The Ladin Museum in the Val Badia is A Sight Not to Be Missed in the Heart of the Dolomites.

The Ladin Museum at 'Castel de Tor'

In the very heart of the Dolomites live more than 30,000 Dolomite Ladins whose identity is characterised mainly by two important features: the uniqueness of their language, which derives from popular Latin, and the extraordinary mountain landscape at the heart of this section of the Italian Southern Alps.

It is only thanks to the physical characteristics of this landscape that the Ladin language has managed to survive today. It is the oldest of all languages spoken in this region and it is restricted by the Italian and German cultural and linguistic areas that surround it.

The route through the museum focuses on some significant aspects of the present and past lives of the Ladins of the Dolomites, highlighting the important influences of cross-regional events on the lives of the population, while pinpointing the existing interrelations between landscape forms and lifestyles.

The History of the Castle

In about 1230, some servants of the Bishop of Bressanone/Brixen built a three-storey, separate living tower. It was first documented in 1290 as “turris in Geder”, and it documents the heart of the judicial power in the 'Gader' area (the actual translation should be “Tower in Quadra”; see below). This feudal land belonging to the Bishops of Bressanone/Brixen was held by the Lords of Rodank-Schöneck until 1331. Over the following years a crenellated wall with a walkway was built around the castle, along with a small building with living quarters (Palas); the tower, however to which another two floors were added was still used as a granary.


The History of 'Ladinia': Princes, Judges, Subjects

Territorial rights, in the Dolomites, were divided between the Bishop of Bressanone/Brixen, the Tyrolean princes' rule, the Castelbadia/Sonnenburg convent, and other clerical and civil powers. Their subjects had to swear an oath of fealty, thereby earning the right to be protected.

By the 13th century at the latest, judges and stewards represented not only the interests of the rulers and of the supreme judicial authorities, but also their subjects. They guaranteed law and order, made legal decisions and put their superiors’ decisions into practice.

History and Legend of the ‘Gran Bracun’

History and legend are sometimes closely interwoven, and this is especially so with the figure of the Gran Bracun, the nobleman Franz Wilhelm von Prack, who was brutally murdered in Corvara in 1582. The imagination of the inhabitants of the valley, however, turned him into a hero: in Val Badia/Gadertal, like in the legend of St George, it is said that the Gran Bracun valorously defeated the feared dragon which lived in a cave on the Sas dla Crusc/Kreuzkofel, from where it devoured people and animals not only in the Val Badia/Gadertal but also in the surrounding areas.


Language and Identity

Awareness of their language plays an important role in the identity of the Ladins. The Ladin language finds its roots in popular Latin, then it was influenced by Pre-Roman and Rhaetian elements. In the Middle Ages and in modern times, the geographical position of the Ladin territories, surrounded as they are by German and Italian speaking areas, impacted on the further development of the language, as well as the differences between the various valleys.

As a matter of fact, each of the five so-called ‘Ladin’ valleys has its own language variant being spoken, as well as its cultural institutions, often also displaying museums which can be of great interest to the tourist or the visitor. The 'central' and most outstanding of such museums is by far the Ladin Museum in Castel de Tor, in the Val Badia/Gadertal – discussed here but there are also minor Ladin museums in the Val di Fassa, in both Livinallongo and Colle Santa Lucia, and another cultural institution (with no 'Ladin museum' attached as such) in Cortina d’Ampezzo, even though they look after the so-called Museo delle Regole, which comprises an art gallery, an ethnographic collection and a paleonthological museum.

The Ladin language serves as a form of self assertion towards the outside, but also as a link between the five Ladin valleys' communities, collectively referred to, sometimes, as Ladinia. Following the First World War, the subdivision of the valleys between three Italian provinces – Belluno, Trentino and South Tyrol – inhibited this process, and despite various efforts and protests, the division remained in place even after the Second World War. The recognition of the Ladins as a distinct ethnic and linguistic group therefore developed in a different way in each of the three provinces  and that is why the role of an institution such as the Ladin Museum in Castel de Tor is so important, as it aims at reuniting these fragmented communities and their history.


Archeology: the Settling of the Dolomites

It was only at the end of the glacial period – some 11,000 years ago – when the frosted crust covering the Dolomites started to melt, leading the glaciers to retreat – that various plants and animals penetrated deep into even the highest mountain regions, followed by the hunters of the Stone Age period.

After this first form of economic exploitation of the Dolomites, there were innumerable other strenuous phases of settlement. Hundreds of generations worked hard clearing woodland and opening up the territory in order to create a network of roads and settlements. Fortified hamlets, cultural sites at high altitude and cross-regional trades bear witness to the first organized settlement system.

