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Visit Fortress of Bard
The village of Bard is situated to the south-east of the Aosta Valley region of Italy. Although most visited for the Fortress, in an imposing position and with a history dating back to the 4th century, take the time to also explore the village of Bard, which is officially listed as one of the most beautiful in Italy.
In our guide to Bard Fortress and town below, we start with a brief introduction then continue with a quite detailed account of the founding and history of the fort, which we hope will add to the pleasure of your visit!
The Fortress of Bard, located at the entrance to the region of the Valle d'Aosta, has a long and glorious history. It is situated in a strategic setting which originally served as a control point of the Alpine routes leading from France to Italy. The military reinforcement of these Alpine crossings or "chiuse" [from 'locks' = 'fortifications used to block roads'] began in the early 4th century AD and continued for many centuries after that.
The fortress we see today is a perfect example of military architecture of the 19th century with a powerful artillery (guns, mortars, howitzers and cannons) housed in bunkers placed on different levels. It could accommodate about 400 soldiers and had stocks to resist a siege of three months. The fortress was never the scene of clashes and as a result it is virtually intact.
From the end of the 19th century the fort gradually lost its military importance and was assigned first to be a military prison and then as a munitions depot. The fort, which has become the heritage of the Region Valle d'Aosta, was the subject of a renovation and enhancement programme and has been open to the public for only a few years.
The fort houses the Museum of the Alps that is a prestigious cultural center, with realistic multimedia simulations and audiovisual presentations of many faces of the small town: from winter sports to the flora, fauna, languages, and traditions of the place.
The town of Bard developed in the Middle Ages, along the old Roman road of which there are still some structures. In past times, the town was fortified and enclosed by two gates, and the local church, as we can see from its Romanesque bell tower, dates back to the Medieval Ages - although it was rebuilt in the second half of the 19th century.
Bard boasts several prestigious buildings and palaces of the fifteenth and sixteenth century that overlook the town's main street, some of them embellished with frescoes and decorations outside and inside.
The town has the elongated structure typical of medieval crossing places. Direct access to the town is provided by a road paved with cobblestones.
In winter, along its narrow ways, visitors can enjoy the local and typical Christmas market, while in summer the castle hosts cultural events and exhibitions of considerable interest and international prestige.
Early origins of the Fortress of Bard
The name of the fortifications of Bard goes back a long way. For example, according to the studies of E. Mollo, an iconographic document known as "Notitia Dignitatum" (fifth century AD) showed a town that some scholars have identified with the lock of Bard in Val D'Aosta. And again, in the "Honorantiae Civitatis Papiae" (in the 10th century AD) the lock of Bard was considered the second most important military fortress after Susa:
“Prima est [first is] Secusia (Susa in the Susa valley), secunda [second] Bard (Bard in the Aosta Valley), tertia [thirty] Belinzona (Bellinzona in the canton of Ticino), quarta [Forthy] Clavenna (Chiavenna), quinta [fifty] Balzano (probably Klausen or Sigmundskron, near Bolzano)” (1).
The strategic importance of these fortifications was also proved by Cassiodorus (485-585 AD) [“Variae“, II, 5] according to whom, at the beginning of the 6th century AD, 60 men were sufficient to defend the "Clausuræ Augustanæ", i.e. the lock leading from Aosta [Latin Augusta Praetoria] to the Great Saint Bernard Pass, probably to be identified with Bard, where at the end of the 9th century we also find mentioned some impregnable fortifications in the "Annales Fuldenses."
Returning from Rome to Germany after his coronation as King of Italy, Arnulphus (800-899 AD) attempted to cross the Alps, but was blocked by Count Ansgero, who assembled his troops in a “lapideo castello” [stone castle]:
“the king, exhausted for the excessive length of the voyage, coming up with the Army at Piacenza, headed at Easter to the castle of Eboregia, where, however, he found the road blocked by Count Ansgero, barricaded within a mighty stone castle] (2)
The Roman administration had already established some customs in this area. P. Duparc stressed that:
"The Village of Garema, close to Bard, and the first Italian village, still retains the name of an important stage with a customs: at the beginning of the Roman Empire a customs station was located there, under the control of the ‘Quadragesima Galliarum’ ” [Roman Legion] (3).
Alpine passes and changing weather
In Roman times, the crossing of the Alps was much easier because the winters were milder. During the five centuries of the Roman Empire the Valle d'Aosta was one of the busiest trading routes of the Roman Empire. The climate in those days was quite warm but around the 5th century AD the climate changed, becoming colder. In higher mountain passes the snow season was gradually longer, and some of them were covered by persistent ice.
