Giuseppe Zoppelli

The origins of poetry in Valle d'Aosta go back to the fifteenth century, to the 1402 quatrain in French by Boniface de Challant (1326-1426), written on a wall of Fenis castle (unfortunately lost today).

There is other evidence in this regard, such as the verses of the troubadour Thibaut de Champagne (who died in 1253 and might have been only passing through the region), written on a wall of Quart castle. Or the proverbs, taken for the most part from the anonymous collection Diz et Proverbes des Saiges (1260), also from the end of the fourteenth or the beginning of the fifteenth century, frescoed in the gallery of the Sages of Fenis castle and commissioned by Boniface de Challant himself. In reality, these early documents are characterized by their fragmentation, dispersion, and rarity, so that not only it is impossible to write a history of the literature of the origins but, being an atypical regional case in the Italian literary landscape, Valle d'Aosta lacks a poetic tradition, and a possible history of poetry must per force begin in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Later works, also in French, are not enough to found it, such as the Genealogie des Seigneurs de Challant, maybe by Boniface himself, a poem of 400 verses that praises and celebrates the noble family; or the ecclesiastical songs popular since the fifteenth century, all the way down to the collections of poetry in the nineteenth century published during the episcopal consecrations in Aosta, without any artistic value. Whether we take 1820 (A. Christillin) or 1840 (L. Collard) as the starting point for a history of poetry in Valle, not only in French, the lack of a poetic tradition is in any case certain.

After 1820 the provincial society of Aosta showed a certain openness (the Valley, a region enclosed by tall mountains, in its long history went through long periods of isolation), where the French language dominated unopposed and the movement for its abolition as the official language had not yet begun. This was due on the one hand to renewed contacts with French culture, beginning with the relationships with families from the other side of the Alps who had taken refuge in Valle after the revolution, and with Italian culture; and on the other hand to local economic and social changes, to the birth of small industries and the first factories, of the Comice agricole in 1840, and to the growth of the middle class in Valle d'Aosta. This is the context in which a literary group was formed in Aosta in the first decades of the nineteenth century, socially homogenous but poetically heterogenous, around the Feuille d'Annonces d'Aoste, the region's first paper, founded in 1841. Thus a first coterie of poets was born, hagiographically defined la petite Pléiade valdôtaine: the brothers Alcide (1802-1859) and Fernand (1804-49) Bochet, Augustin Vagneur (1796-1844), Joseph Alby (1814-80), Eugène Pignet, Félix Orsières (1803-70), and Léon-Clément Gérard (1810-76). Their work ranges from romantic and Lamartinian influences, present especially in Alby, to the model of French eighteenth-century and pastoral poets, particularly of the abbot Delille, in Gérard, unaffected by the dominant romanticism.

The real novelty in the middle of the century, however, is represented by the birth of a literature in a Val d'Aosta patois (a French-Provençal language, as first defined by G.I. Ascoli) at the hands of Jean-Baptiste Cerlogne (1826-1910), harbinger of further and unforeseeable developments, to the extent that from then on it would be poetry in dialect that offered the best artistic results in Valle. The first poem in patois by the Val d'Aosta félibre was "L'infan predeggo" of 1855, that also marked the epochal and anthropological passage from a language that had always been oral to a written language. There were only sporadic written traces of the Val d'Aosta patois before then.

The first prose writing consists of the six different anonymous versions, in as many varieties of Val d'Aosta patois, of the Parabola del figliuol prodigo collected by the dialectologist Bernardino Biondelli in 1841 but published only in 1913 by Carlo Salvioni (and therefore unknown to Cerlogne himself and to subsequent local scholars). It was in any case Cerlogne, in his splendid isolation, who founded the written patois, prose and poetry in dialect, who gave it a written form, a grammar, a dictionary, and who outlined the first historical and linguistic profile.

In the second half of the nineteenth century Valle d'Aosta, particularly after the Unification of Italy, was struck by a serious economic and demographic crisis: moreover, the appalling condition of the routes of communication had not changed, nor had the lack of passable roads and particularly of railroad lines, so that the advantages derived from national unification had not been felt in Valle. It was this disastrous economic condition that prompted the local intelligencija to react by creating, on the intellectual level, a culture of autonomy and regional feelings. At first it was a reaction to the attempt on the part of the State to abrogate the right of a French-speaking minority to use and teach its own language; then, with increasing awareness, the building of a strong sense of regional cultural identity on three basic elements: the history, the language, and the traits of the mountain people..

Cerlogne contributed to the establishment of regional values and the modern cultural identity of the Valle with his literary work in French-Provençal. For the cultural elite, however, the other regional language was in primis French, a language commonly spoken at court and in the public life of the Kingdom of Sardinia until Unification, in Valle a language of high culture and literature, of the middle class and the clergy, of the bureaucracy and offices. Anyone wishing to speak of poetry in Valle d'Aosta, particularly if in patois, cannot ignore the linguistic reality of the region, by virtue of the strong cultural and political implications that the various idioms that coexist there have come to signify: French, patois (or rather patois in the plural), Italian, Piedmontese (to which we can add the German of the Waldensian minority of Gressonay and Valle del Lys). In short, it is necessary to deal with what we could define, for Valle d'Aosta, as the question of language.

