet, sweet time getting to the point. There are moments of interest, though. As in The Iliad, there are minute and gory descriptions of killing, a lot of luxury objects, and heavy-handed Arnold Schwarzenegger-style punchlines.

Here is a particularly droll bit.  Roland has been mortally wounded, he “feels that his own death is near; his brain is issuing forth out of his ears” so he has a little lie-down.

“A Saracen who was feigning to be dead and lying amongst the others has been watching him all the time. He has besmeared his face and body with blood, and getting up on his feet he hastily runs towards him. He was big and strong and courageous, and his pride incites him to his fatal folly. He seized hold of Roland, both of his body and his arms and said one word: “The nephew of Charles is vanquished! I will take his sword to Arabia.” As he drew it from him the count regained his senses a little.

Roland feels that he is taking his sword. He opens his eyes and says a word to him: “I know that thou art not one of ours!” He grips the horn from which he does not wish to be parted, and strikes the heathen on his helmet studded with gold. He smashes the steelwork and the head and the bones, he strikes both his eyes out of his head and overthrows him at his feet, dead. Then he said to him: “Heathen son of a slave, how wert thou so daring as to seize me, whether for right or for wrong? No one will hear of it but he will hold thee for a fool. Now my horn is split right in the wide part, and the crystal and the gold is all knocked off.”


Expiring on his grassy deathbed, not only does Roland manage to hit a large enemy so hard the guy’s eyes pop out, he grumbles about how it made him damage his nice horn.

This episode reminded me of “The Ballad of Stack o’ Lee”. Like the chansons, a lot of blues song recount amazing exploits, treacherous women and extreme violence, and they have punchlines, musical accompaniment and extensive repetition. Pretty much the only thing missing is Charlemagne.  Here is a version by Mississippi John Hurt in which he sets the scene with the following anecdote.


Stack o’ Lee was a desperator. And, you know, Stack o’ Lee him and his partner they arrived, robbed a coalmine one time. All right, they goes down the coal mine. The boys had got paid off and were having a little game. Money all over the floor.

Stack o’ Lee and his partner got themselves placed and say, “Hey boys!”

They says, “Yeah?”

And he say, “What if ol’ Stack o’ Lee and the boys was to walk in here?”

One boy got out of line and has stole his Stetson hat, and he thought everything was all right, didn’t make any difference if he was the end of the line.

He picked up the .44, he says, “Ahh, Stack o’ Lee’s gun won’t shoot hotter than this!”

By this time, Stack o’ Lee’s partner knocks his hat off with a bullet. See, he forgot his nerve, he dropped his gun. This guy, he has a wife and two children. He commenced begging, “Please don’t take my life. I’ve got two little babes and a darling, loving wife.”

“Oh yeah?”

‘Nother guy went to take it up, you see, see what I mean? He reached for his gun, bullet sended him right between the eyes. All right, that settled him! And when they got to wondering what was going on, Stagger’s partner was crying.

He says, “Oh, you got weak!”

He said, “No,” he says, “I’m not weak.”

“Yes you are,” he says, “You’re crying ‘cause you killed that man!”

He says, “No,” he says, “I’m not crying ‘cause I killed that man.”

He said, “Yes you are, well are you crying about?”

He says, “I’ve missed my shot!”

He hit him between the eyes, and he intended to hit him in that right eye.




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