Provençal Heritage in Piedmont

From Piedmont to Catalunia, the Occitan area crosses the borders of Italy, Spain, and France, and its heritage is still reflected in today's language, culture, and traditions of the remote western valleys of Piedmont.

How Provençal heritage shaped the identity of Piedmont

Like any Italian, I've lived and breathed proverbs, strictly taught in the dialect of my region, Piedmontese. But every now and then, a saying would sound exotic to me, and my mother would say: "This is in patois, the language your great-grandmother spoke." Patois is just one of the many dialects of the Franco-Provençal linguistic variant, mostly spoken in the Aosta Valley. Despite being from another region, my ancestors made it their own language due to the many cross-border journeys for work. At that time, the concept of language was not as rooted as it is today, and each speaker referred to their own language using different terms: what in the Aosta Valley was patois, in the French Provence was called provençal. Nowadays, all these local variants have been identified as branches of the Occitan language.

Interestingly, the Occitan culture and language are recognized as an essential component of the cultural identity of the people living in the area that spreads from northeastern Spain, crosses the South of France, and reaches northwestern Piedmont. The Provençal language, of Latin origin, has been evolving for centuries in tandem with all the other European Romance languages. In retracing the origin of this language, we see that the first person to give Occitan the status of language was Dante. In 1303, in his De Vulgari Eloquentia, the Supreme Poet identified three different languages, naming them after the word used locally to say "yes": the language of sଠ(modern Italian), the language of oil (spoken in the northern regions of France), and the language of oc, which later became Occitan. He even included the Occitan language in the Divine Comedy.

Provençal architecture

The Occitan language

Occitan is a proper language with vocabulary and grammatical rules that has been shaping the cultural identity of this region for over 1,000 years. As the Espaci Occitan Association states on its website, the Italian territory area of Occitania extends over more than 4,000 square kilometers, including the provinces of Turin and Cuneo in Piedmont, and Imperia in Liguria. To this area, we should also add the particular contribution of Guardia Piemontese in Calabria, a small town geographically far from the territory of Occitania, which, however, was populated in the Middle Ages by Waldensians who went down from Turin and Cuneo to cultivate the abandoned lands in that area. 

I was born and raised in Piedmont, but thanks to my Occitan origins, I am able to understand people who live in Spain and France because of the similar features of our spoken communication. During folklore festivals, I have taken part in traditional dances to the mesmerizing sound of accordion, flute, and ghironda (hurdy-gurdy), the instrument commonly played by troubadours. Although as a child I never realized it, I know now that I am part of a millenary cultural heritage of myths, legends, and music that goes beyond the Italian borders.

Occitan flag. Ph.

In 1999, the Italian government recognized the vibrant cultural value of Occitania by including the Occitan heritage in the list of languages and cultures to be protected. Today, there are numerous initiatives and language workshops which share the aim of promoting a cultural rediscovery of Occitania  - a very important movement considering many of the Occitan dialects, such as Guardiolo Occitan, Languedocian, and Provençal, were added to the UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger in 2010.

We do not know what the future of Occitan will be, but what I am sure of is that the historical and cultural identity of this territory is not destined to disappear soon. It will always live through the sounds of the local festivals,  proverbs, in the traditional dishes, and in that feeling of multiculturalism that goes beyond the sense of national identity engraved on the passport cover.