In the Eisack Valley

I am in northern Italy looking out a hotel window at the Dolomite mountains and I am considering the feasibility of a passage through this countryside by Queen Cunigunde of Germany in November 1013 on her way to Rome to be crowned as Empress of the West. My flight of imagination has been prompted by Cunigunde’s ancestral stemma: back in March, I published a vector translation of it. It can be found both on this blog and on Piggin.Net. The original, the oldest extant stemma of a real-life family, was drawn up at some point between 1002 and 1024 to emphasize the queen's claim to imperial rank. It would be plausible to believe that she took this parchment drawing with her in her baggage when she passed through this landscape with her husband Henry and the imperial army.

Reconstructing the route used 1,000 years ago by Henry and Cunigunde is not easy. The main stops on the trip can be established from the Regesta Imperii, the summary, formerly printed and now online, of extant legal documents issued during the travels of the Holy Roman Emperors. Unlike the papal regesta, which were registers (the modern spelling) of correspondence compiled contemporaneously by papal secretaries, the imperial regesta are reconstructions: modern tabulations compiled by historians from widely scattered documents in archives. It is fairly plain from the regesta that Cunigunde, Henry and the army conducted a two-month crossing via the Brenner Pass from Augsburg in Germany to Pavia, capital of the Lombard kingdom of northern Italy, arriving in time for Christmas after being held up by floods in northern Italy.

November is perilously late in the season for an alpine crossing, even if you are in command of an imperial German army sworn to ensure your absolute safety. As winter approaches, the snowline is descending and the hours of daylight are growing short. Approached via Innsbruck, Austria from the north, the Brenner Pass is the lowest saddle in the main alpine watershed and therefore the safest track to use in late autumn. After crossing it at an elevation of only 1,370 metres, well below the treeline, the medieval track then descended toward Italy, following the valley of the Eisack (or Isarco) River. The principal impediment to the king, queen and their army - the size of this host is not recorded - was not the pass, but a 20-kilometre gorge further south where the Eisack rushes between towering rocky slopes and narrows at least twice between stony gates before reaching a wide plain at Bozen (Bolzano).

The archaeologists Laura Allavena Silverio and G. Rizzi (see the bibliography below) have presented evidence that the preferred prehistoric detour around this rugged barrier was a path on the left bank of the Eisack that rose to nearly 1,000 metres' altitude to circumvent two ravines, passing via the settlements of Seis and Völs and returning to the valley floor at Blumau (I will use German place-names since the majority population of the location today is German-speaking).

I have drawn a map showing the approximate course of this path (the river outline comes from OpenStreetMap). The prehistoric path - via Seis - is formed by a brown line. It can be see that it continues down the valley crossing two very difficult bluffs, the Gallibichl and the Hochklause. It may be that Cunigunde and Henry used this track, but as we will see, there was at least one other option.

The Kuntersweg and two other ancient roads through the Eisack Valley

Early in the 3rd century, the Romans built a deviation through the gorge stretching from Kollmann to Blumau. It was no doubt a marvel of engineering, employing two bridges, at Waidbruck and Blumau. These allowed the road to change from the left to the right bank and back to the left to take advantage of the most favourable footing. Other smaller bridges were needed to cross tributaries of the main river. It is represented by the red line on the map.

The entire Kollmann-Bozen road through the valley is known as the Kuntersweg in honour of a late medieval restoration of the Roman route by an enterprising businessman, Heinrich Kunter, and it still remains in use, somewhat widened and straightened with the help of tunnels, as the SS12, an Italian national highway. 

Engineers have progressively widened the gorge in the past thousand years to also accommodate a double-track railway, an autostrada (the Brenner Autobahn) and a cycleway and we no longer see much of the Roman/medieval riverside track, but close attention from a car gives some idea of the obstacles that had to be negotiated. Proceeding downstream, the gorge becomes twisting from Atzwang onwards. In an image on Google Street View (slow loading!), one can see why a tunnel had to be built for today's freeway: there is simply no space in the valley at the left of the picture to accommodate a wide road. 

 It is not uniformly narrow. There are quite a few wide places in the gorge: But in its original state, there were also many gatelike points where the river slipped through fissures and the steep mountain walls left little room for any road. These rock formations jutting into the river's course were the principle obstacles to transit in the prehistoric, Roman and medieval period. I have already mentioned the two located just west of Blumau: the Gallibichl and the Hochklause. From the lie of the river and the location of settlements, I suspect there were formerly such gate points at Atzwang and Steg, but if so they have been quarried away.

