Aosta: the ancient roman city and the fascinating medieval corners
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How: on foot.
Recommended duration: half a day.
Recommended period: all year round.
Distance: around 4 km.
A classic tour to discover the historic centre: a fascinating walk through time and space to discover the ancient Roman colony of Augusta Praetoria Salassorum and its enchanting monumental treasures of the Middle Ages.
The meeting with the colony founded by emperor Augusto in 25 BC after long and bloody clashes with the local Salassi population begins at the chapel of San Rocco along ‘Corso Ivrea’, an area once occupied by the largest necropolis of the Roman age; after this you meet the mighty Roman bridge built on the old bed of the Buthier stream and thus reaching the square dominated by the Arch of Augustus, here desired by the founder of Augusta Praetoria for the purpose of exalting the final defeat of the Salassi and celebrate the birth of a colony which had to act as the Emperor’s stronghold on the others side of the Alps.
You go ahead along via Sant’Anselmo, the ancient Decumano Massimo; it must be remembered that at this point we are still outside of the city walls and crossing a district developed in the Middle Ages due to the attractive presence of the famous Ecclesiastical complex of Sant’Orso which is definitely worth a visit.
Built in an area used as a burial site since the High Middle Ages, over time become a place of pilgrimage because of the presence of the graves of local martyrs, but also the first bishops, the complex was probably developed around important family tombs close to the Paleochristian basilica of San Lorenzo (4th century AC). The latter still preserves its long history in the basement: it is therefore interesting to visit the archaeological site where the remains of the first cemetery basilica have been displayed and enhanced.
Striking is the Romanesque bell tower of Sant’Orso, which was born as a defensive tower belonging to the fortified wall which originally protected the village; to the east of the bell tower, the church of Saints Peter and Ursus stand, the late-gothic facade of which is distinguished due to the towering terracotta wimperg and top pinnacles. The inside of the church, characterized by a rich liturgical equipment, is particularly appreciated for the Romanesque crypt (beginning of the 11th century) below the beautiful wooden choir of the presbytery, where it is said that Saint Ursus or Sant’Orso was buried (who lived in 8th century AD). Also particularly valuable is the cycle of Ottonian frescoes of the loft (10th – 11th century), a visit to which is only allowed if accompanied by a custodian.
Another fascinating element is the mosaic portraying the so-called ‘Magic Square’: an elegant square mosaic rug dating back to the 11th-12th century and brought back to light from archaeological digs carried out in 1999. Next to the church there is the wonderful cloister: a real jewel of Romanesque architecture and art which with its 40 marble stained capitals draws crowds of students and visitors every year.
To the left of the churchyard, coming out of the cloister, it is impossible to miss the beautiful renaissance Priory with its refined and unusual mullioned windows carved from terracotta.
Returning then back onto via Sant’Anselmo, after a few steps, you then reach the beautiful Porta Praetoria, the most impressive of the four doors of the original Roman city, a real monumental, ideological and symbolic entrance of the Augusta Praetoria Salassorum colony. Known as the ‘Torre dei Signori di Porta Sant’Orso’ as, during the Middle Ages (11th 12th century) it was occupied by this noble and powerful local family who established their urban residence here.
After exiting Porta Praetoria, turn immediately to the right to reach the Roman theatre ; in this north-east part of the ancient city, corresponding to the so-called ‘entertainment district’ because of the impressive presence of the Theatre and the nearby Amphitheatre (the latter is today included in the Convent of St. Catherine, but it can still be visited with the permission of the Sisters of St. Joseph who reside there).
Leaving the theatre area on the western side, continue in the direction of piazza Giovanni XXIII, better known as ‘piazza della Cattedrale’ which, in Roman times, represented the sacred area of the city court, made up of a raised terrace occupied by two twin temples side by side and facing towards the south. The remains of part of the eastern temple can still be seen today.
If you want to explore the area with the remains of the Roman period, start with the unusual Criptoporticus, a singular and fascinating monument which few Roman cities of the Roman world can boast. Primarily made with a supportive function, this structured underground double nave corridor may have acted as a tunnel linked to the cult of the Emperor.
Right on the structures of the criptoporticus, the magnificent Cathedral dedicated to St Mary of the Assumption, is established and developed, the roots of which lie in the 4th century AD; subsequently in the 11th century, by the will of Bishop Anselmo, there were huge changes made to the model of the Ottonian style Nordic cathedrals. Therefore, between the 15th and 16th century a last series of works were done on the body of the building, giving the cathedral this definitive layout which it has then kept up until today. Finally, it should also be noted, during the 19th century, the construction of the new neoclassical facade which frames the previous renaissance facade in painted terracotta.
Once you have visited the Cathedral you can take via Forum and head towards piazza Roncas on the eastern side of which there is the current premises of the Regional Archaeological Museum), which is hosted inside a building which welcomed the first convent of the Visitation Sisters (16th – 17th century), and was then transformed into barracks at the beginning of the 19th century. It also should not be forgotten that this building stands on the remains of the old east tower Porta Principalis Sinistra of the wall of Augusta Praetoria, which can be visited in the underground part of the MAR. On the opposite side of the square, Palazzo Roncas emerges, erected in the early 17th century by Baron Pierre-Léonard Roncas, first secretary of state of the Duke of Savoy Charles Emmanuel I: one of the finest aristocratic residences of the baroque era existing in Aosta.
From piazza Roncas take via Croix de Ville until the crossroad of the two main thoroughfares of the centre; then take via E. Aubert to reach the Regional library, inaugurated in 1996 after complex archaeological surveys which revealed the structures belonging to the Porta Principalis Dextera of Roman Aosta.
Proceeding beyond the ‘piazza della Repubblica’, a clear example of fascist architecture, take Corso Battaglione; after a few tens of metres under the arcade on the right, you will notice an iron gate which gives access to the archaeological area called Funeral area outside Porta Decumana. Discovered in the Forties of the 20th century, this site has returned numerous tombs from the Roman age, paleochristian cellae memoriae and the remains of a small funerary basilica (which can be visited only the first Wednesday of every month, from 2om to 6pm.