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Aosta has a rich history and this history is evident in the numerous architectural monuments that it presents to its visitors. Tourists will appreciate the visible remains of Aosta, the Roman city, which is still in a good condition. There is also medieval Aosta which displays evidence of a more recent history in various areas of the city. A visit here could become a journey in time that begins in 25 B.C, when the Romans called this city Augusta Pretoria. It was fomerly in the hands of the mythical ‘Salssi’ and called Cordelia. However, the history of Aosta began even earlier than this, when the Dora plain was inhabited. There is evidence of a necropolis in the megalithic area megalitica of Saint Martin de Corleans, where ancient, anthromorphic objects were found that are now on display in the Museo Archeologico. In the eastern entrance of the city, the ideal visitors route starts at the traces of ancient Rome. The first construction here is the donkey back bridge in Piazza Arco d’Augusto, which is known as Ponte Romano. This bridge no longer links the two banks of the Buthier river as, over centuries, the river has changed its course. The Romans built the city around the course of the river as well as the river Dora, in order to exploit the land between two bodies of water. For this reason, the city has a rectangular shape. There are two main roads; the “cardo decumano” and the “cardo principale”, and there used to be a gate at the two ends. Now only one still remains, the majestic, Porta Pretoria. Up until around forty years ago, travelllers entering the city walls used to pass under the Arco d’Augusto. This was a typical, Roman construction, a triumphal arch dedicated to the victory of Ottaviano Cesare Augusto over the Salassi. It is now surrounded by a large flower bed and in certain, architectural details, no longer retains its original shape. Continuing from the arch towards the west of the city, you will reach the Porta Pretoria, that like the arch is built from heavy, stone blocks on which marble slabs were placed. In order to keep the bricks in place, the Romans used a kind of resistent cement, the composition of which is still unknown. On the right side of the gate is a tower, built in feudal times on the wall, and called the Torre dei signori di Sant’Orso. The renovated ground floor of the tower is now an exhibition space. On the right of the gate is the Teatro Romano, a majestic building whose 22 metre façade remains. There is a semicircular structure on the back of the theatre and on the north corner of the theatre is the Anfiteatro. This ampitheatre is now partly hidden by the nearby convent of Santa Caterina. Some external arches are visible; there are sixty on two sides and it had a capacity for around 20,000 people. Walk up the road of the Porte Pretoriane to reach the neo classical, luxurious, palazzo del Municipio, which faces the beautiful Piazza Chanoux. The architect that planned this was obviously influenced by Piazza San Carlo in Turin. Don’t be fooled by the “Hotel de Ville” or, townhall sign on one of the buildings. Leaving the square, turn right to reach the Roman ruins. This is also the site of the Cathedral which opens onto the Foro Romano. The Roman Forum was also a market, court and a meeting place as well as housing a temple. The temperature in these places was always low, and historians claim that this was a cool place for people to gather in summer. Evidence of Augusta Pretoria is also found on the walls where there were guard towers, that were replaced by proper towers in medieval times, and sometimes houses, as is the case with the Torre dei Balivi, near the theatre. This was once the home of the city’s ruler, and was then used as a court, and later as a prison. Near to the Balivi tower is Tour Fromage, which gets its name from the family that built it, and is now an exhibition space. On the opposite corner of the wall , near the railway station is the Tour Pailleron, that used to be a Roman tower. There is also the imposing Tour Bramafan. This is a castle, built by the Challant, on a large site. According to legend, the Aostans gathered here during a long famine to ask for food from their rulers. The last of the towers is the Lebbroso, which was made famous by Xavier de Maistre in the story “Il lebbroso della città di Aosta”. In a melancholy style, the French author records how he met a leper who was segregated in the tower and the long conversations they shared. Famous for its Roman ruins, Aosta also boasts notable monuments from other eras. On the same square as the Forum is the Cattedrale. The original building dates from the tenth and eleventh centuries and has been renovated a number of times. There are two belltowers, built for different buildings. The original one is on the right of the church. Inside the Cathedral are three, simple, austere naves and, at the back of the central nave is the canons choirbox, which has two stalls in a gothic style and is rich with strange, symbolic figures. Outside the Roman walls is the tall, historic church of Aosta, the Collegiata di Sant’Orso. In a small square, the belltower, the church, the cloisters and a limetree recreate an atmosphere that takes visitors back into the medieval world of the monks.