This route from Blumau to Kardaun is described in detail by the historian Norbert Mumelter in his brief survey of the Kuntersweg (see the bibliography below). Until explosives were used for the first time in 1607-1608 to blast the Gallibichl and Hochklause, there was no way round these bluffs and they had to be surmounted by steep tracks rising high above the valley floor. Perhaps the Romans operated some kind of mansio (travellers' rest with spare horses for hire) at these bluffs to provide teams of additional horses, mules or oxen to draw carts up the inclines and lower them without crashing on the other side. Kunter and his successors certainly did. Centuries of civil engineering have been needed to defeat these obstacles. Here are some images (slow loading!) from Google Street View and Bing Street Side, firstly of the much diminished Gallibichl:
and secondly of the Hochklause:
  • from the east, punctured by the highway tunnel with a small vineyard on top
  • the ledge road that was begun in 1607-1608 at the water's edge
  • an aerial view showing the vineyard and the two roads.

The existence of any Roman-era deviation along the floor of the gorge has been sometimes doubted, but Allavena Silverio and Rizzi have recently published detailed evidence for it, stating that the remains of the Roman bridge near Blumau are still clearly visible. Segmentum IV of the Peutinger Map (original or redrawn, link at right to Talbert) displays the Roman road through the Eisack Valley with the stops Vepiteno - 35 - Sublabione - 13 - Pontedrusi. The unusually short, 13-mile stage between Sublabione (Klausen, number 275,5 in the Antonine Itinerary) and Pontedrusi (Bozen) is an indication that although not much ground was covered, it was a particularly difficult stage which could occupy a complete day to travel. Mansio Sebatum, the newly opened museum of Roman roads at St Lorenzen, includes the gorge road on its map (much more detailed than the Peutinger) of the Roman-era road network in the area.

However the very knowledge that a Roman road had existed before Kunter's engineers set to work seems to have been lost until the discovery in about 1500 of a Roman milestone on or near the Gallibichl. The engraving on the stone names the soldier-emperor Maxentius and can thus be dated to about 310 CE (Mumelter, 28). It may be that Kunter's business model was to revive Roman roads while giving the impression that he was designer of highways through virgin territory: Mumelter mentions other trade roads with the name Kuntersweg in Austria which may have also been makeovers of Roman routes by Kunter or his relations.

The state in 1013 of the Roman road through the Eisack gorge is impossible to determine. With the abdication of the last western emperor, Romulus Augustus, in 476 and the takeover of Italy by the Germanic warlord Odoacer, Roman imperial control of the Italian highway system ceased, at least in the formal sense that the administration was "imperial". The Ostrogothic kingdom of Italy which succeeded the Empire here may have conducted some minimal maintenance of its roads. The Carolingian empire probably applied funds to maintain one or other heerstrasse since major highways remained a key to political control.

However it can be assumed with good reason that the Roman deviation had become impassable by 1013. As soon as either of the bridges at its endpoints (at Waidbruck or Blumau) collapsed, the road would have become a cul-de-sac. The Eisack is too swift to cross by ferry or fording. Even if that had not happened, the lesser bridges or embankments may have been washed out by floods. Or a rockslide may have ripped away one of the ledges on which the road was built. Or else the road may have been deliberately wrecked in the course of warfare during the five centuries prior to Cunigunde's and Henry's passage.

Whatever happened, it is plain that medieval regional governments lacked the resources - and perhaps the motivation - to tend such a high-maintenance road over the span of more than eight centuries until Kunter arrived on the scene and obtained his concession on 1314 September 22 to clear a footpath through the gorge for pedestrians, mounted travellers, packhorses and cattle. He plainly followed the same route as the Romans had used, restoring the bridges at Waidbruck and Blumau and adding a third crossing at Kardaun, the Feigenbrücke, so that the road could end in the city of Bozen. But in time, Kunter's road also eroded away, prompting a dramatic description by a German priest, Felix Faber, of the terrors of negotiating it (in Latin, quoted by Mumelter). Faber described the sheer drop to his right and a rock wall pressing on his left, as he made his way along the left bank of the gorge towards Jerusalem in April 1480.

Back in Cunigunde's day, large military formations arriving in the region via the Brenner Pass may well have proceeded along the left-bank route following the mountain slope via Seis and Völs, but it is generally believed that medieval Rome-bound German imperial convoys routinely adopted a third route, cutting their way across the Ritten Plateau on the right bank of the Eisack River, 900 metres higher than Bozen. The principal evidence for this alternative upland detour is the existence from about 1200 (long after Cunigunde's passage) of a hospice for travellers at Lengmoos, 1,164 metres above sea level, the highest point of the crossing. After the (re-)opening of the Kuntersweg, traffic across the plateau tailed off and the hospice was converted into a feudal manor of the Teutonic Order of Knights. The current building, the Kommende, dates from the 17th century, and nowadays hosts an open-air theatre show every summer. The exact Ritten route is poorly documented, but is generally held to have begun (when heading downstream) at Kollmann, rising gradually to the plateau via Lengstein, then steeply descending to Rentsch, a suburb of Bozen, joining up with what was later to become Kunter's highway. 