On the Tracks of the Stone Hunters

For thousands of years hunters had spent the winter season in the main valleys. When spring arrived they moved to high mountain regions more than 2,000 m above sea level, together with their extended families. At the end of the glacial period, the favourable weather conditions of the Mesolithic period (9,000-4,500 B.C.), and a large range of available game above the timber-line, made hunting easier at those altitudes rather than in the wooded valleys.

People moved to protected areas near the forest edge and mostly next to passes, where they sought shelter under the ledges of gigantic rocks. Many of these shelters, enclosed by branches and twigs, were still in use many centuries later. In the hunting areas situated at higher altitudes, people arranged simple resting places and observation lookouts for themselves.

'Sotciastel': A Fortified Bronze Age Settlement 1600-1250 B.C.

The Bronze Age settlement near the Sotćiastel (‘Under the Castle’) farm is situated on a high rocky outcrop to the north of Badia/Abtei and near the old route connecting the upper and lower Val Badia/Gadertal. This position meant protection for the inhabitants, while at the same time giving them control over one of the Dolomites' main commercial routes.

The small settlement flourished between 1600 and 1400 B.C., at a time when Alpine dwellers were intensifying their agricultural and mining activities and the Dolomite valleys were strengthening their interregional trade links. Cultural exchanges with the surrounding regions also grew.

The Rhaetians in the Ladin Area

How did the Rhaetian people live during the last centuries B.C., the Iron Age? From excavations carried out, we can identify a farming culture that had cult sites on the tops of the mountains, and which used an alphabet that has its roots in the Etruscan culture.

The oldest written document found in the Ladin valleys to date – a small inscribed stone stele – was found at 2,100 metres on Mont de Pore (Monte Pore), between Andraz and Colle Santa Lucia/Col de Santa Lizia, currently in the Province of Belluno. There is still a great deal of controversy about the meaning of the inscriptions on this isolated find.

The Romanisation of Ladinia

Roman soldiers, merchants, officials and priests brought a variety of technical, economic and cultural innovation to the area.

Along the main routes in the major valleys, Roman settlements were built or already existing settlements were enlarged: the main ones were Sebatum (San Lorenzo/St. Lorenzen) in the Val Pusteria/Pustertal, Bressanone/Brixen in the Isarco/Eisack valley, Pons Drusi (Bolzano/Bozen) and Tridentum (Trento) along the main corridor of the Adige/Etsch valley.

People gradually began to speak a colourful, local ‘popular’ Latin; the Roman influence came into the narrower Dolomite valleys in a much slower and less systematic manner than in the main Alpine valleys.

The Roman settlement of Sebatum (San Lorenzo/St. Lorenzen) was a key starting point for the romanisation of the lower Val Badia/Gadertal.

According to one hypothesis, small hamlets initially called ‘vici’ and later ‘viles’ developed from the economic units of the Roman smallholders during Roman times. Many viles’ are still existing to this day.

The ‘St. Martin Quadra’ Area

In the area around San Martino in Badia/St. Martin there are some scarcely visible archaeological signs on the landscape which can be traced back to the Roman surveying system known as ‘quadra’. The distance between parallel land boundaries and their relationship to ancient boundary markers and paths provide a system of squares, with each side measuring approximately 240 metres. This measurement corresponds to a unit commonly used in mountain areas in Roman times.

According to this system, the intersection of the main Roman survey lines (‘cardo’ and ‘decumanus’) lies right on the hill where the castle of San Martino/St. Martin is sited today. It is said that during the 13th century, the first part of the castle – a living tower – was built at this precise point: coincidence or a conscious continuation of a centuries-old tradition? Future research will try to solve this interesting question.


Geology: the Creation and Discovery of the Dolomites

It all started with a fragment of rock. When travelling through the Adige/Etsch and Isarco/Eisack valleys in 1789, the French naturalist Déodat de Dolomieu discovered a limestone rock with chemical characteristics unknown until then: this mineral was later named after its discoverer – Dolomite.

Mineralogists and geologists from all over the world have followed in his footsteps, studying the fossil-rich rocks as if they were a colourful picture book displaying the history of the earth, and called these mountains Dolomites.

Fossils: Showing the Age of the Earth

The Dolomites hide a huge geological treasure: the fossilised remains of animals and plants which lived hundreds of millions of years ago in a large primordial sea, dying there and sinking to the seafloor. Over millions of years, their petrified remains, i.e. the fossils, formed layers up to hundreds of metres thick. Large parts of the Dolomites were formed from these deposits of ancient life forms.

