THE MONUMENTAL COMPLEX
Almost intact from the moment of its construction, Fort Bard represents one of the best examples of early 1800 military strongholds.
The Fort Bard is formed of three main defence stations positioned at different levels upon a high imposing rock spur, the lowest at 400m above ground and the highest at 467m. The Ferdinando Opera is the defence structure at the bottom, the Vittorio Opera in the middle, and the Carlo Alberto Opera at the top. There are a total of 283 rooms in the entire fortress.
The Ferdinando Opera is a tenaille (pincer-shaped) structure and is formed of two buildings, the Inferior Ferdinando Opera and the Superior Ferdinando Opera. Located in the Ferdinando Opera, the Fortifications and Frontiers Museum proposes an engaging journey through the evolution of defensive techniques, siege systems and the frontier concept.
The Mortai Opera with the Polveriera next to it are found behind the Ferdinando Opera; these two buildings are used for educational workshops.
The Vittorio Opera hosts The Children’s Alps, a highly interactive museum entirely dedicated to the young. Through playful activities the children learn about mythology and take on the challenge of a virtual climb up Monte Bianco (Mont Blanc).
At the very top of the rock sits the most impressive of the defence stations, enclosed by a wall upon which all the buildings are sustained. Defending the south side is the Gola Opera with its internal courtyard, and overlooking the north is the Carlo Alberto Opera with its magnificent Piazza d’Armi, a great quadrangular courtyard surrounded by a wide arcade. The first floor of the Carlo Alberto Opera hosts the Museum of the Alps.
On the south side of the fortress there is an external footpath that leads you into the courtyard of the Gola Opera. There is also an internal footpath which with its hairpin bends supported by high mighty walls leads you up the north slope to the Carlo Alberto Opera.
The top of the fortified rock is easily accessible thanks to futuristic external glass lifts with stunning views, taking you from the medieval village of Bard at the foot of the fortress right up to the Carlo Alberto Opera.
THE REGENERATION PROJECT
Army property, the fortress fell into disuse in 1975 and was acquired by the Autonomous Region of Valle d’Aosta in 1990.
An interdisciplinary group of experts carried out a feasibility study for the restoration of the entire fortress compound and the revival of the medieval village of Bard.
The joint-stock company, Finbard, planned and managed the restoration works and the necessary modifications for functional use.
Financial contributions from the European Regional Development Fund and the State Rotational Fund, for the regeneration of areas in industrial decline, helped realize the project.
Thanks to the restoration of this magnificent fortress and the various territories connected to it, the entire fortress compound together with the village of Bard has now become the leading cultural centre of the Western Alps, offering innovative exhibition spaces and services dedicated to the spread of culture combined with high quality accommodation and hospitality facilities.
The museums have been designed in such a way as to integrate the traditional role of the museum as an exhibition space for objects of historical, scientific, artistic and cultural interest with that of an educational one. Hence the museum becomes a creative place of exploration, interpretation and communication; a “cultural theme park” that offers the visitor a deeply absorbing experience.
THE FORTRESS – IN NUMERICAL TERMS
– 14.467 square metres of area surface
– 3.600 square metres of exhibition space
– 2.036 square metres of internal courtyard space
– 9.000 square metres of roofing
– 283 rooms, 385 doors, 296 embrasures, 806 steps
– Over 500 strong skilled workforce involved in the reconstruction
– 112.705 metres of electric cable installed
– 153.737 cubic metres of earth removed
Many a traveller has passed through Bard. Most have been anonymous but others have firmly stood out, be it for their notoriousness and the mark they left behind or be it for the reminiscence of Bard preserved in their memoirs.
Without a doubt, Napoleon is the most well-known as he played an instrumental role in the fate of the Fort Bard. There also happened to be a person in the French leader’s entourage who was only seventeen at the time but who was later to become famous. His name was Henry Beyle better known under his pseudonym, Stendhal. Thirty-six years later in his autobiographical novel “La vie de Henry Brulard”, Stendhal remembers the adventurous days following the French leader and describes the battle, a sheer baptism of fire, that took place at the foot of the fortress: “…la cannonade de Bard faisait un tapage effrayant; c’était le sublime, un peu trop voisin pourtant du danger. L’ame, au lieu de jouir purement, était encore un peu occupé à se tenir… C’était pour la première fois que je trouvais cette sensation si renouvelée depuis: me trouver entre les colonnes d’une armée de Napoléon”.
(“…the bombardment of Bard created total pandemonium; it was sublime, a little too close for safety. Instead of feeling complete and utter joy the soul was still a little apprehensive, afraid of what was going to happen… I had never had this sensation before and I was to feel it again when I found myself lining up with Napoleon’s troops.”)
In 1831, with Italy in political turmoil, another illustrious person made his presence felt in the tiny village of Bard, Camillo Benso Conte di Cavour.
