Po Valley

Po Valley

The Po Valley ( _it. Pianura Padana "or" Val Padana) is a major geographical feature of Italy. It extends some 600 km in an east-west direction, including its Venetic extension not actually related to the Po river; it runs from the Western Alps to the Adriatic Sea. The flatlands of Veneto and Friuli are often considered apart since they do not drain into the Po, but they effectively combine into an unbroken plain.

The altitude varies from sea level (and below in the Polesine subregion, where the Po approaches its delta) to about 500 meters high (1600 ft.) in the southern Piedmontese province of Cuneo, also known as the "Provincia granda". It is crossed by a number of affluents of the Po river from both sides, waters running down from the Alps in the north and from the Apennines in the south. Po's major affluents include Tanaro, Scrivia, Trebbia, Panaro and Secchia in the south, Dora Riparia, Dora Baltea, Sesia, Ticino (draining Lago Maggiore, Adda (draining Lake Como), Oglio (draining Lake Iseo) and Mincio (draining Lake Garda and called Sarca in its upper reaches) in the north.

Geology, population and surface waters

The plain was literally created by the Po and its tributaries over relatively short geological times. Huge quantities of silt ran down from the Alps with the superficial waters over an immense span of time, gradually closing what had been a maritime gulf, the northernmost extremity of the Adriatic Sea. Around 5 million years ago the silting process had built a deep sedimentary layer, thicker in the lower parts, more permeable in the upper reaches. This slow, unrelenting phenomenon continues to the present day - in perspective, the upper Adriatic could be almost completely closed by the advancing Po Delta in what is, geologically speaking, a very short time.

The Po valley's western-central section, north of the Po river can broadly be divided into an upper, drier part, often not particularly suited for agriculture (the Piedmontese "vaude" and "baragge", the Lombard "brughiere" and "Groane"), and a southern, very fertile, and well irrigated section, known in Lombardy and western Emilia as "la Bassa", "the Low (plain)". This last part was settled and farmed in Etruscan and Roman times, and has been completely devoted to agriculture since the Middle Ages, when efforts from monastic orders, feudal lords and towns ("Comuni") converged. The northern part, suffering a relative lack of water because of its heavier and more porous soil, has become the center of economic development and industry in Italy, and has now become an almost continuous megalopolis stretching from Turin to Trieste. At least 22 million people inhabit the plain, including also Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia.

In Lombardy, surface water is either confined to lesser valleys carved out over geologic time (as for the major rivers), or tends to disappear below ground in the upper plain and spring out again lower down at the so-called "fontanili" line and moisten the soil, making it excellent for most uses.


The Po has a mild continental climate and a humid subtropical climate, depending on the part of the Po Valley one is referring to. Winters are not long, but foggy, damp and chilly, with sudden bursts of frost from the Siberian anticyclone; the urban heat effect has made them less foggy and cold than before. Snow was once commonplace, but is now scarce; prolonged winter droughts increasingly deny sufficient moisture to the soil. Spring and autumn are well marked and pleasant, while summer can be quite oppressive, hot and humid, with sudden violent hailstorms and, sometimes, what amounts to minor tornadoes. Both winter and summer are more extreme in the lower parts along the Po; the great lakes moderate the local climate around them. Wind is quite rare; only sudden bursts of foehn or thunderstorms manage to sweep the air clean. The almost enclosed nature of the Padan basin, indeed, added to the crushing weight of road traffic, makes it prone to a high level of pollution, especially in winter when cold air clings to the soil.

Ancient history

Cities are more recent by the Po than in Southern Italy or Greece. The first known inhabitants of the thick forests and swamps that dotted the area in ancient times were the Ligurians, a people of pre-Indo-European stock. After the progressive immigration of Indo-European peoples of Umbrian (Italic) stock, known as the Insubres (hence the name of Insubria sometimes given to northwestern Lombardy), in the 7th century BC the southern and central regions were conquered and colonized here and there by another non-Indoeuropean people, the Etruscans, who left some city names such as Parma, Ravenna or Felsina, the ancient name of Bologna, as part of their cultural heritage. The Etruscan domination left significant marks and introduced urban civilization, but was short-lived. As the 5th century BC dawned, a Celtic horde swarmed through the easy passes of the Western Alps and conquered most of the Po Valley, apart Veneto which had its inhabitants, likely of mixed Illyrian-Italic stock and in time already influenced by both Etruscans and Greeks.

The Gaulish conquerors, divided in major tribes as the Boii (hence Bononia--->Bologna), the Taurini (---> Torino) or the Cenomani, dwelled mostly into the plains, in time absorbing the Alpine populations. A warlike people, they even raided and burnt Rome itself in 390 BC under a leader named Brennus. Roman revenge took time, but was total and definitive: Celticity, while leaving significant traces in the substratum of Gallo-Italic languages, was cancelled from northern Italy and replaced by Latin language and culture. This happened after the Romans defeated the Gauls at the Battle of Clastidium and later subdued them for good after Hannibal's final defeat at Zama. By 196 BC Rome was master of the woody plains and soon took over the role of the Etruscans, dotting the region with bustling colonies, clearing the land, fighting the last rebel tribes and gradually imposing its civilization.

The centuries of Roman domination decided forever the main aspect of the Po Valley. Cities dotted the areas at the foothills of the Alps and Apennines in two stretches; in the south along the via Aemilia, in the north along a Milan-Aquileia route. Julius Caesar granted Roman citizenship to these lands, whence he recruited many of his bravest troops. The Po Valley for a time hosted the capital of the Western Roman Empire, in Mediolanum from 286 to 403, and then in Ravenna till the end. It was attacked in the 3rd century by Germanic tribes bursting out from the Alps and sacked two centuries later by Attila the Hun, till its final conquest first by Odoacer, then at the hands of the Ostrogoths of king Theoderic the Great in the final years of the 5th century.