Allavena Silverio and Rizzi advance the reasonable argument that the upland roads on both the left bank and right bank are not only extremely ancient, but that they remained well trodden even when the Roman road led through the gorge in Late Antiquity. A bare track might easily remain in use despite the existence of a well maintained imperial road or heerstrasse in the vicinity. Incentives for certain travellers to "go a different way" would have included avoiding surveillance, tolls and customs duties. Moreover, historians point out that the Roman legions and the cursus publicus always had a prior claim on use of the main road. Besides, the road over the Atwzang, Steg, Gallibichl and Hochklause may never have been safe for heavy carts with wider wheelbases. It may be that the Ritten route was compulsory for "heavy goods vehicles". Near Lengmoos are rocks which local antiquarians say have become rutted from being passed over by countless iron wheels over the centuries.

In terms of altitude, a crossing of the Ritten Plateau was every bit as arduous as crossing the Brenner Pass, but it may not have been as unappealing to the medieval traveller as we might be inclined to think. In our day we assume that the best road is one that reaches its objective with a modest gradient. But this judgement is conditioned by our constant use of motorized vehicles, whether they are cars or trains. When vehicles were drawn by beasts, steep gradients might be accepted because the ideal road was hard-surfaced and free of hairpin bends: stony soil, dry ridgeways, holloways and corduroy were employed so that carts did not bog down or overturn. When the traffic was limbed - pedestrians, mounts and cattle - roads could be even steeper, resembling flights of stairs: the ideal road was the least number of strides where one could maintain a foothold, even if it led up a cliff. 

Last week I tried out the latter class of "good" road: a steep track ascending the 850 metres from Steg, on the edge of the Eisack River up to Klobenstein, which is just above Lengmoos. Klobenstein is the principal town on the Ritten Plateau. Our party of three needed five hours in summer weather with the temperature above 30 degrees celsius to complete the ascent, though the signboard at the start at Steg suggested hikers in good physical condition ought to manage it in half the time. I was nevertheless surprised that the climb could be accomplished in just a morning, and I suppose a complete army could have been taken up such a hill within the space of a day. Our route had of course been cleared for us. The only obstacles were long grass, nettles and sometimes slippery gravel. The track passed the ruins of Burg Stein, a 13th-century castle. In the farmed areas higher up the ascent, the steep path is paved with big, rough stones, probably dating from the 18th or 19th centuries. One supposes that horses were often lashed to death by carters and peasants as the draught teams struggled to haul loads up such routes.

Cunigunde of course saw no castles: the era when Europe's main routes of travel became lined with fortresses was centuries in the future. There were also no paved tracks up the mountain. The royal party, their force of mounted knights and foot-soldiers and all their pack animals probably left the valley floor at Kollmann to gradually climb through the chilly woods to the Ritten Plateau following a route that is still in use today as a narrow, winding, asphalted country road. It would not have been signposted or blazed. The party probably had to rely on local guides or some other form of pilot. 

The queen may not have found the ascent and descent physically strenuous, since she probably rode on one or more palfreys, but it is likely to have been psychologically disturbing to her. 

Modern tourists enjoy the grandeur of the scenery as seen from the Ritten Plateau: a vast, cold grey block of stone, the Schlern, flanked by jagged pinnacles, rises to an altitude of 2,500 metres. Dense evergreen forests, dotted with giant boulders, spill down to the river edge. But to a medieval German queen, the whole scene would have been fearsome and chilling, with the effect heightened by the cold and the fear of attack by enemies or wild beasts. The sheer strangeness of the landscape with the jagged, pale grey crags of the Dolomites seeming so close at hand would have unnerved and frightened her. In the foreground she may well have seen the Ritten's fields of fairy chimneys: bizarre towers of soft rock, many of them five to ten metres high. Each of these pinnacles is topped by a round, hard boulder which has protected the stone below it from erosion by rain. Medieval travellers were told (and believed that) the boulders had been lifted onto the pinnacles by playful giants.

After the exhausting ascent on horseback to Lengmoos, where the army would have set up camp in some more or less level clearing on the plateau, collecting dry timber from the woods for fires and perhaps stealing livestock for food from any peasants who had not fled in time, Cunigunde had to steel herself for the vertigo of a slithering 900-metre vertical descent by an even steeper muddy track from the plateau to the alluvial plain where the Eisack river flows into the Adige river. Her transit of the Alps was neither picturesque nor enjoyable.

Further Reading

Allavena Silverio, Laura, and G Rizzi. ‘La strada romana di Elvas nella viabilità antica della Valle Isarco’. In Archäologie der Römerzeit in Südtirol. Beiträge und Forschungen. Forschungen zur Denkmalpflege in Südtirol, edited by L Dal Ri and S Di Stefano, 511–. 1, 2002.

Mumelter, Norbert. Der Kuntersweg. Bozen: Gemeinde Karneid, 1986.

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