Over a period of millions of years, the extraordinary forces of nature raised the seabed by thousands of metres. Therefore, even on the highest peaks, the fossilised remains of deep sea creatures are to be found. The layers of the Dolomites can be compared to a precise timetable showing the history of the earth, with each metre providing information about the developing stages of life both in the sea and on land, as well as evidence of the incredible climatic changes and geological processes in various epochs.


Tourism and Economy

The Mountains as a Backdrop to Sports and the History of Tourism

Mountaineers, holiday-makers, artists and bohemians all brought their curiosity to the mountains with them. Around 1850, English mountaineers began to appear in the Ladin valleys. Their journeys took them several days on foot, and their destinations were the imposing rock faces and peaks of the Dolomites. From 1870 onwards, train connections and large hotels attracted the nobility who, without exerting themselves too much, could restore themselves with the pure mountain air and the 'Alpenglow.' The inhabitants of the Dolomite valleys found themselves at the service of the guests in various ways: as hotel personnel, as mountain guides and in other roles. Some of them soon started their own businesses and – around 1900 – began to teach new winter sports to their guests. After 1945, tourism became the most important business sector in the Dolomites.

The Lower Val Badia: an Ancient Rural Settlement Tradition

The Lower Val Badia/Gadertal has been characterised for centuries by small, compact hamlets known as viles, which are spread out regularly along the valley slopes, also used for agriculture. In a harsh climate with difficult terrain, for centuries the life of the inhabitants was based on a unique mix of community organisation and self sufficiency: this meant that 'good' and 'bad' lands were evenly spread across the farms, giving an ideal balance between arable land and livestock farming, while woods and high Alpine pastures were partly shared communally. This is what distinguishes the ancient settlements from more recent, single farms, specialising in livestock farming. These developed in the late Middle Ages, when feudal lords raised the economic exploitation of the Dolomites to its highest level.

The 'Iron Road': A Pre-industrial Production System

From the late Middle Ages onwards, the Bishops of Bressanone/Brixen operated profitable mines near Colle Santa Lucia/Col de Santa Lizia. The iron from this valuable ore was not smelted on site, but was transported to Andraz/Andrac and Valparola/Arparoa (Rü dla Fujina), where the woods could provide enough charcoal for the smelting furnaces. Some members of farming families also worked as miners in the pits and in the foundries, as well as dealing with transportation of the ore and charcoal-burning. Small forges sited along mountain streams in the Ladin regions worked the pig-iron.


Craftsmanship in Ladinia

It was not until the late 18th century that craftsmanship started to become economically important for the Ladin population. Each valley developed its own specific products: Ampezzo specialised in silver filigree jewellery and souvenirs for the flourishing tourist trade. In Val Gardena/Gröden, along with religious wood sculptures, a big toy industry developed, linking local handicrafts to the world market. Itinerant painters from the Fassa valley moved to Tyrol and Southern Bavaria on a yearly basis, where they decorated house facades, traditional wooden dining rooms (Stuben) and furniture with their multicoloured artwork. The Val Badia/Gadertal exported distinctive decorated chests to the Tyrolean region.

Between the two World Wars, the last handicraft products suffered from bad economic conditions and increasing competition. Today only the wooden sculptures of the Val Gardena/Gröden remind us of the once great economic importance of handicrafts in the Ladin valleys.

The Toy Industry in Val Gardena

During the 19th century, millions of wooden toys left the Val Gardena/Gröden each year. Dolls of all shapes and sizes, rocking horses, wooden animals and different types of toys filled the American and European markets.

Carving wooden toys developed from being a secondary occupation for farmers in the 18th century to a real cottage industry during the 19th century. By 1850, there were around 2,500 woodcarvers, men and women, working in the Val Gardena/Gröden. The whole family was involved, with even children having to carry out some easy tasks. Day by day – and often far into the night – large quantities of identical toys were produced. A decline in quality combined with increased competition meant that by 1900 the export market for the Val Gardena/Gröden toy industry had virtually died out. On the other hand, religious and non-religious wood sculptures, which craftsmen had been making since the 17th century, still provide people from the Val Gardena/Gröden with a decent income.