History of Aosta

The first evidence of settlements here date back to around 170 centuries ago, when the glaciers that used to cover the area of the Valle d’Aosta started to retreat, leaving steep valleys and a large, central basin in their wake. Hills formed from moraine formed around this, and it was on these hills, that the first people here settled, out of flooding danger. They probably came from the nearby region of Rodano, in France, by way of Gran San Bernardo. Later on, the Celts came here by the same route, from whom, according to tradition, the Salassi people orginate. These were called a ‘warlike nation who are protective of the revenue that they produced from exploiting the gold mines in the area’ by the Romans. The two nations soon entered into conflict, and Rome, who had a large army and had just conquered the last outpost before Gaul, won easily. In 25 B.C., Augusta Praetoria, was founded, a city linked to Eporedia (Ivrea) and Gran San Bernardo by road. After a few years, the urban centre became an place of importance both from a strategic and commercial point of view. The numerous monuments which were built at this time are witness to this, such as the l’Arco di Augusto, the Teatro Romano, the Roman Forum and the Porta Pretoria.

There is little written evidence from the beginning of the medieval age. The Valle d’Aosta was noted in documents only when the Pope or Emperors passed through Gran San Bernardo. In 575 the king of the Franks and the Lombard king signed a famous treaty in which the Valle d’Aosta was made part of an area of political, economic and cultural influence in the Franco-Borgognona. At the beginning of the first millenium, the power of the Valle d’Aosta was divided between bishops and secular power, represented by the Savoy dynasty. The relationship between the two powers was at the centre of regional life for the whole era, given that the descendants of the House of Savoy managed to subjugate the local nobility. They exploited the dissidents from the local, great families and obtained the support of the Viscounts of Aosta, the signori di Challant. Around 1191, the citizens of Aosta were some of the first beneficiaries of the Savoy-exemptions. After a period of disorder, the Count Tommaso I intervened in person guaranteeing aid and protection to the citizens, without claiming fiscal benefits that were not agreed by the two parties. In exchange he earnt the trust of the Aostans. The condition allowed the local population to develop a series of local institutions, including the Udienze Generali (for the administration of justice) and the Assemblea degli Stati Generali (who decided the amount of tax to give the count). Towards the middle of the eighteenth century, following the political and religious imbalances that shook the entire continent, the Valdostani found themselves facing a fundamental choice for the community. They could either adhere to Protestant reform and the Swiss Confederation or maintain their loyalty to the House of Savoy and the Catholic Church. At the end, Catholicism prevailed and a joint government was set up, the Alla “Conseil des Commis” which was the administrative head of the region and signed a peace treaty with the King of France. This was the beginning of self government for the Valle d’Aosta, that lasted almost a quarter of a century. However, after this, the interferences of the House of Savoy increased and on many occasions the government was disrespected, upsetting the local citizens. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the region entered into a grave political and economic crisis, after having been excluded by the main, commercial directors after Chambery became the capital of the Savoy kingdom. The regional economy became mainly agricultural and poverty increased. In 1770, the Savoy king revoked all the medieval exemptions, suppresed local institutions and the “Coutumier”, a sixteenth century legal code.

The arrival of Napoleonic troops brought new vitality to the region, that became in favour of the French ruler. However, after Waterloo, the return of the Savoy monarch signified a backwards step for the Valdostani who soon forgot revolutionary ideology and accepted the Piedmontese king’s rule. When Italy was in the process of becming united, the Valle d’Aosta was divided in two sections. These were the conservatives, mostly represented by the Clergy and the country people who wanted Restoration, and the Liberals who were mostly made up of the bourgeoisie and secular intellectuals, who were in favour of the Vienna Congress and the temporal power of the Pope. In 1835, the peasants and small landowners went to the square to revolt against the unpopular and liberal reforms of Cavour. This is known as the ”Regiment des soques” and the revolt was quickly suppressed, although they still hated the liberals. The unification of Italy was proclaimed in 1861, and this was a fundamental step in local history. The region was marginalised at the foot of the Alps, far from the economic centres. This was the time of the first annexations with France. Between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Valle d’Aosta faced a serious, economic crisis, because of the end of the metal industry (the region used to depend on numerous mines) and the backwardness of the mountain agriculture. More than twenty thousand Valdostani (almost a quarter of the population), emigrated to France. Recovery, thanks to new, industrial development, only took place during the first world war, with the exploitation of hydro-electric resources and iron and steel production. At the same time, there was a rapid ‘Italianisation’ of the region, relegating French to a non-official language. After the first world war, the area became home to a large number of immigrants, mostly from the Veneto and Calabria, who came because of the iron, steel and textile industries. Fascism was not always unconditionally accepted in the area, and it was particularly opposed by the left and by regional movements. The brutal, politics of forced Italianisation, which included the translation of local names from French to Italian, tried to erase local, cultural traditions, but it was not successful. After the fall of fascism (there were many partisan units in the Valle d’Aosta) a strong movement developed in favour of annexation with France, while another group pushed to transform the region into an independent state or a federal state. The groups nearest to the Italian government won in the end, who assured the Valle d’Aosta a strong, administrative autonomy and a “Statuto Speciale”, that was different from other regions.