Wednesday, March 30, 2011

aosta (via francigena v)

Aostas library, like everything else in the city, is built on Roman foundations. You peer over the landing to the lower floors and see the great, pale stones that once formed part of the Porta Decumanus. It gives a whole new meaning to exposed brick. An event is in progress down there and refreshments are being served but I overcome my curiosity and head for the second floor where the special collection on the Val d'Aosta is housed in a wing of its own. According to the notice on the desk I need a library card for access but the librarian waves me in without raising an eye from her computer screen.
Ah, Italia.
I gather an armful of useful-looking history books from the stacks and colonize a table by the window in the reading room. I have the place to myself. The first volume I crack open is a hefty brute entitled Storia della valle dAosta by Andrea Zanotto. I do my best to skim through the Roman and church foundation history, the medieval saints and miracles and battles. But its too soon after lunch for this. (Did I mention lunch? A heaping plate of polenta concia - polenta swimming in globs of melted Fontina cheese - helped down by a generous quarter litre of red.) By the time I get to the Renaissance and Count Emmanuel Philibert de Savoie the words are strating to blur, I hear voices.
And then a familiar musty aroma meets my nose and the voices become a voice.
And what vulgar tongue might this be?
Hes leaning over my shoulder, eyeing the text with a scowl.
Sigeric! I mean, Archbishop! Where did you get to last night?
He ignores my question, still fixed on the text. I can make out the semblance of a word here and there, but if they call this Latin Oh, the world has sadly fallen. The end draws near.
This language is Italian, Archbishop.
Italian. And what is Italian?
It is a…” I dont want to use words like vulgar or corruption for the language of amore. Its a Romance language. A descendent of Latin.
A bastard descendent if you ask me. Italian! Next it will be Hispanic and Lusitanian and Gallic’…”
Well, yes actually. We call those Spanish, Portuguese and French…”
Enough, boy! Gog and Magog, thats what I call it! He snorts and leans closer. That smell again, of old books and damp stone. It is no easy matter to read this hand. The form of the letters is peculiar. Cant say that I recognize them all. Yet they have to them a great regularity. This is the work of a skilled scribe.
Its called printing, Archbishop. Its done by a machine.
A machine that writes? What a wondrous notion. But how then do the monks fill their time with no manuscripts to inscribe?
I would guess they have more leisure than in your day.
The Devil finds work for idle hands. He pokes at the page with a thick, yellowed fingernail. What manner of letters are these? And again here. They seem not letters at all but some barbarous script.
He is pointing at a table of dates accompanied by population figures.
Theyre numbers.
I see no numbers.
Well this is an eight, and this is a four, and this is a zero…”
My pen is lying on the table. Sigeric seizes it with a sigh of impatience, closes his fist around it awkwardly, like someone using chopsticks for the first time, and scrawls in my open notebook VIII.
This is an eight. he pronounces.
And this is a four. IV
And what was this other number you named?
Good Lord. Arabic numerals. Hes never seen one. He doesnt even know zero. Must be another gift of the Arabs. I have no idea when Europe adopted these innovations, but it was certainly after Sigerics time.
Well, lets take a look, my tutoring instincts kick in and I pick a date at random. Do you recognize this figure?
Its a one, yes. I see that, at least.
Good. Now this figure is a five, and this is a six and here is another one. You see? Fifteen-sixty-one. The year, that is.
He looks absolutely stumped. I see this will take time. Okay, lets go through them all, starting with one. We spend a few minutes on the integers, Sigeric grumbling and shaking his head all the while. But he seems to be picking them up. Then he wants to write them. I position the pen a little better in his hand and he essays the curves and spikes of 2s and 5s and 9s. Zero seems to give him misgivings. He declines to write it.
Thats sufficient, lad. Somehow I have fallen out of the practice of applying my mind. We shall do more tomorrow. He takes the book in both hands and riffles through the pages. The parchment seems not very sturdy. But it is passing light. A great convenience to the peripatetic. Im tempted to tell him about e-books, but decide that can wait.
I have a bit of a dilemma. Id like to get on with my research, but Im afraid of losing Sigeric. A solution strikes me.
How about if I read this out to you? You wont understand much, Im afraid the Latin is much transformed, but at least you can get used to the letters and their pronunciation.
His thin lips spread in a smile. And so I begin. Now and then he slows me down or asks me to repeat a word, but for the most part he listens intently, watching my finger follow the train of words. And so we spend the afternoon.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