In this sense, as late as 1980 the patois was considered, in Valle d'Aosta's cultural debate, on the one hand as the idiom of idiots, and on the other as the foundation of regional identity along with French, but subordinate to the latter. In Valle, French was and still is considered the langue maternelle, and it was Cerlogne, a man of the people, who defined his patois la lenga de ma mére (my mother's tongue). The culture of regional identity, born in the second half of the nineteenth century, is no doubt founded on language, but paradoxically on French and not on the patois: someone from Valle d'Aosta speaks French, among other things, and his literature is French literature. The same Valle d'Aosta elites did not have great consideration for the patois, "imperfect expression of a primitive mentality" (T. Omezzoli), and at most they used it to buttress French (the clergy, for example, played it against Piedmontese), or were openly hostile to it (supporting the patois could harm French indirectly by favoring Italian and Piedmontese). And even those from the middle class or the clergy, like the clergyman Bernard, who showed some interest in the patois, looked at it as a literary object or, as Cerlogne notes, "comme une chose toute nouvelle," and in any case those few would never undertake collective initiatives for its preservation, as was the case with French. All in all, both the middle class and the clergy mistrusted the language of the people. Bérard and Trevès only alluded to the French contained in nuce in the patois, but only to note that it would be a catastrophe if Valle d'Aosta Frenchness were reduced to that" (T. Omezzoli). Bérard, when he encouraged Cerlogne to write poems in dialect, tried to influence the spelling by Frenchifying it.

Cerlogne never claimed any linguistic primacy for his Valle d'Aosta patois, but overturned the terms of the question, noting in an article: "Quand s'en ira le patois, le français le suivra de près." In the socio-cultural and linguistic context of Valle d'Aosta, only someone like Cerlogne, a man steeped in oral, material, popular culture, forcibly acculturated, alien to literary culture, to official and French culture in Valle d'Aosta, would be able to write poetry in patois and elevate dialect to literary language.

Cerlogne's linguistic and poetic lesson, irreplaceable and tireless, which took place in the most complete isolation and indifference on the part of official culture, remained unheeded and unique throughout the whole second half of the nineteenth century. The first important achievements took place only at the beginning of the next century, in poetry with Marius Thomasset (Mes premier essais - Proses et poésies en dialecte valdôtain, 1910, and Pages volantes - Poésies et proses en dialect valdôtain, 1911), and in prose with abbot Henry (1870-1947), both of whom employed Cerlogne's spelling; and above all, but with a "esprit laîque," Désiré Lucat with Le soldà e le fen (Poésies en patois valdôtain, 1915. These are works that have the merit, on the one hand, to accept Cerlogne's legacy, and on the other to found patois literature on more solid grounds, if with persistent linguistic and spelling problems due to the extreme variety of local patois, and to finally give impetus to its possible development, as well as promote social and cultural interest.

In 1955, in fact, for the first time in the dialect literary history of the Valle, six patoisants poets (A. Ronc-Desaynonet, E. Martinet, C. Binel, M. Thomasset, A. Berthod, R. Willien) met in the Ducal Hall of Aosta's Hôtel de Ville and read their poetry in public. This was the first step. In October 1955 the patoisants of Valle d'Aosta met for the first time with those of Western Switzerland; in spring 1963 there was the first patois contest Abbé Cerlogne reserved for teachers and pupils of the elementary schools of the region, and publication by the Council on Public Education of the first volume, edited by Willien, of Noutro Dzen Patoué, a dialect anthology of Valle d'Aosta (they would be eight in all, the last two being dedicatd to Cerlogne's opera omnia); and in spring 1964 came the second Abbé Cerlogne patois contest with the participation of Piedmontese schools and those from the French-Provençal and Provençal area.

If these are the significant landmarks of the cultural renaissance, which involved poetry in dialect as well, it must be remembered that already before July 1955, when patois finally became a collective cultural event, there had been indications such as the appearance in 1948 of two local reviews that for the first time devoted a few pages to contemporary dialect poetry: La Grolla (edited by Willien) and Esprit Nomade (edited by Italo Cassard), as in the following years would do Le Flambeau (1949), a quarterly Francophone journal of the Comité des Traditions Valdôtaines. The first two monthly reviews were founded in June, concluding their brief but intense experience with n.8 of Sept. 1948. To La Grolla (A Valle d'Aosta symbol of friendship and communion) contributed poets and writers from Valle d'Aosta and from outside: André Ferré, Eugenia Martinet, Marius Thomasset, Anäis Ronc-Desaymonet, Giovanni Calchera, Martin Victor, Sergio Solmi.