The transalpine trading relationships became increasingly precarious and they were possible only during the summer months. The Alps constituted an insuperable barrier and peaceful trade was impossible. This situation lasted for about 300 years but later the climate entered a new warmer phase and trading operations across the Alps did not pose great difficulties.
Many villages were important and strategic points to ensure the safety of the roads and commercial viability, with taverns, stalls, blacksmiths, and anything else needed to travellers. In the Middle Ages these villages also became the headquarters of many feudal lords who built turreted fortresses with a primary function of monitoring international trade.
Travellers were forced to pay imposts that covered the costs of these services such as at Bard. Commodity taxes were seen as the major source of revenue for the local feudal Lords (4).
When was the castle named Bard first built?
Scholars do not provide reliable data about this but they agree that the castle was built by an overlord named Bard, presumably during the period of the kings of Burgundy. In fact, there would seem to be some historical and linguistic data that could help us in establishing the historical reality of the castle of Bard.
Meanwhile, we must give thanks to G. O. Seilhamer, a scholar of the early 20th century who wrote an important book on the family of the Bard. He made some remarkable considerations worthy of note that, compared with the historical data that have emerged in recent years, give us a very realistic picture of the Lords of the Castle of Bard:
“The village of Bard is a long borough at the foot of Rock Bard. The river Dora Baltea flows on the south side of the valley across the commune surrounding the fortress on the north side. A stone bridge spans the stream at the end of the village leading to the communes of Hone, Pont Bozet and Champocher [...]
[...]One says that the “Signori di Bard” originated from the very ancient family of Lorraine. This descent is attributed to the sameness of name and the resemblance of the coats of arms of the two families. Nevertheless the name is not identical, for the Lords of Lorraine called themselves Bar. From this name came Barriod and Bazeros. The place today is called Bar-le-Duc a city of France, in the Department of the Moise. [...]
[...] Even if the identity of the name was established it would not prove much, since a family of Bard existed and may still exist in Alvenia, which it is positively asserted is in no way connected with the Bards of the Val d'Aosta.”
Links between Bard fortress and the Burgundy lords
After he cleared up many possible misconceptions he continued with more details on the Bard family, noting that:
“In the heart of the ancient duchy of Bourgogne there is a small town not far from Dijon called 'Montbard,' that was the native place of Buffon. This town boasts of a castle with a title attached to it. The coat of arms of the counts of Montbard was 'On asure two barbi (fish) of gold.' This is identical with that of the 'Signori di Bard' of the Val d'Aosta, except for the scattered stars on the azure ground. Practically the names of the two places, 'Bard' and 'Montbard,' are the same. The syllable, 'mont,' placed before the real name means little.
In the gently undulating country of Bourgogne, a mountain would naturally have greater importance in the estimation of an exile from the Val d'Aosta and his descendants than among the declivities on which towered the Rock Bard. It is not difficult to conceive, under the changed conditions, that the added syllable to the name and the suppressed figure that belonged to the coat of arms of the ancient house are to be traced, both in addition and suppression, to the hand of Ugone di Bard himself.” (5).
The most recent studies (and the older studies) have amply demonstrated that the Castle of Bard was built during the reign of the kings of Burgundy when they began a penetration into Italy, and moreover, the same House of Savoy would be from Burgundy (6).
A. Barbero stresses that the recent historiography agrees that the town of Bard belonged, after the division of the Carolingian Empire, to the kingdom of Burgundy, and that even before the death of Rudolph III in 1032 and the subsequent annexation of the kingdom to the empire, the town constituted a feud controlled by Count Umberto, progenitor of the counts of Savoy:
“The thesis discussed at length, according to which the Lord of the ‘comitatus’ [=County] was previously the Bishop of Aosta, today does not have any historical beliefs as the only document on which it was based has been recognized as a falsification, that is, the act of 923 of Anselmo "Augustensis ecclesie episcopus et comes" [the Count - Bishop of the Church of Aosta]. In no other document has the bishop of Aosta ever been called by such a title, nor is there any trace of a donation to the bishop regarding the ‘comitatus’ by the last king of Burgundy. " (7)
Building and ruling over the castle at Bard
The builder of the castle was presumably a vassal of the king Gontran of Burgundy, who conquered the Valle d'Aosta in 575 AD [P. Duparc]. Having established that the Bard family came from Burgundy and that etymologically their name indicated the "Fish" and that their rule began in the middle of the 6th century AD we can observe other things about the castle of Bard.