aosta (via francigena part iv)

In the morning 
I look out my window. Across the way there are mountains where last night there was only mist and miasma. It’s overcast but the clouds look benign. A good day for a walk around town. My pizzeria Hilton lies outside the city walls, so I make my way to the burly parallel triple-arched entryways of the eastern Porta Praetoria. It’s something to savour, entering a Roman city. You know you’ve arrived.
The Forum lies just north of the decumanus; its now the Cathedral square. Beneath the square and open to the public lies the arched, echoing underground horseshoe of the cryptoporticus, an immaculately executed and invisible construction that served no more profound purpose, apparently, than to level the ground under the forum. Behind the forum, against an Alpine backdrop, is the theatre. Aosta’s, like many Roman theatres, is used in summer for concerts.
I follow the length of the decumanus - through its transformations from Via Porta Praetoria to Piazza Chanoux to Via de Tillier to Via E. Aubert - to the Piazza della Repubblica, outside the old Porta Decumana, then make a circuit of the town to see the massy walls from the outside. The stones lodged in mortar look like hard, crunchy candy set in nougat. It’s a long walk. The walls still enclose the better part of city, though at an average height of about fifteen feet, they look highly pregnable. They were higher once, but the materials were dislodged and carted away over the centuries to be reemployed as feudal strongholds.
Twenty centuries have passed since the foundation of Aosta, yet it is still a Roman city. Like its name, worn from Augusta down to Aosta, the city’s other vestiges of Romanity, though eroded by time, have never been erased.
I admire the Arch of Augustus, erected in 25 BC, as soon as the Salassi had been defeated. The view through the arch has not been improved by the introduction of a cross. Past the Arch stands a postcard-perfect Roman bridge, which - according to the plaque - has arched gracefully over nothing in particular since the eleventh century, when a violent storm changed the course of the river Buthier.
The eleventh century! Then Sigeric would have seen the river running in its old bed. And no doubt he crossed over this very bridge as he left Aosta. Yes, Sigeric would have seen many of these things - the theatres, the walls, the gates and arches, the lay of the streets. And already they were ancient when he saw them, already they were in ruins.
One thing I do not find in my travels is any indication that I am on the Via Francigena. Not a way marker, not an arrow, no sign of pilgrim lodgings. The bookstores have an item or two, but nothing related specifically to pilgrimage in the Val d’Aosta. I ask the chatty proprietor in Bar Franca if she ever sees pilgrims passing through. She has no idea what I’m talking about. Neither does the professorial gentleman at the bar who, she assures me, knows “everything” about Aosta. He leads me out into the Via Croce di Città and directs me to the Roman amphitheatre, but the words “Francigena” “pellegrini” stir no flicker of recognition.
Then I seem to strike gold - in the shape of a restaurant. Le Pelerin Gourmand, “The Pilgrim Gourmet,” sports a gaudy scallop shell over its door and a “pilgrim menu.” Surely this is where I will meet the doyen of the local pilgrim scene, a proprietor/chef who has walked to Santiago as well as Rome, a fount of information and stories, a welcome mat to the foot-sore traveller, in short, a pilgrimage freak. It is a little suspicious that the pilgrim menu is priced far beyond the means of your average grimy mendicant. But that’s fine, pilgrims come in all income brackets. As it turns out, alas, the owners of Le Pelerin Gourmand haven’t taken a pilgrim step in their lives. They chose the “theme” for their restaurant based on the fact that it stands on the site of a former pilgrim hospice.

