The Alps are the great watershed of Europe. On the north face rise the Rhine, the Rhone, the Danube; on the south, the Po. Whether a drop of rain that falls in the Alps ends up in the North Sea or the Black or the Adriatic all comes down to gravity. But languages are carried by human beings and human feet can defy gravity, meaning mountains aren’t always an effective linguistic watershed.
1561, the date I tried to spell out to Sigeric, was the year in which French replaced Latin as the language of official business in the Val d’Aosta. This did not represent the imposition of a foreign language but rather a recognition of the fact that Aosta’s closest ties were - and had always been - not to the neighbouring Italian Po Valley culture, but to the French-speaking world over the mountains. That the de facto first language of this part of Italia was French.
The language decree was handed down by Duke Emmanuel Philibert of Savoy, who went by the genial soubriquet of Testa di Ferro, “Ironhead.” Old Ironhead himself was a French speaker by birth, but he had no bias against Italian. Indeed, he made it the official language of Aosta’s neighbouring province of Piemonte and its capital Torino, as well as Nizza – or as we call it today, Nice.
Of course, to complicate matters (and when are matters ever not complicated?), what is meant by “French” is ambiguous in the Val d’Aosta context. The French mandated by Ironhead for use in education, government and law, was Parisian French, while the French of the Valdaostans was the patois known as Franco-Provençal, a little language of its own, distinct from both northern French and Occitane, the French of the south, a spoken tongue replete with quaint medieval remnants. So in a certain sense, French was an imposed language in Val d‘Aosta.
For three centuries after Duke Emanuel Philibert, the Valley of Aosta, this snowy little cul-de-sac, continued tranquilly on its unique cultural path, its identity protected by membership in the bilingual realm of Savoy. But the fortunes of the House of Savoy had risen during those centuries, along with their pretensions. The head of the household no longer styled himself Duke but King - of Piedmont, Savoy and Sardinia. In 1861, King Victor Emanuel II raised the house one notch further, becoming the first King of the united Italian nation.
Prior to the unification of Italy, French was the mother language of one-eighth of Savoy’s subjects. The royal house itself used Italian and French indifferently, while Count Cavour, the prime minister who more than anyone forged the new nation, was far more comfortable in French. But to uphold his claim to the crown of Italy, Victor Emanuel needed the support of France, and France’s price was steep: the handing over of all Savoyan lands on the French side of the Alps. With this, the French-speaking population of the new Italy was reduced to fewer than 100,000, most of them living in the Val d’Aosta.
All of a sudden, Aosta found herself trying to swim in the minestrone of Italian politics. No longer was she left to go about her own business. Now she was an aberration, a throwback, an irritant. Successive nationalist-minded governments made legislation to disestablish the French language in Val d’Aosta., replacing French education with Italian. But the real struggle began with the ascension to power of Mussolini. In 1923, Aosta sent a deputation to Rome to chat with the new dictator about the future of French in Italy. Whether this move was an act of naive optimism or a desperate attempt to circumvent disaster, it only seemed to focus Mussolini’s attention on the French question. The immediate response was the closing of 180 rural schools where French was still the language of instruction. The next year brought a prohibition against French signage. The local Fascist commissariat was assigned to change all French street names to Italian, even as French newspapers were shut down. The wolf in sheep’s clothing was the designation of Aosta as a provincia. The apparent elevation in status was counteracted by lumping the entirely Italian city of Ivrea into the province, thus diluting the French presence.
The new Fascist headquarters were erected at the western gate of old Aosta. In the Piazza della Repubblica stood a tall column topped by statues of Romulus and Remus suckling at their wolf-mother’s teat. For the second time in its long history, Aosta found itself occupied by Rome. The new Italian conquest was more devious than the first, however. Val d’Aosta’s leading employer was the Cogne iron mines, an interest that dates back to Roman times (and may well have been a factor in making the land of the Salassis irresistible to the Empire). Mussolini now instructed the mines to bring in Italian-speaking workers from outside Val d’Aosta.
Italy’s declaration of war against France in 1939 was the crisis point. The Italian author Curzio Malaparte recalls Alpine troops crying and jeering as they stood at attention to hear Il Duce’s speech. The flames of Gallophobia were fanned, as all writing in French was prohibited and a witch-hunt was instigated against priests who continued to preach and teach in French. Ironically, the War interrupted a fascist programme already underway to “Italianize” 20,000 French family names. A 1940 editorial in the local Fascist organ proclaimed: “Let us no longer dirty our mouths calling an Italian by a foreign name.”
But the Aostans, like the Salassi before them, showed their independent streak. The first organized opposition to the Italian state came with the formation of the Ligue Valdotaine, dedicated to the preservation of the French language and Valdostan traditions. The Ligue was succeeded in 1925 by the Jeune Vallée d’Aoste, co-founded by Emilio Chanoux, an Aosta notary, and Abbot Trèves, a politicized priest of the sort the valley seemed to breed. Chanoux, born in 1906, was an ardent federalist who foresaw a post-war European federation reordered on regional and ethnic bases. By 1941, he was leading the Valdaostan partisan movement, Comité de Libération. On May 18, 1944, he was arrested and tortured to death by the SS.
Post-war, the movement for Aosta to secede from Italy led to massive demonstrations. Many believe that if a plebiscite had ever been permitted, Aosta would be French today. Instead, the new Italian government offered Val d’Aosta special status and substantial autonomy. By the laws of 1948, French was guaranteed equal footing with Italian, with school hours divided between the languages.
Statistics indicate that over the long run Italian has taken its place as the principal language of the valley and the clear favourite for work and school. As of 2001, 70% of Valdaostans aged twelve to eighteen reported using Italian as their principal language at school or work, compared to 32% in the sixty-three to seventy bracket.
Today, the square at the centre of Aosta is, depending which sign you read or which map you look at, Place Émile Chanoux or Piazza Emilio Chanoux.