Itinerant Painters from the Fassa valley

At the beginning of the 19th century, life for people in the Fassa valley took a turn for the worse due to wars, high taxes, illness and poor harvests. Superstition and magic were expressed in symbolism and defensive magic by the decorative painters from Fassa. Bright colours and a wide range of ornamental patterns covered house facades, traditional wooden dining rooms (Stuben), furniture and other household objects. Large numbers of men were able to better their lifestyles thanks to extra work done outside the valley: their brightly coloured decorative work found favour above all in the rural areas of Central Europe.

The Fassa painters worked their way along the Dolomite passes and went north across the Alps on foot, finding work in Vorarlberg, Tyrol, Southern Bavaria and around Salzburg, as well as Carinthia and Styria. Their traces can also be found in Switzerland and Hungary. Postcards, often hand-painted, bear witness to their destinations, contacts and experiences.

The Val Badia Chest Makers

The chests from San Virgilio di Marebbe/Enneberg and the Val Badia/Gadertal hold their own amongst Ladin furniture, with the front of the chest demonstrating a clear design structure.

The panels with their arches and fretwork, along with other similar ornamentation, reflect a tradition harking back to the Renaissance. During the second half of the 18th century, a further decorative element was added with rich monochrome ornamentation.

During the 18th and 19th centuries this improved carpentry developed into a profitable sideline  especially for farmers, who managed to sell many chests throughout the Ladin valleys and in Tyrol.

Siver Filigree from Cortina d'Ampezzo

In the 18th century Venetian goldsmiths encouraged the production, in Cortina, of women’s jewellery made from thin silver thread woven together. In 1874, the local Art School started a course specialising in filigree production, which led to an improved technique and to a much wider range of products. Due to a stark rise in tourism in the second half of the 19th century, the demand for souvenirs increased: both of these factors led to a flourishing filigree industry in Ampezzo, which developed into an important economic sector. It was the detailed imitations of flowers – especially Edelweiss, Lily of the valley and Anemone – which became particularly well-known.

Learn more about the culture of the Ladin people by consulting the page on the so-called ‘Culturonda Dolomythos: an initiative that has been devised by the province of Bolzano (South Tyrol), divided into twelve thematic areas, and whose aim is to propose alternative ways with which to explore the culture of the Dolomites. One of these itineraries is dedicated precisely to the Ladin culture, and the Ladin Museum is an active participant and supporter of the initiative


The 'Ursus ladinicus' Museum in San Cassiano/St. Kassian

The Conturines Cave

Located in the Val Badia/Gadertal Dolomites at an altitude of 2,800 metres above sea level, the Conturines cave is the highest known bear cave in the world, and it is also the highest place of discovery of cave bears and cave lions. No other bear cave has told us so much about the climate of that time or the adaptation of cave bears to conditions in the high mountains.

The Museum

The museum, a branch of the Ladin Museum in San Martino in Badia/St. Martin in Thurn described just above, is on three floors, with the first floor accommodating the cash desk and museum shop. The upper floors contain the exhibition, starting with the evolutionary history of the Dolomites, and a display of the finest and most significant fossils from the area around San Cassiano/St. Kassian. The exhibition continues with the origins, discovery and excavation of the Conturines cave, using original finds to describe every aspect of the cave bear and its habitat. In the basement is “the bear’s cave”  a reconstruction of parts of the Conturines cave, complete with a detailed reproduction of a sleeping cave bear.

The Cave Bear

Some 50,000 years ago there were three different species of cave bear living alongside each other (without ever mixing) in the Austrian Alps: the Ladin bear (Ursus ladinicus) and the Gamssulzen bear (Ursus ingressus). There are few differences between the first two, while the Ladin bear clearly differs in its genetic make-up, shape and size from the large, lumbering Ursus ingressus.

The 'Ursus ladinicus'

The Ladin bear, Ursus ladinicus, was smaller and slimmer than the cave bears of the lower-lying regions. The colour of the fur on its belly, shoulders and head may well have been lighter than that on the rest of its body, reflecting its rocky environment.

Geology of the Dolomites

Since 2009 the Dolomites have been designated a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site. This is a recognition of their scenic beauty and scientific value, and San Cassiano/St. Kassian in the Val Badia/Gadertal lies at the heart of these mountains. The Dolomites are life turned to stone: they are composed of fossils, i.e. petrified life forms. The formation of the Alps is a process that began 100 million years ago in the Cretaceous period, and it continues still today. Its origin is the collision of the African and the European continental plates; the front edge of the African plate the so-called Africa spur  slowly slides under the southern edge of the European plate. The seabed is pushed upwards and unfolded: this is the birth of the Alps and of the Dolomites.


Return from Ladin Museum to South Tyrol

Return from Ladin Museum to Italy-Tours-in-Nature

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