Having failed to turn up any pilgrim footprints, I direct my attention to a question that's been teasing me. Just how French is Aosta? And how did it come to pass that this satellite of the Classical Empire, this little Rome away from Rome, should have become the French-Italian heartland?
It's not that youd ever mistake Aosta for a French city. Yet there is something, something fleeting, like a breeze from the other side of the Alps - a snatch of an overheard conversation, a bookstore or restaurant with a French name, a street sign or plaque in French... There are items on the local menu that you won’t find elsewhere: that melty cheese dish they call fonduta, known on the other side of the Alps as fondue; and cresperelle, those superfine rolled-up pancakes that are nothing other than crêpes. There's always something that distinguishes this place from Italy
I go looking for clues at the Tourist Information Office, located at the side of the magnificent Hotel de Ville (or should I say, Municipio?) in the central piazza (or should I say, place?).
Can you tell me about the status of French in Aosta?
Aosta is bilingual. At school, we study in French and Italian equally.
“But does anyone still speak French as a first language?”
“Probably not in the city. But in the mountains, I know people who speak French with their families.”
And whats the history behind all that?
The woman behind the desk opens and closes her mouth a couple of times, goldfish-style. Clearly this is not a question that can be answered in a sentence or two.
Here is a map of the city. Let me show you how to find the library.

Monday, March 14, 2011

aosta (via francigena part iii)

Aosta is the first important town on the Italian side of the Alps, a place whose destiny, from its very inception, has been inextricably tied to that of Rome.

I retrieve my pack from beneath the bus, pull my hood up tight and get ready to dash into the pelting rain. Then I hear Sigerics mocking voice again. You call yourself a pilgrim? He’s right. A real pilgrim would have been walking all day through snow and rain to get here. I should feel grateful, grateful, that I’ve flown over the mountain pass and down the other side in the comfort of a bus. I yank my hood back boldly. Bring on the rain! Its just a bit of weather, get over it!
Of course it helps that Im only walking two blocks. Just before we reached the bus station, I spotted the two stars of a hotel twinkling by the roadway. Maybe not a pilgrims cheapest option, but certainly the handiest.
No it isnt. Even before I make the hotel, I pass a pizzeria with a sign advertising rooms. The desk man takes me through the clamorous dining area and up a flight of stairs. Its low season, so hes going to let me have the matrimonial suite. I understand this is a privilege, though it’s not clear exactly why. The wallpaper is yellowed, the bed has done service as a trampoline. The place has something of the air of a - whats the word in Italian? - oh yes, a bordello. But for 25 euros I should complain?
The rain is still splatting away at my window as I step out of the (hot) shower, dry myself with the (only slightly dingy) towel and stretch out on the (crisp, apparently vermin-free) sheets. Again, I hear Sigeric’s tsk tsk. I wonder where he's staying tonight. Its an absurd question, of course. Sigeric doesnt exist. He is a daydream, a hallucination, a musty exhalation of my subconscious.
But where is he staying tonight? Where did he stay a thousand years ago when he passed through Aosta? Some place without a radiator, thats for sure. And without glass windows. Without a tv or a bedside lamp. Without anything like privacy. And without a pizzeria downstairs.
I wonder what Sigeric would take on his pizza.

