Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Real Italy: Aosta

The town dates from 2900 B.C., when it was only a Megalithic settlement. In 25 B.C. it was conquered by the Romans. It became a military colony holding Emperor Augustus’s soldiers, hence the name Augusta Pretoria. The layout of the town preserves this Roman plan with the streets intersecting each other at right angle. Also the well preserved walls date back to the Roman period. The town went through the invasions of the Burgundians, the Ostrogotes and the Frankes. In 1302 Aosta became a duchy of the kingdom of Savoy. It lost its economic importance in 1560, when king Emanuele Filiberto moved the capital of the kingdom from Chambery to Torino, thus leaving Aosta outside the main trade routes. For this reason, the town didn’t have the chance to develop properly until this century.

Altitude: 583 metres above the sea level
Nearest airport: TORINO
Train connections: easily accessible from TORINO
Zip code: 11100
Telephone: dial +39.165 before the number you want to call

On entering Aosta, you’ll almost certainly come across the outstanding Arco di Augusto. You can start your visit from here.

Arco di Augusto

This mighty building, dedicated to the Emperor Cesare Augusto, dates back to the same period when the town was founded by the Romans in 25 B.C. It was built with local stone and is 11.50 metres tall. On a high basement rise half columns with Corinthian capitals. There are three columns on each side and four on each fa硤e. The trabeation, with its trigliphes and metopes, is typical of the Doric order. Leaving the arch and walking along Via San Vincenzo and then turning right, you arrive at the Church of Sant’ Orso.

The Church of Sant’ Orso

This is the most important medieval buiding of the town. The collegiate church was built between 994 and 1025 by Anselmo bishop of Aosta and was later partially rebuilt before the XV century. The simple XV century fa硤e is characterized by an ogival portal surmounted by a cusp. The Romanesque bell tower, erected in 1131, rises aloof from the church. It is made of stone, is 46 metres tall and has four floors of mullioned windows. The inside has a XV century Gothic shape with noteworthy frescoed cross-vaults. There are three aisles divided by quadrangular pilasters, but there is no transept. In the upper part of the nave, visible from below the roof, are some remains of XI century frescoes.

The wooden choir is a masterpiece by Jenius Brayne, who also worked in the Castle of Issogne in the same years, that is between 1494 and 1504. The policromous glasses of the apse can be dated back to the end of the XV century. In the vestry is the treasure of Sant’ Orso with some wonderful gold works of the XIV and XV centuries. The XI century crypt is also interesting, with its 5 small aisles and 12 columns of Roman origin.

From the right aisles of the church, or a corridor on the right of the fa硤e, you can get into the Romanesque cloister, an architectural masterpiece of the XII to the XV centuries. It has a rectangular plan, 19.50 x 10.70 metres, and in the centre of the court there is an ancient well. It was erected in the XII century with the exception of the arches and the vaults which date from the XV century. Small columns, different one from the other, are surmounted by multiform capitals which support stone arches. These capitals are considered the best example of Romanesque religious sculpture.

Going back towards the square in front of the church, you can see on the right the Gothic Priorate decorated with terra-cotta and dominated by an octagonal tower surmounted by a cusp. Coming back to the main street and continuing your walk you see the:

Porta Pretoria

This gate, through which the ancients used to enter the town coming from Ivrea, was erected in 25 B.C.. Another gate, which has not survived, used to be on the opposite side of the town. It is the biggest Roman gate still surviving.

It was built with enormous square blocks of stone and it consists of two parallel walls and a military courtyard inside. The external wall is 4.50 m. wide, while the inner one is 3.45 m. The walls feature three arches, of which the central one is larger than the other two to let the carts come in.

This gate is now 3 metres underground because of the elevation of the ground. The original level of the Roman street is visible in a excavation of the basement on the southern side. It is very well preserved: only its marble facing has gone lost through the centuries.

On the north side is the quadrangular Romanesque tower, where the noble Quart family lived in the XII century. The ground floor now houses temporary photographic exhibitions. Leaving the gate, on the right, you will see another important testimony to the glorious past of Roman Aosta, that is the Roman Theatre.