Apparently the Bard family, over the centuries, ruled the castle and the estate on behalf of Duke Umberto II of Savoy, according to the method of so-called “advocacy”, and as "advocates" they were mentioned in a document dating back to 1158, which mentioned the name of Guillaume de Bard.
An “advocate” of the "Ecclesia S. Iohannis et S. Ursi " [the church of St. John and St. Urso] reappears in the sources in 1158, when the office was occupied by Guillaume, Lord of Bard, probably descendant of "Aimone et Ugone" that sixty years before, around 1099, occupied the ‘advocacy’ under the Duke Umberto II of Savoy.
In a document dating back to 1099, the Bishop Basone made a donation to the monks of St. Victor in Geneva, approved by the canons of the cathedral of Aosta, and among the "Advocatis eius loci” [advocates of the place] appeared the names of “Uberto Comite, Aimone et Ugone " (8). Moreover, W. Previte-Orton, in his important study on the Savoy House, stressed that Everard de Bard, along with other nobles, was part of the circle of "personal friends" of Umberto II (9).
Bard after the downfall of the Bard family
After years of domination, the struggles within the family led to the decay of the Bard family, who gave up peacefully their domains, for a fee, to Count Amedeo IV of Savoy. The Savoy thus became the new masters of Bard castle.
Contrary to what happened to almost all other castles of direct rule, the fortress of Bard was never given as a fief to any noble family, but always belonged to the king, which attests to the persistence of its strategic importance for the defense of the Valle d'Aosta.
Important moments in the history of Bard fortress
The fortress of Bard had three moments of 'celebrity':
- The first occurred during the War of Spanish Succession, which led to the occupation of the Valle d'Aosta by the troops of the king of France. Bard was stormed on 8 October 1703.
- The second episode was the siege by Napoleon Bonaparte who, after a long siege with the loss of more than 1,500 French soldiers, subjugated the fortress in May 1800 and then destroyed it.
- In 1827, the King of Sardinia, Carlo Alberto decided to rebuild the castle. The work of reconstruction was directed by Francesco Antonio Olivero between 1830 and 1838. The new fortress could accommodate a permanently stable garrison of about 400 men, that could reach more than 800 in case of need. At the beginning of the 20th century the fortress was reduced to military penitentiary, and during the First World War became an armaments factory, and then an ammunition depot (10).
Further reading : works cited
1) E. Mollo, “ le 'Chiuse' Alpine tra realtà e mito”, in “I Longobardi e le Alpi. Atti della giornata di studio ‘Clusae Longobardorum’, i Longobardi e le Alpi”, Chiusa di San Michele, 6 marzo 2004, “La biblioteca di Segusium”, Borgone di Susa (TO), n. 4, p. 51.
2) See “Annales Fuldenses”, edited by F. Kurze, Hanovre, 1891, p. 124, and also P. Massia, “Del luogo dove si pagò la dogana romana in Valle d'Aosta”, in “Bollettino storico-bibliografico subalpino”, Torino, 1923, t. XXV, pp. 262-278.
3) P. Duparc, “Les cluses et la frontier des Alpes”, in “Bibliothèque de l'école des chartes”, 1951, pp. 5-31.
4) A. V. Cerruti, “La frequentazione commerciale dei valichi alpini valdostani ...”, in “La montagna attraversata...” , Atti del Convegno di Bard, 2006, pp. 69-70.
5) G. O. Seilhamer, “The Bard Family”, Chambersburg, 1908, pp.
6) M.G. De Montayer,"Les origins de la Maison de Savoie en Bourgogne", Rome, 1899.
7) A. Barbero, “Conte e vescovo in Valle d’Aosta (secoli XI-XIII)”, in “Bollettino storico-bibliografico subalpino”, 1988, n. 1, pp. 39-75.
8) On this document of 1099, See L. Bollea, “Le prime relazioni della Casa di Savoia e Ginevra (926-1211)” ,Torino, Clausen, 1901, p. 59: “... Laudante canonicis advocatis et ejusdem loci Uberto Comite, et Aimone et Ugone” .
9) W. Previte-Orton, "The Early History of the House of Savoy", Cambridge at the University Press, 1912, p. 85, footnote 5, and pp. 270-271.
10) J. C. Rivolin, “Una fortezza di frontiera: I mille e più anni della rocca di Bard”. In “La montagna attraversata …”, pp. 105-110.
You can find more local travel ideas in the Aosta valley guide.