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Italy's Po River

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Italy's Po River

 By Erla ZwinglePhotographs by William Albert Allard

Italy’s Po River Punished for centuries by destructive floods, northern Italians stubbornly embrace their nation’s longest river, which nurtures rice fields, vineyards, fisheries—and legends.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Although the Po is known to every Italian schoolchild as the country’s longest river, at 405 miles (652 kilometers) long and 1,650 feet (503 meters) across at its widest point it’s a mere rivulet compared with the Nile or the Yangtze. But size is not the story. The Po’s waters, fed by 141 tributaries draining a catchment basin of 27,000 square miles (70,000 square kilometers), created the Val Padana, the plain that stretches across northern Italy from the French border on the west to the Adriatic Sea on the east. More than 16 million people—nearly a third of all Italians—live in this fertile expanse, some of the most heavily cultivated land in Europe. Their settlements range from Turin, a major manufacturing town and headquarters of Fiat, the automotive conglomerate, to some of the country’s most beautiful and historic towns: Piacenza, Pavia, Cremona, Mantova, and Ferrara. Il grande fiume, the great river, is clearly worthy of respect, if not, it would seem, affection.

Still, for everything the Po may have done to man, man has done at least as much to it. Nearly 25 percent of the land along its banks has been denuded of natural vegetation to make way for sterile plantations of poplars harvested for cellulose; the river is dammed for hydroelectric power and tainted by agricultural and industrial chemicals, to say nothing of the daily effluent from Milan, a city of 1.3 million—with no sewage treatment plant—situated on two of the Po’s tributaries. (Ironically, another city of its size reprimanded by the European Environment Agency for its sewage problem is Brussels, seat of the European Union.) The illegal gouging out of 33 million cubic yards (23 million cubic meters) of sand and gravel every year for construction has left huge holes in the riverbed, some of its natural meandering curves have been straightened to aid navigation, and more than half its total length is immured by man-made earthen embankments called argini that protect towns and fields, all of which have only made the Po’s floods fiercer and more disastrous.

Yet beneath the incessant recitation of the river’s real problems you can discern murmurs of love. They are like the wordless voice of the river itself, a sound that is half water, half wind, or like the tiny ripples that are caused not by the breeze on the surface but by the undulations of the hidden riverbed far beneath. “There are people who are rooted in the Po,” one man told me, “so that even if he hits you, you turn the other cheek.” This passion for the river is the story.

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According to sources at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson made a visit to Turin, Italy, in April 1787, 14 years before he became President of the United States but just two years before he became the first secretary of state. After spending a few days in the city to visit museums and galleries, he drove out to the rice regions of Piedmont and Lombardy, making excursions to places such as Moncaglieri, Stuponigi, and Superga to study the fields. Then, en route to Milan, he studied the rice fields between Vercelli and Pavia. There he stopped to talk to owners, as well as interview peasants who were working in the fields. He learned about the husking machinery and later sketched it from memory.

It was during this trip to Italy that Thomas Jefferson discovered that Piedmont rice was a species superior to rice grown in the U.S. and could be husked by machine. Jefferson informed Edward Rutledge in rice-growing South Carolina of this. And although “taking unhusked rice out of Italy to a place where it could be used to plant a crop in competition to the Piedmont was a crime punishable by death,” Jefferson told him he was “determined to take enough to put you in seed.” He told Rutledge that he knew the rice’s exportation in the husk was prohibited, but he bribed a muleteer to run a couple of sacks across the Apennines to Genoa, where it could then be taken by boat to Nice.

Just in case the muleteer wasn’t successful, Jefferson decided to “bring off as much as my coat and surtout pockets would hold.” He later shipped this contraband rice off to Rutledge. “His pockets stretched as he carried out daring agricultural espionage.” And because of Jefferson’s impromptu trade mission to the rice country, he could no longer go to Rome to see the ruins of antiquity—the original objective of his trip.

Davida Kales

Did You Know?

Related Links
The Po River Basin Authority
The official site for detailed information about the Po River basin. You can read about physical characteristics of the basin, landslides and floods, water quality, drinking water supply, and agriculture and animal production specific to the Po.

Grisales & Russ
Visit this site to learn about how these two violinmakers came together and opened a workshop in Cremona, Italy. The instruments they make are known and admired around the world. If by the end of your visit to this site you have decided you would like a Cremonese violin of your very own, this too can be done online, simply by filling out the instrument commission form.

Windows on Italy
A thorough site about Italy, complete with maps, country history, a copy of its constitution, lists of regions and towns, daily news links, cultural tidbits offered by the Italian Embassy in Ottawa, as well as a map of Italian WWW servers.

Selected Estates of Europe
Selected Estates of Europe, Ltd., is a family-owned and operated company that imports fine Italian wines to the United States. The site includes wine reviews, informative summaries of the various types of grapes used to produce these exquisite wines, listings of wine-tasting events along the East Coast, and even interactive maps that allow you to visit a selection of their wine producers.

The World Factbook 2001 Online
A good source for country facts and figures, including population estimates, history, geography, economic strengths, and much more.


Bethemont, Jacques, and Jean Pelletier. Italy: A Geographical Introduction. Longman Group Limited, 1983.

Holmes, George, ed. The Oxford History of Italy. Oxford University Press, 1997.

Lintner, Valerio. A Traveller’s History of Italy, 3rd ed. Interlink Publishing Group Inc. 1995.

Morton, H.V. A Traveller in Italy. Dodd, Mead and Company, 1964.

Thwaite, Anthony, and Peter Porter. Roloff Beny in Italy. Harper and Row, 1974.


NGS Resources
Jepson, Tim. The National Geographic Traveler: Italy. National Geographic Books, 2000.

McCarry, John. “Milan—Where Italy Gets Down to Business,” National Geographic (December 1992), 90-119.

Ellis, William S. “Surviving, Italian Style,” National Geographic (February 1984), 184-209.

Newman, Cathy. “Carrara Marble: Touchstone of Eternity,” National Geographic (July 1982), 42-59.

Albrecht, Florence Craig. “Frontier Cities of Italy,” National Geographic (June 1915), 533-586.


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