Gothic Valle d'Aosta
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Annad, Parish Church portal If you were forced to choose the most typical Italian region, you certainly would never pick the Valle d'Aosta. Not only is it the smallest (3262 sq. km.) and least populated (116,000 inhabitants), it is also one of the country's five legislatively and administratively autonomous regions, as granted by the Special Statute of February 26, 1948. The region is bilingual, with both Italian and French taught in school and commonly used at home. The only exception is in the Gressoney (or Lys) Valley where, due to the strong germanic cultural and linguistic traditions of the Walser community (which originally migrated here in the 12th century from Swiss Valais), Italian, French and German are taught. Surrounded by some of Europe's highest and most beautiful mountains, even the landscape is not typically Italian. Val d'Aosta (as it is also called) is strategically positioned on either bank of the Dora Baltea River, and it controls access to the Great St. Bernard and Little St. Bernard passes, which have been vital European crossroads since Roman times.

Aosta, Cathedral, St. Agatha

he area's art and craftsmanship are not what you'd call typically Italian either. This is one of the few parts of Italy where Gothic runs rampant. Of course the ancient Romans left plenty of relics, and Baroque beauties are everywhere, but Gothic prevailed here from the late Romanesque period until the 17th century, basically eclipsing the Renaissance. Architecturally it is evident in scores of churches, castles and cathedrals, but it is the sculptures that represent the highpoint of Aostan artistic sensitivity and skill, and no place offers a better vantage point than the Treasury Museum of the cathedral in Aosta, the region's capital.

Aosta, Cathedral, Mary Magdalen Both wood and marble sculptures are present here, and the tombs of Francesco of Challant and Tommaso of Savoy are fine examples of large marble pieces. Both are attributed to local sculptor Stefano Mossettaz in the early 1400s. However, the artistic star of Aostan sculptures shone most brightly in works of wood, probably because the valley has such abundant forests, unlike the rest of Italy. There is remarkable expression and sensitivity in the many Madonnas, altarpieces and saints (St. Christopher seems to be especially popular, perhaps because as the patron saint of travellers he was familiar to a people living on one of Europe's great migratory routes). The Treasury Museum's statues of St. John, St. Mary Magdalen, the Madonna with Child and the Pieta' (pictured at right) are superb examples of early 15th-century international Gothic. You'll also find a good number of pieces of German origin, of which the beguiling statue of St. Agata is one. The cathedral itself abounds with wonderful wooden pieces, including the carved choir stalls dating from 1470 and a colossal Crucifixion dating from 1397.

Aosta, S. Orso

Elsewhere in Aosta, don't miss the stupendous St. Christopher in the church of St. Etienne, carved around 1450 from a single five-foot tree trunk. There is also a worthy Crucifixion in the parish church of St. Cristophe. And don't miss the twelfth-century cloister and frescoed garret of the Collegiata di Sant'Orso (pictured at left).

Torgnon art, Christ at the Column
o get a more complete idea of the importance of Gothic sculpture throughout all of Valle d'Aosta, just drive or take a bus to any village. You are sure to find other splendid examples of the medieval style, usually in the local parish church or the museum annexed to it. One itinerary might include Saint-Vincent, Torgnon and Valtournenche, with a visit to the Torgnon parish museum to see the early 14th-century Christ at the Column (pictured at right), as well as the germanic Madonna, St. James, and St. Martin, all attributed to Jörg Lederer circa 1520. And there's a fascinating early 16th-century crucifix in the church itself.

Issime, St. James
nother short trip could include Gressoney-Saint-Jean, Issime, Arnad and Antagnod. Although this is the most German of Val d'Aosta's thirteen valleys, it has surprisingly few germanic sculptures, a notable exception being the magnificent gilded St. Barbara in Issime. Gressoney's parish church boasts one of the region's oldest crucifixes, dating from the early 13th century. And when you are in Arnad, take a moment to admire the breathtaking portal of the church (pictured at top right) and to pay a visit to the parish museum. One of Valle d'Aosta's best wooden sculptures, a memorable portrait that may be of St. Bernard (pictured at left), is in the museum of Antagnod.

Our third itinerary leads to Valgrisenche, Derby, Introd and Valsavarenche. Gothic jewels are present in the churches and annexed museums in all these towns.

Most of the (few) tourists who travel to Valle d'Aosta are there for hiking or skiing. By all means indulge in the region's glorious outdoor activities, but don't forget to save some time to observe its unique artistic qualities as well.

by Michael Brouse, Rome

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