Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on the Tarot

Taroch - 1494

The "Frotula de le dòne" by Giovan Giorgio Alione


Translation revised by Michael S. Howard, Feb. 2012

Giovan Giorgio Alione of Asti (1460/70 - 1521/29) was a poet and playwright, a true Italian troubadour. Coming from a family of the equestrian nobility, "nobiltà de populo" (nobility of the people), he was therefore a fervent supporter of the French; so, when the French were chased from Piedmont and their place was taken by the Marquis of Montferrat Guglielmo IX, allied with the Swiss and the Spaniards, the poet had serious problems of survival. When the French came back, he was rewarded for his fidelity by Francis I who gave him the Castle of Monterainiero. Very popular in his time, he wrote in the French, Flemish and Piedmontese languages and also in the Asti dialect. His poems were published in 1521 in Asti under the title of Opera Iocunda (Joyful Work); but it is for La Commedia de l'omo e dei soi cinque sentimenti (The Comedy of man and his five sentiments) - also used by La Fontaine - and his Farces, written in verses of nine syllables, rhymed by twos, that Alione remains famous. These are some titles: Farsa de la dona che se credia avere una roba di veluto; Farsa del franzoso alogiato a l'ostaria del Lombardo; Farsa del Lanternero; Farsa de Nicora e de Sibrina; etc. (Farce of the woman who was believed to have a velvet dress; Farce of the French housed at the Lombardy tavern; Farce of the Lantern man; Farce of Nicora and Sabra, etc).

His minor works, written in prose or verse, among which we find the Frotula (Frottola), the object of the present examination, include two songs for the disciplined of the small Annunziata: Cantione de li disciplinati de Asti (Song of the disciplined of Asti) and Atra cantione de dicti disciplinati  (Another song for the aforesaid disciplined).

The date of composition of the Farces and the minor works, edited for the first time in Asti in 1521, is uncertain. Paolo Antonio Tosi, reporting the whole work by Alione, appeared with the title Commedia e Farse Carnovalesche nei dialetti Astigiano, Milanese e Francese misti con Latino Barbaro composte sul fine del sec. XV da Gio. Giorgio Alione (Comedy and Carnival Farces in Asti, Milanese and French dialects mixed with Barbaric Latin written at the end of the XV century by Gio. Giorgio Alione) (Milan, 1865), composed, as implied by the title, at the time of Charles VIII's descent into Italy, that is, toward 1494. Tosi appears to be sure of this date, as he is sure of the fact that they were in fact presented in that period: "These farces have been written and presented by Alione in Asti at the end of the XV century. Therefore they have to be considered the first attempts of such a kind of composition, and the troubadour of Asti as one of the first to introduce theatrical poetry into Italy. Their principal worth is as dialogue done with ease, offering a faithful and curious essay of Italian and French customs of that epoch. Quadrio (V. 53) writes that comic poetry was transplanted into Italy from Provence at the end of the XII century. The same author [Quadrio], mentioning the first writers of Italian comedies he knows, quotes Sulpizio Verulano, Ugolino of Parma, Francesco Sallustio, Bonguglielmi of Florence and a certain unknown Damiano, who versified toward the end of the XV century and the beginning of the XVI. But he does not mention Alione, not having been aware, because the farces were contained in later editions and the Asti edition of 1521 was unknown to him, that they were written at the time of Charles VIII's descent into Italy, that is, toward 1494" (1).

Giovanni Da Pozzo, editor of the volume Il Cinquecento Tomo I: La dinamica del rinnovamento (1494-1533) (The Sixteen Century, Volume I: The dynamic of the Renaissance, 1494-1533) (2) published in the series "Literary History of Italy", concerning the Farces writes "Edited in Asti in 1521 but written quite a few years before" (3).

The Frotula de le dòne (Frottola of women) turns out, therefore, to be one of the first compositions - together with the Maccheronea by Bassano Mantovano, identified by Ross S. Caldwell (4) - in which the term Taroch is used with the meaning of "foolish, idiot, person of little value", meanings that in fact were attributed toward the end of Fifteenth Century to the game of  Triumphs, modifying its name to game of "tarot" [tarocchi]. Such attributes coincide besides with the meaning of "Fool stuff" given to the term "minchiata", that is, the Tuscan tarot (5).

I believe that this substitution must be imputed to the action of the Church that, to dissuade the players from approaching the game tables, wanted to call tarot that game (and perhaps by the presence of the Fool in that deck), conveying in such a way the stupidity, foolishness and little worth of those who made themselves slaves of the game. We don't know the success of such an operation, but it must have been very small if we consider the great popularity that this game had. In fact we can't believe that men of that time, when they played tarot, would have had that meaning before their minds. Today, when we play at Bestia (Beast) or Maletto (dialect term for pouch, in the game the pouch that contains the money and in a vulgar sense the masculine scrotum), both names of Romagna card games, we don't think about their etymology. We play Beast and Maletto and that's all. The same happened for the men of the Renaissance who played tarot.

At this point the moment has come to analyze our frottola, a literary genre of a narrative-moral character, sometimes also in dialog and accompanied by music.

In the Frotula de le dòne we find Alione's usual misogynous, attacks full of sexual references. The author's misogyny manifests itself through accusations pointed at women and the clergy, above all the monks: the women of Asti adorn themselves to let men know that they are of easy virtue; the whores have increased their rates; all women betray their husbands, who have little sexual imagination, while the priests and above all the monks know its every variation and do the 'hic, hec hoc', where "hic" is to intend in a onomatopoeic sense to refer to the typical hiccup of the drunk, while "hec" and "hoc" allude to other scurrilous distractions to which the monks of the time dedicated themselves.

