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  Cornell University

Cornell in Rome

College of Architecture, Art and Planning

Remembering Chiomonte

Hanging around and over the three of us in our planning studio is a growing collection of items, pinned up for a variety of utilitarian, mnemonic, or nostalgic purposes. They aren’t as aesthetically pleasing as the collaged walls of the Archies’ studios and quite a bit more sparse, but we like our little home and its sundry wallpaper.

One of those items has provoked questions from almost every one of our non-Italian guests. A large, white flag, decorated with nothing but the inscription “NO TAV” and a small cartoon of old man shaking his fist in anger at a crossed out train, hangs from the back wall of our room. Today, between making a map and completing a reading, I was looking at our flag and decided to write the story behind it for this blog.

We left the city for a day. A regional train took us up and out to one of those mountains that had been framed by the steel skeletons of former factories during our traveling around Turin the day before. As the city evolved into a singular unit behind us, the ever closer mountains began to morph and complicated. They were not monoliths but varied, layered giants, receding inward for kilometers at moments before jutting out boulders and bits of snow again. The train went into one of these recessions, a valley with our destination, Chiomonte, clinging precipitously to one of its walls.

Exiting the train we were immediately struck by the air, clean and immense, clear for miles outward and blue for acres upward. It dawned on me that I hadn’t left urban space in quite some time.

It was here we were greeted by our guides, a homely crew of several elderly Italians who spoke as little of our language as we did of theirs. They were eager, and it was infectious, even necessary after all our early mornings required by the Northern Italy week long field trip. Without knowing what to expect we began following them through the little town of Chiomonte.

It was one of those small, ancient developments that had existed for so long and gave to the geography of the land so much that it felt like it was in a contract with the mountain, like the town and her people were old friends of the Alps. We wormed through clean smelling streets, quiet except for a burbling fountain that couldn’t have produced anything but the cleanest water and the regular and off-beat “ciao” from curious locals.

Hiking Chiomonte. (Credit: Author)

The snakey road we’d been on continued to oscillate north to south, shaking off buildings until eventually it was barren of structures aside from a low safety wall. It was at this point that we could see our goal: a military checkpoint at the bottom of the valley.

Here we were stopped and asked for identification. We later discovered this itself was an unconstitutional act, and marked the sad introduction to the story of Chiomonte.

An Italian man took the lead, and the stage. His literal words reached me through the delay of translation, and I was met at first with only the emotional elements of his tale, his words seeping in melancholy and injustice. He spoke sad and determined, eager to share. Then the translation gave us the specifics. This land has ancient ties. People have settled here thanks to the gifts of the Earth—proper water, soil, air, and light—for millennia. Evidence of ancient settlement can be found in the caves, the stones, the landscape. He and the other Chiomonteans have maintained the land for generations, cementing their ties with it, reaping the fruits of the soil, establishing a history and a cultural identity found nowhere else. There was a mysticism to his talk of the space, a kind of religious quality to it.

This information was relayed to us as we hiked up the side of the facing hill from the little town we’d walked through before. We seemed to be winding between ancient forest and odd modern infrastructure, like the military checkpoint from before and new giant construction zones now. As it turned out, here, in this majestic ancient realm, was where the Treno Alta Velocità was being implemented, an incredibly large infrastructure boring its way through the mountain like a dragon invading this sacred space and tearing up its insides and spitting back dust and fumes, roaring like a bulldozer and unstoppable for quaint Chiomonte. It disregarded humanity and tradition in its thirst for economic efficiency, a slender steel serpent with the rather superfluous army to guard him.

The Treno Alta Velocità construction site. (Credit: Alec Faber)

At the peak of one of the little hills that made up the larger one, our guide was moved to tears. Here, a particular ancient sacred space had been gated off, barbed wire and all—to make sure trucks had enough room to turn around.

We were amazed. Amazed at the injustice, and amazed frankly at how much what might’ve been a line on some French or Italian planner’s map could decimate identity itself. We learn these things in school, of course, but the bubble that forms between those two gorges is thicker than we often think. These were real people.


At the end of our walk our guides gave us that black, white, and red flag that still hangs on our wall.

Our flag. (Credit: Author)
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