The Castello di Fénis

The Castello di Fénis in Italy's Valle d'Aosta

All over the storybook Valle d'Aosta, the roofs are made of large slate tiles called "lose" chipped into rough, blunt-pointed parabolas (or, if you prefer, bulgy squares turned on their points) and overlapped in a slightly irregular pattern that looked exactly the way dragons' scales are meant to look.

There's a reason for such conformity of architecture in this modern age: a local law aimed at preserving picturesqueness requires it. Newer roofs sport tiles of rather uniform size, but most are an organically arrived-at melange of patches of smaller slates that gradiate into swathes of larger ones at random, an effect I can only put down to decades of localized roof repairs.

The Castello di Fenis, a castle graced with the perfect amount of romparts, battlements, and ramblingness just east up the valley from Aosta, was built in the 1100s by the Challant viscounts, the only Valdaostan family to field a cardinal. You can only visit by a guided tour—in Italian—which leaves every half-hour.

For all its rings of defensive walls, the main castle was relatively small. The modestly-sized courtyard was belted by a 16th century double-level balustrade on three sides, from the center of which spilled a great stone staircase down to the courtyard's ground.

The courtyard walls were frescoed in 1215 with prophets, saints, and other notables gripping scrolls of paper traced with the Gothic script of medieval French--the basis for modern Valdostana dialect.

Of course, there was also a giant St. Christopher, gripping his staff and shouldering a toddler Jesus, painted just to the rght of the entrance arch so that the Challants could toss a glance at him daily as they left the castle for protection against accidental and sudden death (this old belief explains why many Italian-Americans keep a St. Christopher medallion dangling from the rear-view mirriors of their cars, or a statuette of him on the dashboard).

The furnishings throughout the castle, though antiques, hailed mainly from France, Switzerland, and Piemonte. The only local pieces were an original wooden strongbox, used for transporting jewels and important documents from one castle to another, and a passle of three-legged, Svaonarola-style chairs—just stools with a back support, really—three legs tending to be more stable on flagstone floors than four.

One wall of the kitchen was taken up by the enormous fireplace, a seven-foot high hearth into which 30 of us fit comfortably. It was used not only for cooking feast-sized portions and a general heating of the drafty castle, but also for smoke-curing meats along its ample stone walls.

Servants and soldiers, who worked out of the ground floor, slept up on the second floor, between the Piano Nobile—occupied by the Challants themselves—and the roof.

The idea was that their straw pallets—thoughtfully turned over once a year in what passed for hygiene in the Middle Ages—would also act as insulation for the Piano Nobile below (R2 to R13, depending on how fat the servants in question were).

Sadly, visiting that top floor, or the dungeons, or even using that main staircase, was up until this year possible, but a new Italian law has closed them to the public.

The new law—well intentioned but extremely short-sighted—commands, among other things, that all areas open to public have enough emergency exits, passageways and staircases are wide enough, steps be made both wide and short enough as to limit the potential for tripping, and other regulations that ancient and medieval builders didn't seem to have in mind when constructing the bulk of Italy's architectural heritage.

In fact, I can just picture this law closing down virtually all of the thousands of belltowers, castles, ancient ruins, cathedral domes, and medieval and Renaissance palaces for their preponderance of viscious spiral staircases and lack of extraneous doors.

Well, there goes the heritage. It was fun while it lasted.

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