A complete translation of the Frotula is very difficult (6) both for the Asti dialect form of the time (a dialect very different from the one spoken today), crammed in addition with macaronic Latin, and for a certain type of lexical variations introduced by Alione to create assonances, a thing that even if it has given pleasantness of sound, otherwise creates constant problems in the phase of translation. To better explain this aspect we will take as an example the following strophe (7):

Aristotel nan scampè
Ch'una dona el cavalcò
Se voi done fè dercò
Penitenzia a quater pè
Guardè a non squarciè el papè
Pr'andè a studi in utroquù.

Since the translation of this sentence in English is impossible because of the sexual acts alluded to through the use of double meanings, we summarize its concept: "Aristotle, who was ridden by a woman (8), had no escape, but if you, women, will do like him penitence on all fours, while you are trying to have sex, then be careful not have your backside deflowered". In the last verse of this strophe, the correct terminology to be adopted would have been utroque, which means "toward both parts, in one sense and in the other", but the author, with a game of assonance that vulgarizes the expression, uses utruquù, a nonexistent term, but effective to suggest the idea of a particular sexual act, since"backside" in dialect can be written "Cul" (ass), sometimes pronounced strengthening the u, that is "cuul".

To understand the word taroch in this work we have made use of  the translation that Enzo Bottasso made of many words of the Frotula in the work edited by him, Giovan Giorgio Alione, L'Opera Piacevole (Giovanni Giorgio Alione, The Pleasant Work) (9), where for taroch he gave "sciocchi" (foolish) (10). So the verse with the word taroch, "Ancôr gli è - d'i taroch", must be translated as "there are still some fools" (probably in reference to  betrayed husbands).


The term in question can be related to a proverb still in use, according to which when "il cul è frust, paternoster viene just" (or "when women grow old, they become bigots"), while earlier they frequented priests and monks for other reasons. At the end of the Frottola we find an attack on the priest Raffaele, perhaps guilty of despising the works of Alione. On the other hand, it is not possible to have an idea about the meaning of the initials "k.s.u" with which the work ends, but we would guess that it deals with a game of assonance.

Frotula de le dòne

Nostre done han i cigl ercù
Porton cioche e van stringà
Per fè attende a la brigà
Cogle pias el mazocù.
     S'una dona va a remusg
E feis ben so marì bech
El pan ong ne lo pù lech
A travonder chel pan sug
E pos cha a fer gnun ni tug
Ma cla porta a cà di scù.
     Le putein ch' aveon pr' un quart
Volon ades un cavalot
S'el consegl nel fa stè ascot
Nostre done andran fer l'art
Speisa tant che Dè gle a part
Valo antorn soi paracù.
     Рos chel done han preis al bot
Un vergilli han cià derrer
O gle ha mis el feu derrer
Pr'avischer nosg ciriot
Ch'ancor van nesch stradiot
Ciriant and o circù.
     Aristotel nan scampè
Ch'una dona el cavalcò
Se voi done fè dercò
Penitenzia a quater pè
Guardè a non squarciè el papè
Pr'andè a studi in utroquù.
     Mi ne seu pu bel pareir
Che fè stragichè el frangougl
Crubir gloeugl con i zenougl
E attacherse ai contrapeis
Cost è un at' chi tost è ampreis
Chi fa fer l'erbor forcù
     Guardè done a non fiacher
So sij gravie cho gle i group
Vozì aneing la schina a i coup
E la chiesia su o ciocher
Ma sei destre al sabacher
Degle o so reciprocù.
     O gle o zeu del cazafrust
Zeu da cog quant el fa brun
Zeu che doi ne paron ch'un
La gatta orba è ancor pù iust
Ma val poc chi nalcia el bust
Per dè an brocha a piza o cù.
     Marì ne san dè au recioch
Secundum el Melchisedech
Lour fan hic. Preve hic et hec
Ma i frà, hic et hec et hoc
Ancôr gli è – d'i taroch
Chi dan zù da Ferragù
     Cole chi per so zovent
Ne se san fer der sul tasche
Con o temp devantran masche
Quant gnuni ni dirà pù nent
So dagn per ciò gl'abion el ment
Cho diao san furb el cù.
     S'isg bigotz gent dal mantel
Queich fratesche o crestian vegl
Vorran creze a i soi cervegl
Despresiant o nostr libbel
Mandegle autr da preve Raphael
Ferse scrive un k. s. u.



- Work quoted in the text, Prefazione (Preface), pages VII - VIII.
2 - Work quoted in the text, Piccin-Nuova Libraria / Casa Editrice Dr. Francesco Vallardi, Milan - Padua, 2007.
3 - Work quoted in the text, page 492, note 8.
4 - About this, read the essays About the etymology of Tarot and Taroch: nulla latina ratione. Alione who sided with the French, responded to a Maccheronea by Bassano Mantovano, of opposite political tendencies from his, with a work of his own, entitled Macarronea contra Macarroneam Bassani.
5 -  About this, read the essay Farsa Satyra Morale.
6 - Scholars of the ancient Asti dialect to whom we have sent the text, have informed us of the enormous difficulties found in the translation of the works by Alione.
7  - The translation of this strophe is due to the kindness of Doctor Donatella Gnetti, Director of the Biblioteca Astense.
8 - About Aristotle and Phyllis see the iconological essay Temperance.
- Work quoted in the text, Libreria Antiquaria Palmaverde, Bologna, 1953.
10 - The communication of this information is due to the courtesy of Doctor Alvina Malerba, Director of the Centro Studi Piemontesi (Piedmont Study Centre) of Turin.