Middle Ages

The Gothic War and Justinian's plague devastated the Padan Plain, bringing urban life to an almost post-nuclear level. In this scenario of desolation, where many people had fled to the mountains for safety (making them fairly populated till the 20th century) came the Germanic Lombards, a warrior people who gave their name to almost the whole of the Po valley: Lombardy still retains their name, and in the Middle Ages the term was used to indicate all of northern Italy. The Lombards divided their domain in duchies, often infighting for the throne; Turin and Friuli, in the extreme west and east end respectively, seem to have been the most powerful, whereas the capital soon shifted from Verona to Pavia; also Monza was an important town in that time, more than ruined Milan. The Lombards' harsh, caste-like domain on the natives softened somewhat with their conversion from Arianism to Catholicism.

The Lombard kingdom was overthrown in 774 by Charlemagne and his Frankish armies, becoming a prized part of the Carolingian Empire. After the chaotic feudal dissolution of the empire and much infighting among pretenders to the imperial crown, Otto I of Saxony set the stage for the following phase of the region's history by adding the Po Valley to the Holy Roman Empire of the Germanic nation in 962, whereas in Veneto the lagoon capital of Venice emerged to great sea power in alliance with its old master the Byzantine Empire. In time the Comuni emerged, as towns thrived in commerce. Soon Milan became the most powerful city of the central plain of Lombardy proper, and despite being razed in 1162, it was a Milan-driven Lombard League with Papal benediction that defeated emperor Frederick Barbarossa at the Battle of Legnano in 1176.

Further civil wars escalated in the Guelph-Ghibelline reciprocate bloodbath of the 13th and 14th century, till the Signorie were born out the spent out Communal institutions. With Venice's expansion on the eastern mainland in the first half of the 15th century and Milan's supremacy in the center and west the region, not too heavily hit by the Black Death of 1348, reached unprecentended peaks of prosperity and population, with vast areas irrigated and cultivated with the most modern techniques available, averaging some 50 people per square kilometer, a very high standard for those times.

Modern era

This good time came to an end in 1494, when the ruinous Italian Wars began, tearing the land between France and Spain for decades (" _it. Franza o Spagna pur che se magna", the desperate Italians said, "France or Spain, provided we have something to eat"). Even tiny Switzerland got some Italian-speaking lands in the north (Canton Ticino, not technically a part of the Padan region), and the Venetian domain was invaded, forcing Venice into a cowering neutrality for the rest of its history as an independent power. In the end, Spain prevailed with Charles V's victory over Francis I of France at the Battle of Pavia in 1525.

The Spanish domination was heavy and oppressive, adding its burden to the unhealthy climate of the Counterreformation imposed by the archbishopric of Milan; Protestantism was strongly prevented from making inroads in the area. On the other hands, burning at the stake became more and more common practice during witchhunts, especially in the neighboring Alpine lands. It was during this bleak period, however, that Lombard industry recovered quickly and grew strong again, especially in the textile branch, its pillar.When the War of Spanish Succession traded Milan to Austria, soon things improved significantly in matters of government and administration, though the peasantry began a century-long plunge into misery. Cities, on the other hand, prospered and grew wider.

When Napoleon I entered the Po Valley during some of his brightest campaigns (1796 and 1800, culminating in the historical Battle of Marengo), he found an advanced country, the bulk of his Kingdom of Italy. Then with Napoleon's final defeat the Austrians came back, but they were no more welcome: the inhabitants of the region had discovered they were capable and ready to rule themselves as well as any foreign master, plus in the west Piedmont, ruled by the Italianized Savoy dynasty who had emerged from its Alpine domains in the 16th century, was overly ambitious.

The Risorgimento, after a sputtered start in 1848 and 1849, triumphed ten years later in Lombardy, conquered by a Franco-Piedmontese army. In 1866 Veneto joined young Italy, despite the Italians' bad proof on the battlefield, thanks to Prussia's military might forcing Austria to bow. Poverty in the countryside stepped up emigration to the Americas, a phenomenon which subsided in the central region towards the end of the 19th century, but persisted in poor Veneto well into the 20th century. In the meantime industry took off at astonishing rate, thanks to abundance of manpower, water and an ingenious, hard-working, literate people. The World Wars did not damage significantly the area, despite the grievous destructions wrought by Allied aerial bombing over many cities and heavy frontline fighting in Romagna. The Resistance was able to protect the main industries, which the Germans had been exploiting for war production, avoiding their destruction: on the 25th of April, 1945 a general insurrection in the wake of the German defeat was called to huge success. Most cities and town, notably Milan and Turin, were freed arms in hand by the partisans days before the Allies arrived.

In the aftermath of the war the Padan area confirmed itself as the most advanced in Italy, being the number one player in the economic miracle of the 1950s and 60s. It tended to polarize politically, with Emilia-Romagna, south of the Po, mostly Communist and still today strongly leftist, nonetheless rich and productive thanks to a tightly knit net of cooperatives; Veneto, traditionally poor, remained staunchly Catholic in politics and took off in the 70s, enriching and changing later to an unrecognizable degree; Lombardy saw a prevalence of the Catholic side (Christian Democracy), Piedmont of leftist forces. In recent times, while Emilia-Romagna, whence former Prime Minister Romano Prodi comes, has remained a firm pillar of the center-left, the remaining regions have become increasingly rightist, following the lead of the Milanese Silvio Berlusconi. Since 1989, Lega Nord, a federation of Northern regionalist parties, has promoted either secession or larger autonomy for the Padan area which they call "Padania".

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