Anthropized landscape

The Walser colonization

The Walser colonization south of the Alps, which began at the end of the twelfth century, was not the spontaneous movement of a population in search of new lands to cultivate and new spaces in which to expand their commercial affairs. Rather, it was the will of the feudal lords of the time that determined the gradual migration of the Walser. Rich in territories on both sides of the Alpine watershed, the lords harbored a desire to bring their poorly exploited lands into cultivation, in order to obtain the maximum yield of natural resources, expand their politicaleconomic dominance and compete with the other feudal lordships. This is how they favored the settlement of people from the Swiss Upper Valais, assigning each of them a suitable portion of land to ensure their survival.

The colonization process resulted in a new pattern of settlement equipped with all those features that are typical of settlements: adequate accessibility, dwellings, factories (such as mills and forges), chapels, fields, terraces, hay meadows, pastures and alpages.

To this day, in some communities, the signs of that colonization are perfectly legible. Being aware of them and knowing how to identify them allows us to make plans for, protect and appreciate lands that are one of a kind.

The layout of the settlements

In most of the new territories colonized by the Walser, there are no large villages but a widely spread habitat. The key to understanding these areas, which in the past were devoted to cereal farming and animal grazing, is centered on the Hof model – the “farm,” which consisted of a house, hay meadows, fields, pastures and woodland – which led to extreme fragmentation of the land. As far as roads are concerned, the orography makes route choices almost compulsory and, as a result, they have not changed over the centuries.

When wide swaths of slope meet, the routes, represented by mule tracks, are parallel to each other, laid out along the most developed axis of the land and along the contour lines, and connected to each other by paths oblique to the slope, suitable for overcoming unevenness. The Hof are located within this network of roads.

The knowledge and preservation of the territory

A proverb in töitschu, the Walser dialect of Issime, an Italian municipality in the eastern Valle D’Aosta, reads: Pheen an öpfil vür an dust, or “save an apple for a possible thirst.” This ancient expression, used in olden times and up to a few generations ago, refers precisely to the importance that the Walser people attributed to safeguarding the land and the environment. Preserving them, in fact, meant securing their future should other economic activities not go
their way.

In a setting such as the Alps where available natural resources are limited, the delicate balance between them and the size of the population previously determined the early exploitation of economic opportunities other than those offered by agro-pastoral activities.

However, preserving the land meant ensuring the survival of the family and its subsequent reproduction as a domestic and economic aggregate. The Walser were aware that life depends on protecting the environment, and it is thanks to them that today we have many natural and scenic environments that are still so well maintained. A topic, that of the preservation and development of lands, which has now become of primary importance.

Fostering and stimulating knowledge allows us to look at reality with other eyes: “It is in us that landscapes have landscape. […] What we see is not what we see, but what we are” (Fernando Pessoa).