Parents give their children grand names at their peril. It’s usually not long before Theodosius becomes little Teddy and Almudena plain old Al. The same holds for names of cities. Let Augusta Praetoria Salassorum roll around in people’s lazy mouths for a few centuries and you end up with Aosta.
Augusta. Aosta. It’s a natural progression, a sign of a name well lived-in. As for the Praetoria Salassorum part - roughly, “fortified camp of the Salassi people - it was a bit of a misnomer from the beginning if you consider that an essential pre-condition of building Augusta etc etc. was, precisely, the extermination of the Salassi people.
The Salassi were a handful, a Celtic tribe who inhabited and controlled the high Alpine passes. Rome’s initial attempt, in 143 BC, to put these pesky mountain-dwellers in their place resulted in 10,000 deceased Roman legionaries. Plainly, the enemy had been misunderestimated. The Romans regrouped and came back for a second try in 140 BC. This time the result was reversed, and a century of relative peace ensued. But the Salassi never showed the Romans appropriate deference. The Romans wanted free passage through the mountains. The Salassi harassed them, dismantling their bridges, busting up their roads.
Of course nothing is better calculated to get under an ancient Romans skin than messing with his bridges and roads. New hostilities erupted in 35 BC and carried on sporadically for the next decade till the Romans were well fed up. After two years of determined warfare, of the Salassi who had not been killed in battle, some 28,000 were sold into slavery while another 8000 were pressed into the legions. Yet there is evidence that the Salassi were not entirely routed from their mountains, that a few thousand were granted Roman citizenship and permitted to settle in the new city. Perhaps their stubborn spirit of resistance was grafted into the Aostan bloodline.
The Romans, when they had done with slaughtering, enslaving and bullying the former residents into submission, set to doing what they did so well - building stuff. Kill and build, kill and build - the life of an ancient Roman! They laid out their new city on the usual grid pattern, with a central east-west road, the decumanus, bisected by a north-south street, the cardus. (In Aosta, these main streets were the roads from the Little Saint Bernard Pass to the west and the Great Saint Bernard to the north). They encircled the long rectangle of the town with a tall and sturdy wall, perforated with grand gates at the four cardinal points. They erected a handsome theatre, an amphitheatre, a forum with temple and baths and, outside the east gate, the colossal arc of Augustus we saw from the bus.
And one might wonder, why so much fuss over a military camp stranded in the farthest, snowiest, godforsaken north of Italy? But that only shows how the concept of “nation” has fractured our view of the big picture, for Italys extremities are Europes veins and arteries, the land links between the south of Europe and the north. And in times like Sigerics, when the sea roads were commanded by Vikings and Corsairs, land links were the only links.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

over the alps to aosta (via francigena part ii)

Last week, I commenced my Via Francigena journey by bus from Martigny in Switzerland. This week, the journey resumes on the Italian side with a strange encounter...