Aware of the long task ahead, in 1828 Carlo Felice of Savoy entrusted the military engineer Francesco Antonio Olivero with the responsibility of rebuilding the fortress, adopting modern standards to create an avanguard defence structure. In 1831 the task of supervising the construction works was given to Camillo Benso Conte di Cavour. Anyone else would have been greatly enthusiastic on being given this role but he instead saw it as a punishment, an imprisonment of the soul, which he himself later described as an “exile”.
Forced to be inactive in the army and feeling a total sense of isolation, the time spent at Bard was a period of deep reflection for the future statesman. Consequently he abandoned his military career for a political one.
There is an epigraph dedicated to him near Donnas where he used to go on his solitary walks:
CAMILLO BENSO DI CAVOUR
Tenente del Genio
Sognando la Patria una e libera
Trascorse ore calme e soavi.
A culto del Grande.
The first signs of human settlement in the gorge where Bard is situated was in the Eneolithical period (Bronze Age). The first traces of cultural evidence date back to the second millenium BC consisting of cup-shaped carvings and rupestrian inscriptions on raised rocks at the foot of the fortress used for auspicious rituals. These prehistoric remains recall a curious ancient ritual linked to female fertility known as the Scivolo delle Donne (a female rock-slide). The ritual consists of sliding down a sloping rock which over centuries of use becomes extremely polished.
The narrow passageway between the Dora Baltea and the sheer rock cliffs has always been an obligatory route into Valle d’Aosta. Dating back to the Roman period, the Gallic Consular Road, a greater part of which was cut into the rock, connected Eporedia (Ivrea) to the mountain passes of Alpis Graia (the Little Saint Bernard Pass) and the Alpis Poenina (the Great Saint Bernard Pass). Built in 25 BC after the Romans finally defeated the Salassi population, it was in use up till the nineteenth century. Impressive arcaeological ruins along the route are a reminder of the daringly constructed Roman masterpiece: immense support structures made from massive stone blocks, an aqueduct, the bridge over the Albard Torrent are just some examples.
FROM A MEDIEVAL CASTLE TO A SAVOY STRONGHOLD
Given its highly strategic position in the control of passageway, the imposing rock spur has been fortified since pre-Roman times. Documentary evidence, however, dates much later. Some historians have identified the Ostrogoth King Theodore as the first to install an armed garrison (clusurae Augustanae) in the sixth century.
The first written reference of a defence settlement dates back to 1034 and belonged to Viscount Aosta Boso whose discendants dominated Bard until the first half of the thirteenth century.
The castle then came under Savoy rule after being conquered by Amedeo IV in 1242. The antique structure of the castle can be seen in a drawing from the latter half of the sixteenth century: a group of buildings dominated by a donjon (square keep) and enclosed by a double boundary wall armed with guard towers; a whole system of bastions descended down the rocky spur to embrace the village of Bard.
In 1661 the duke Carlo Emanuele II dismantled the Verrés and Montjovet strongholds and transferred the whole artillery to Bard which became the principal defence base of the armed forces of the Savoy dukedom.
In the 17th and 18th century the defensive structures of the fortress were strengthened and developed.
SURRENDERING TO NAPOLEON
During the Spanish Wars of Succession the resistance by Vittorio Amedeo II’s army against the French troops was a memorable one for Bard. But the most famous military episode witnessed by the fortress was the seige of 1800. At dawn, on the fourteenth of May, Napoleon’s 40.000 strong Armée de réserve crossed the Alps through the Great Saint Bernard Pass taking the Austro-Piedmontese army occupying the Po Valley by surprise. The invading troops soon reached Bard but were halted by the Austrian garrison defending the fortress.
During a night attack on the twentyfirst of May the village of Bard surrendered to the French forces but the commander of the fortress, Captain Stockard von Bernkopf, did not give up the battle. The French General Marmont failed in his nightly plans to transport cannons up to the top of the fortified rock and after several unsuccessful attempts had no choice but to put the fortress under siege. Finally, on the first of June, after a whole day of bombardment, Captain von Bernkopf honorably accepted defeat.
Exasperated by the unexpected resistance, Napoleon razed the “vilain castel de Bard” (the villainous castle of Bard) to the ground.
In 1827, afraid of another French assault, Carlo Felice (King of Sardegna) initiated the reconstruction of the fortress. He entrusted the project to Francesco Antonio Olivero, an officer of the Military Corps of Engineers. The reconstruction works took eight years, from 1830 to 1838. The new stronghold was formed of three groups of buildings, placed at different levels. The Ferdinando Opera at the bottom, the Vittorio Opera in the middle and the Carlo Alberto Opera at the top. This system of autonomous structures, fortified with artillery casements, was able to guarantee a reciprocal defence strategy in case of an enemy attack.
The whole complex, with a total of 283 rooms, could accommodate up to 416 men (double that amount if the soldiers slept on a straw-laid floor). Approximately fifty cannons formed part of the weaponry and the storehouses could hold enough ammunition and food supplies to last three months.
At the end of the 1800’s the fortress started to go into decline. No longer used for important wartime events it was intially employed as a penal settlement and then as a depository for ammunition.