Aosta: around the Roman wall and medieval towers
How: by foot.
Recommended duration: half day.
Recommended period: all year round.
Length: about 3 km.
A ‘journey’ into the heart of Aosta along the perimeter of the Roman walls to discover the towers and exciting pages of history.
In Roman times the city walls of Augusta Praetoria formed a 724 m x 572 m rectangle, reached a height equal to about 7 m and consisted of an inner filling of pebbles and mortar and an external coating of travertine blocks.
There were two towers for every gate, four corners, plus another eight: twenty in total. Because of their number, the pronounced protrusions on the outside and their prominence given to them by a double row of arched windows positioned on all four sides, it is likely that their function was decorative as well as defensive: the walls enclosing the urban area had to be monumentally impressive.
During the centuries following the fall of the Roman Empire, Aosta experienced a period of neglect and strong decline; during the Middle Ages, the inhabitants started to return, houses were built along the main roads and nobilities constructed their strongholds and castles leaning against the ancient walls. Many bastions were adapted as feudal residences and some towers were raised and transformed using materials removed from the outside face of the walls.
Today, a large part of Roman wall perimeter can still be visited on foot, enjoying the various towers and their remains.
The route starts at the Praetorian Gate, the most impressive of the four gates of the original Roman city, a true monumental, ideological and symbolic entrance of the Augusta Praetoria Salassorum colony. The Preatorian Gate consists of two parallel walls, each with three arches; the space between them originally represented a large arms court yard (cavaedium). The passage under the large central opening was accessible to vehicles whilst the side arches were reserved for pedestrians. The west face exterior part of the wall is made from large pudding stone blocks (a natural conglomerate of fluvial sedimentary origin), but originally it was probably cladded with travertine stone. On the current external eastern face of the Gate, monumentalised in the first half of the 1st century AD, sometime after its construction, you can still see the remains of the cladding in bardiglio of Aymavilles (local blue-grey marble) and white marble which probably came from quarries in Carrara.
The massive size of the old building which is still well preserved, can still be discerned taking into account that the ground surface of the Roman city was 2 metres lower than the modern ground surface.
Leaving the Porta Praetoria, we continue along Via Sant’Anselmo and, after a couple of metres, turn left onto Via Hôtel des Monnaies (Via Antica Zecca), along which we meet the Tour Fromage. Probably raised between the 11th and 12th century, the tower was extended and restored in 1381.
Located in the archaeological area of the Roman Theatre and flanked by medieval buildings, the tower owes its name to the De Casei noble family (then Gallicised to Fromage) who occupied it in the Middle Ages. It has a square and not very high layout, rests on the city walls on one side and on the retaining wall of the Roman walls embankment on the other side, and still retains its primitive appearance.
Not far away, on Via Guido Rey, the Torre dei Balivi or ‘Tour du Baillage’ stands, situated on the north-eastern corner of the Roman city walls. This tower was also built in the Middle Ages on the structures of the pre-existing Roman north east tower and was occupied by the De Palatio noble family, who se name comes from ‘Palatium rotundum’, meaning the Roman amphitheatre, the remains of which fell within the property.
From 1430, the complex was intended as a residence of the ‘Balivi’, the city officials, as well as a prison: this use was maintained until 1984.
Taking Via Guido Rey to the west, you will arrive at the crossroads with Via Xavier de Maistre where you can see the remains of one of the north wall towers, known by its medieval name ‘Tour Perthuis’. We then take Via Chanoux and continue onto Via San Giocondo (two historical lanes that, since the Middle Ages, have indicated the extension of the urban ecclesiastical quarter), gradually losing sight of the city walls, and arrive in Piazza Roncas where stands the building once occupied by the Convent of the Visitation and then from the Challant Barracks. This building now hosts the MAR – “Regional Archaeological Museum”:/en/database/8/museums/aosta/regional-archaeological-museum/723); in the basement, the mighty remains of the city gate Porta Principalis Sinistra, i.e. the north gate of the Roman city, can be seen.
With our back facing the Museum, we head onto Via Tourneuve in the direction of the western section of the city walls, the view of which we can appreciate again; in correspondence to the terminal corner, the Tourneuve is found (mid-13th century), which is located at the crossroads between the street of the same name and Via Monte Solarolo.
Once in ‘Piazza della Repubblica’, take a left onto the pedestrian Via Edouard Aubert, to then turn right almost immediately and join the road of the Leper’s Tower, after having skirted past the Regional Library, which is located on top of the remains of the Decuman Gate, also visible in the basement of the Library. An old Roman bastion, the Tower was transformed into a feudal residence by the Friour nobilities, reports of whom can be traced back until 1191; in 1773 it hosted the Pietro Bernardo Guasco, a leper from Oneglia whose stay in the Tower was made famous by the pages of the novel ‘Le lépreux de la cité d’Aoste’, written in 1881 by the Savoy nobleman Xavier de Maistre.
Finally, crossing Via Stévenin, we meet the Bramafam Tower, which is located on the corner of Via Bramafam and Viale Giosuè Carducci, along the southern side of the Roman wall. The monument shows a circular rampart, at the base of which the remains of the western tower and part of the eastern tower are still visible, which originally bordered the city gate Porta Principalis Dextera, on which the castle was built around the 12th or 13th century.
Officially called the Bramafam Castle, but commonly known as the ‘Tower’, the manor was also owned by the Challant nobilities, already viscounts of Aosta, who, during the 13th century, become the most important aristocratic family of the Aosta Valley; the Castle then passed into the hands of the Savoy and, after various vicissitudes, was completed abandoned in the 16th century.
To explain the origin of the name of this tower, which is still unknown, a legend has it that a member of the Challant family, due to jealousy, locked up his wife, who died there, moaning and complaining from the suffering caused by starvation (brama fam – literally translated as yearning hunger). Others, however, attribute this name to the fact that, for a certain period, the complex housed the public granary, which prompted the population of Aosta, following a severe famine, to gather at the foot of the castle begging for food. Another version is that the tower wanted to be called Porta Biatrix from the name of Beatrice of Geneva, wife of Godefroi de Challant; however there is no historical evidence which is reliable to back this theory.
Leaving the play area on Via Festaz known as the ‘Giardino dei ragazzi’ (‘the kid’s garden’) through which you can get closer to the north side of the Bramafam castle, take the nearby Via A. Crétier proceeding east towards the train station where, once there, you can admire the mass structure of the Tour du Pailleron: the only city tower, together with the Leper’s Tower, to have maintained its Roman appearance almost unchanged, despite significant restoration works in the late nineteenth century, recognisable from the use of large bricks.
Proceeding then on Via Cerlogne and continuing to follow the internal city walls, at the cross road between Via Festaz and Via Torino you will see the remains of the ‘Torre Plouve’, one of the front towers of the east façade of the walls of Augusta Praetoria which, during the Middle Ages, was occupied by the noble De Plovia family. From here, take Via Vévey, which runs parallel to the ancient walls, and thus return to the Praetorian Gate.