As the bus coasts to lower altitudes, snow turns to driving rain. I grow pensive. I will be arriving at night in a strange city in the middle of a rainstorm without a map or the faintest notion of where to stay. Oh yes, and carrying a large backpack. It wouldn’t be a party without the backpack.
I always tell people I love to travel. I’m trying to recall why. And that’s when I hear the voice.
“You snivelling little sod.”
There’s no one on the bus but me and the driver and the lady with the walker. I’m sure of that. Yet the voice comes from behind, so close that its cool breath of contempt tickles my earlobe.
“And you call yourself a pilgrim? Pathetic.”
I twist my neck to look back. In the unlit bus, I can make out only the dim impression of a face, long and whitefish-pale in the darkness. The man it belongs to - did he get on when I was dozing? - leans arms-crossed against the back of my seat in the familiar fashion of an old travelling companion.
“Great lamb of God, how you drone on,” he says in tone that is amused, yet not without a certain truculence. “‘Oooohhhh, I’ll have to walk in the nasty rain. What if it seeps through my Gooooooretex? It may be five or ten minutes before I find a warm hotel with a comfy bed. I’ll get a wee bit chilly.’”
The accent I’m sure is British, yet not quite like any British accent I’ve ever heard. Gnarlier, craggier, aged in some way I can’t put my finger on. There is also about him - I’m sorry to say it - but an odour. A distinctive odour. Not necessarily unpleasant, but antique. I instinctively draw back.
“I was three days crossing these wretched mountains, rain and wind every step of the way. And did I complain? Never a word. I thanked God He did not send hail or snow to try us.”
I’m about to ask who he is when suddenly I know.
Archbishop Sigeric to you lad,” he replies. “Sigeric the Serious.”
“So they really did call you that?” I extend my hand and this time it’s his turn to draw back. Evidently he is not familiar with the gesture. I withdraw my hand, substituting an awkward seated bow.
“This is an honour, Archbishop. I’m following in your footsteps, you know.”
“Rolling all over them is more like it. If you were following my footsteps you’d be out there plodding.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to complain. I recognize that…”
“I’m not blaming you! If we’d had these bus contraptions back in the nine-hundreds, this is certainly how I’d have travelled. Ninety days it took me from Canterbury to Rome. Ninety there, ninety back. And I, an archbishop! It’s not like I’ve nothing better to do with my time than gallivant about the continent. I’ve got a flock to lead, all the business of a cathedral to conduct. I’ve got that spineless monarch banging on my door day and night, ‘The Vikings this, the Vikings that, what am I to do about the Vikings?’”
As Sigeric warms to the subject of tenth-century politics, the bus fills up. At each French-named village, and often in the middle of what looks like nowhere, one or two or three are waiting at the stop, young women mostly. “Buona sera,” they call to all and sundry as they board, then shake the water off their coats and take seats up at the front where they can chat together and tease the driver - entirely in Italian, I observe.
Sigeric pays the newcomers no mind. He goes on, speaking of a thousand years past as if it were yesterday. I have the feeling he hasn’t talked to anyone in a very long time. At last his fretful talk of ancient Britain winds down. He returns to the present.
“Come to think of it, I don’t know that I’d even bother with the bus. What I’d like is to take a ride in one of those… what do ye call them? Ryan Air and so forth?”
“An airplane?”
“Airplane,” he savours the word. “That‘s the ticket. I’d fly to Rome. Three hours from Heathrow to Leonardo da Vinci, gate to gate, God be praised. Saw it on the telly. I could pop out right after matins and be back in Canterbury in time for vespers. Can you tell me, son, who is this Leonardo da Vinci?”
The question takes me aback. “Leonardo?” I stammer. “Well, he was the original Renaissance man, you know? No, you don’t. You don’t know about the Renaissance. All right, after the Middle Ages, which is when you were around, or that’s we call that time now…”
“Middle? What were they between?”
“Between - before and now. I suppose. Anyway, in the Renaissance, in Florence… Did you ever get to Florence?”
His answer is lost in the squeal of brakes as we pull up to a red light. There are electric lights outside the windows now, and buildings and traffic. They catch Sigeric’s attention and he stares out, mesmerized. I study his face in the shifting, rain-tormented light. It is wizened and lean. Tight lips, drawn-in cheeks, hair shorn close to the skull setting off moderately protruding ears and the face’s defining feature: the twin dense white shocks of his eyebrows.
The bus navigates a knot of one-way suburban streets, then comes to a stop. The ladies up front rise en masse, gather their bags.
“Is this the centre?” I ask one.
“Not yet. This is the hospital.”
So that explains it. The other passengers must be the night shift. They bid the driver Ciao and head out into the rainy night. Only the lady with the walker remains on the bus.
“Sit tight, Archbishop,” I say. “We’re almost there.”
“I know,” he says.
Then we’re driving again, wheeling around a massive Roman arc - “The Arc of Augustus,” mutters Sigeric approvingly - skirting the old city walls with the train yards on our left, pulling into the bus station.
“Aosta!” calls the driver.
The signora pulls herself upright and turns to ask me for help with her walker. Too slow, the bus driver is already looking after it. She thanks me abundantly nonetheless in a rainbow of languages: “Tante grazie giovanotto, Merci beaucoup, bonne continuation. Danke, danke schön.
“You’re welcome,” I reply. “De rien, niente, nada.” I flash a grin back at Sigeric.
But Sigeric is gone.