Sunday, October 19, 2014

On the Pont d'Aël and the Colossal Wreck of Time

It was 40◦ C in Aosta that afternoon.  I was afraid to do the computations, and I wasn’t yet aware that this would be the night I spent in a lawn chair on the balcony of the flat, hopeful for breezes and night air. 

After helping grade the examinations in what would be my last duty of the term, I took off up into the Alps with my colleagues and friends, Anna Anselmo and Rosie Crawford.  We were headed toward the bridge at Pont d'Aël, the largest and most formidable of the bridges in the region. 

 I was assured that at that height the temperatures would be more forgiving, and Rosie drove us smoothly over the narrow, winding roads, pointing out the occasional sites of stories that were what I would call “Italian Gothic”—tales of child-murder and isolation, strewn with public and private tragedy.  We stopped for a drink part of the way to the site, as Rosie parked the car with magnificent disregard for traffic laws and we headed to a little pub equipped with good beer, a friendly Corgi, an overlook of Alpine meadows, and a cool late afternoon that gave respite from the heat in the town.

We were hastened, not rushed.  Most Italians are not rushed.  But if we were to meet our colleagues for dinner at Taverna di Gargantua (which was, by the way, a remarkable little restaurant back on the outskirts of Aosta), we would have only a small space at Pont d'Aël.

It was to be an exalted space. 

We walked out over the bridge (which had served as an aqueduct in the first century of the Christian era).  It spanned the rapid current of the Torrente Grand Eyvia, a stream or creek full worthy of the name Torrente.  The Grand Eyvia rushed south under the bridge, its roar audible even from the great height of the  Pont d'Aël as it was lost in the narrowing tunnel of bluff and pine and bright deciduous green.  Again I thought of Shelley’s brush with the sublime at the foot of Mont Blanc, not an hour from where I stood:
                                Dizzy Ravine! and when I gaze on thee
I seem as in a trance sublime and strange
To muse on my own separate fantasy,
My own, my human mind, which passively
Now renders and receives fast influencings,
Holding an unremitting interchange
With the clear universe of things around;
One legion of wild thoughts, whose wandering wings
Now float above thy darkness…

It was Anna, more compassionate than I, who speculated as to how had many lost their lives in the building of this structure.  She was right, of course, but it was a thought lost to me in the huge sublime of history.

This bridge, like all Roman structures, was built as a show of imperium.  Of course it provided transport and water—I’m not denying that—but the idea of it all was more than pragmatic: it was a footprint, a sign or presence and dominance, and as I thought that, Anna’s observation resonated in melancholy and irony. The inscription on the bridge attributes its making to a Caius Avillius Caimus, who, along with Augustus himself, are the names commemorated on the structure, while hundreds, perhaps thousands, labored in anonymity on a span that is nearly lost now, the roads to it obscure and narrow and winding, the woods encroaching to claim it.  The Pont d'Aël, Rosie told us, is relatively unknown even by the neighboring school children, though efforts have been made to acquaint them with the history of the region. 

I thought of Shelley again, a line from another famous poem: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.  We took a selfie atop a 2000 year old effort at permanence, at the longevity of names and images.  I think we were aware of the ironies.  At least Rosie, who knew the valley the best, mugged amusingly as the day slid into evening for us all.  ©2014 Michael Williams

1 comment:

  1. I can't wait to see this when we go back to Aosta in the Spring of 2015. The architecture is so beautiful, the span alone is testimony to just what a triumph of engineering the Romans were capable of, and one can't help but contemplate the human stories behind its building -- wow!