A century after Cerlogne's first poem in patois, the time has come to recognize the specific character and autonomy of the poetry in French-Provençal of Valle d'Aosta. From the first significant observations of critics nationwide (Pasolini, Bàrberi Squarotti and others), it has been considered, still today, Piedmontese dialect poetry, and confused with it. Perhaps it is time to recognize that it has its own tradition, however young, starting with the founding father Cerlogne, continuing with Eugenia Martinet (1896-1983) and Marco Gal (1940); and without taking into account minor poets, as befits any poetic tradition, who constitute a veritable poetic matriarchy : Marius Thomasset (1876-1959), Désiré Lucat (1853-1930), Anaîs Ronc-Desaymonet (1890-1955) with her Poésie campagnard de Tanta Neïsse (1951), Césarine Binel (1897-1956) with the posthumous Poésies Patoises (1967), Armandine Jérusel (1904-1991) with Rouse batarde (1964), Mondo blan (1976), L'Ouva et lo ven (1983), Poussa de solei (1991), René Willien (1916-1979), tireless promoter and organizer of activities in favor of the patois (besides the Teatro Popolare and Noutro Dzen Patoué, we must at least remember the foundation of the Cerlogne Museum in 1963 and the Centre d'Etudes Francoprovençales in 1967). This specific character lies first of all in the language used (distinct from the Piedmontese and the Languedocian of some subalpine valleys), French-Provençal, which is a regional idiom and an original oral language.

Today it is even possible to advance a first interpretation, a first historiographic perspective, albeit temporary, unthinkable a few years ago and arguably still in fieri, of the poetry in the Valle d'Aosta patois, at this point of its now mature existence; and this means tracing a precise line and genealogy. Formulas and interpretive categories, however rigid and reductive, still have a heuristic and paradigmatic value, so that we could simplify as follows: Cerlogne's is popular dialect poetry, Martinet's is poetry in dialect, Marco Gal's is neodialect poetry. The three phases correspond more or less to three different literary periods, respectively in the second half of the nineteenth century, the first half and the second half of the twentieth, in addition to different poetics and conceptions of poetry, three different uses of poetic language and patois, three different forms of poetry and different themes, which I'll try to specify in the critical introduction to the three authors in the anthology. If anything, it is regretful that in Valle there is a dialect author of quality every half century (but as a partial consolation we could remember that for Ungaretti, according to a poem by Sereni, it takes a century or almost to make a poet).

Anthologies and Dictionaries

J. Bréan, Anthologie Littéraire Valdôtaine, Aoste: Imprimerie Vald.Citaine, 1948.

Poésies en patois valdôtaín. Poésies et fragments d'auteurs anciens et modernes, Aoste: Imprimerie, Valdótaine, 1950.

A. Chenal and R. Vautherin, Nouveau dictionnaire de patois valdôtain, Aosta : Impr. Marguerettaz, [1968?-1982]

Regional Studies

A. Perret, "Poésies dans la Vallée d'Aoste", in Díscours et oeuvres poétiques, Aoste: Imprimerie Catholique, 1908.

J.B. Cerlogne, Le patois valdótain. Son orígine líttéraire et sa graphie, Aoste: Imprimerie Catholique, 1909.

F. Neri, "La cultura letteraria valdostana,", in Rivísta d'Italia., vol. II, Feb. 1928.

G. Calchera, "Panorama della poesía valdostana,", in Ij Brandé, a. II, n. 11, Feb. 15, 1947.

La Grolla, petíts cahiers valdotaíns, Publication mensuelle de culture valdótaine, Aosta, n.i 1-8, 1947-48 (from n. 5-6 merging with Esprit Nomade).

Esprit Nomade, Publication mensuelle, Aoste, n.i 1-4., 1948.

Le Flambeau, Revue du Comité des Traditions Valdôtaines (CTV), Aoste, 1949. From n.2, summer 1975, with the title Lo Flambò-Le Flambeau.

J. Bréan, Anthologie Littéraire Valdôtaine, Aoste: Imprimerie Vald.Citaine, 1948.

J. Brocherel, Le patoís et la langue francaise en Vallée d'Aoste, Neuchátel: Editions Victor Attinger, 1952.

A. Christillin, Panorama des poètes du Val d'Aoste, Aoste: Librairie Brivio, 1953.

L. Colliard, la Culture Valdôtaine au cours des siècles, Aoste: Imprimerie I.T.L.A., 1976.

G. Zoppelli-M. Consolati, editors, La poesia in Valle d'Aosta, Forlì: Forum/Quinta Generazione, 1987.

D. Chavy-Cooper, "Voices from the Alps - Literature in Val d'Aoste Today," in World Literature Today, University of Oklahoma, winter 1987.

R. Gorris, editor, La littérature valdôtaine au fil de l'histoire, Aoste: Imprimerie Valdôtaine, 1993.