The Roman Theatre

It was erected between the end of the I century B.C. and the beginning of the I century A.D. The existing outstanding fa硤e is 22 metres tall. It contains two lower rows of arches and an upper row of windows. Originally this theatre was probably covered and in the cavea some steps are still visible. To the north of the theatre, in the court of the Convent of Santa Caterina of the XII century, are the remains of the Roman Amphitheatre. They are not open to the public.

Coming back to the main street, a little further away is the Piazza di Chanoux which was planned in the middle of the 19th century destroying the ancient church of San Francesco. On this square stands the town-hall: the Hotel de Ville.

The “Hotel de Ville”

It was erected in 1839 where the Franciscan convent used to stand.
On the fa硤e there is a long arcade and in the central part semi-columns support a gable.

The Cathedral

The cathedral was begun in the XI century and renewed in the XV. The ancient Romanesque building is recognizable in the plan with three aisles, the crypt, the two bell-towers and the mosaics in the choir. The fa硤e you see nowadays, with the great arch and the niches on the sides, can be dated back to 1848. In the hall you can see some interesting Renaissance decorations and three portals decorated from 1522 to 1526. The Romanesque bell towers have octagonal cuspes.

Inside, the nave is covered with Gothic cross-vaults and so are the presbitery, the aisles and the radial chapels. The nave and the aisles are divided by rectangular pilasters on which the vaults stand. The floor of the presbitery is on a raised level and downstairs is a large crypt dating to the beginning of the XI century. It has 10 columns, six of which have been reinforced with recycled Roman materials.

The choir is artistically the most important place of the chatedral. The mosaics, made from the XII to the XIV centuries, are noteworthy. In the presbitery you can admire the precious wooden choir carved by Jean Vionin da Semoens and Giovanno di Chetro in 1469. The stalls, with baldachins, are adorned with figures of saints, prophets, angels, men and animals.

In the apse is the sepulchre of Count Tommaso II of Savoy, who died in 1259. The sculpture was made in 1430-35 and is probably a work by Stefano Mossettaz.
In the deambulatory is the “Museo del Tesoro” which holds marble sculptures, gold works and wooden icons. On the northern side of the church is the cloister, whose erection started in 1422 and ended in 1460. It has a quadrangular plan in late Gothic style. You cannot miss it because of its beauty and grace.

The square where the Cathedral is lies on part of the Roman Forum, of which you can see the remains in the enclosure near the church.
Here the remains of an ancient temple are visible. You can go down in a cryptoporticus that winds round the “forum” and is partially under the church.

The Roman Walls

The visit to the Roman Walls is also very interesting. They run almost all around the town and are very well preserved.
The walls were built in the age of Emperor Augustus and make a rectangle of 754 by 572 metres. They are almost intact expecially on the west side where the Tower “del lebbroso” (Tower of the Leper) rises and on the south side where the XIII century Bramafam Tower is. If you arrive by train, you will see the Pailleron Tower just opposite the station.

Fenis Castle

It rises on the right side of the Dora river near the village of Chez Sapin. It is a stone building with two distinct walls with towers and a courtyard inside. The first news about this castle can be dated back to 1242. Many transformations were made at the beginning of the XV century, even if the original structure remained unaltered.
After a period of decadence it became again an object of interest at the end of the last century when it underwent remakings and reconstructions.

The inhabited part like the courtyard were remade in the XIV century, when the castle assumed a representative role. It was always only at intervals inhabited and had scarce military importance. Nowadays only the ground floor can be visited, where the kitchens used to be. Now wooden furniture typical of the region is exhibited here. Also the interesting frescoed courtyard with its wooden balconies and a beautiful stone staircase are open to the public. The living quarters are on the first floor, but, unfortunately, they cannot be visited.

Fenis Castle is open to the public from April to September from 9 a.m. to 6.30 p.m.

The landscape in Aosta Valley is marvelous. The land is criss-crossed by hundreds of streams that flow through the glaciers into the Dora Baltea river. Don't miss one of Italy's best natural parks: the Parco Naturale del Gran Paradiso. This is a very large sanctuary where all the local plants and animal can be found: squirrels, hares, stone martens, marmots, woodpeckers, blackbirds and also eagles.

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