Sunday, October 12, 2014

On the Roman Bridge in Aosta

Next to the other two bridges I consider in this triad of entries, the little Roman Bridge in Aosta is smaller, more sunlit, more wed to the business and architecture of the town that grew up around it.  Small enough to be considered charming, lined with 17th century shops and dwellings, it is domesticated unlike the bridges at Pont d’Aël or Pont St. Martin. 

And yet a message survives in its making, its orientation—difficult to translate at this late date, but still apparent if you simply follow your gaze west through the town.

The little bridge empties on its western side at a spot where you can look across a leisurely circle of road, neither compact nor businesslike enough to be called a roundabout.  The circle hedges in the great Augustan Arch of the town, and standing at the foot of the bridge, looking through the arch, you can catch a glimpse of further structures—the Praetorian Gates, and to the right of them, scarcely visible above the rooftops, the ruinous scaenae of the Roman theatre.  It is a rhetoric of arrivals, far smaller and less intimidating that the paths to the Fora in Rome, but a formidable approach nevertheless.

The terms under which you make the journey have changed in two millennia: time was when you were to be awed by Roman power, here at a far-flung outpost where the builders would no doubt have been insulted to hear their bridge described as “charming”.  Instead, they would have thought in terms of imperium, that quality, according to Cicero, sine quo res militaris administrari, teneri exercitus, bellum geri non potest (which, if my Latin is not far more ruinous than the bridge, translates to something close to “without which military matters cannot be governed, the army cannot be held together, and war cannot be waged”). These days imperium is masked by the layers of years, but a straight arrow shot by an archer more powerful than we could imagine could carry through two arches toward the far end of Aosta, where Mussolini’s wolves, symbols of two imperial visions layered atop each other, would mark the end of the line.

This is not an elegy about Time’s erosions.  Things have worn away, indeed, but what interests me is what is still there.  Imperium remains by implication.  You have to look for it in a latter day, removed from the time in which it towered in front of you in confrontation. Instead there is the loud daily life of the town, giving the impression of variety and scarcely guided chaos, as the souvenir shops clamor for your attention in the streets and you have to look and dig, intuit and guess, before you can see the direction of it all, the map that underlies generations of maps, the history that still shapes us as we travel unaware.  ©2014 Michael Williams

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