1902 Encyclopedia > Italy > Italy - Topgraphy

(Part 1)


Topography of Italy

ITALY, or more correctly ITALIA, is the name that has been applied both in ancient and modern times to the great peninsula that projects from the mass of central Europe far to the south into the Mediterranean Sea, where the great island of Sicily may be considered as in fact a mere continuation or appendage of the continental promontory. Confining ourselves, however, to Italy itself, its natural boundaries are marked with a distinctness that is quite exceptional. The portion of the Mediterranean commonly termed by geographers the Tyrrhenian Sea forms its limit on the W. and S., and the Adriatic on the E. : while to the north, where it joins the main continent of Europe, it is separated from the adjacent regions by the mighty chain of the Alps, which sweeps round in a vast semicircle from the head of the Adriatic to the shores of Nice and Monaco, presenting throughout an almost unbroken mountain barrier.

The land thus circumscribed extends between the parallels of 46° 40' and 37° 55' N. lat. and between 6° 35' and 18° 35' E. long. Its greatest length is from north-west to south-east, in which direction it measures 620 geographical miles or 718 English miles in a direct line from the boundary near Courmayeur to the Cape Sta Maria di Leuca, south of Otranto, but the great mountain peninsula of Calabria extends about two degrees farther south to Cape Spartivento in lat. 37° 55'. Its breadth is, owing to its configuration, very irregular. The northern portion, measured from the Alps at the Monte Viso to the mouth of the Po, has a breadth of about 230 geographical or 270 English miles, and from the Monte Viso to the head of the Adriatic near the mouth of the Isonzo it measures 290 geographical or 340 English miles. But the peninsula of Italy, which forms the largest portion of the country, nowhere exceeds 130 geographical miles in breadth, while it does not generally measure more than from 90 to 100 miles across. Its southern extremity, now called Calabria, forms a complete peninsula, being united to the mass of Lucania or the Basilicata by an isthmus of only 35 English miles in width, while that between the Gulfs of Sta Eufemia and Squillace, which connects the two portions of the province, does not exceed 20 miles. The area of the present kingdom of Italy, exclusive of the large islands, is computed at 93,640 square miles. Savoy, which until the treaty of 1860 was commonly considered as included in Italy, on account of its being comprised in the kingdom of Sardinia, as a matter of physical geography unquestionably belongs to France (to which it is now politically united), being separated from the Italian province of Piedmont by the main chain of the Alps.

But, though that great range forms throughout the northern boundary of Italy, the exact limits of the country at the two extremities of the Alpine chain are not very clearly marked, and have been subject to considerable fluctuations both in ancient and modern times. Ancient geographers appear to have generally regarded the remarkable headland which descends from the Maritime Alps to the sea between Nice and Monaco as the limit of Italy in that direction, and in a purely geographical point of view it is probably the best point that could be selected. But Augustus, who was the first to give to Italy a definite political organization, carried the frontier to the river Varus or Var, a few miles west of Nice, and this river continued in modern times to be generally recognized as the boundary between France and Italy. It was only in 1860 that the annexation of Nice and the adjoining territory to France carried the political frontier farther east, to a point between Mentone and Ventimiglia, which certainly constitutes no natural limit.

Towards the north-east also the line of demarcation is not clearly characterized. The point where the range of the Julian Alps approaches almost close to the seashore (just at the sources of the little stream so celebrated in ancient times as the Timavus) would seem to constitute the best natural limit. But in the constitution of Italy by Augustus the frontier was carried farther east so as to include Tergeste (Trieste), and the little river Formio (Risano) was in the first instance chosen as the limit, but this was subsequently transferred to the river Arsia (the Arsa), which flows into the Gulf of Quarnero, so as to include almost all Istria ; and the circumstance that the coast of Istria was throughout the Middle Ages held by the powerful republic of Venice tended to perpetuate this arrangement, so that Istria was generally regarded as belonging to Italy, though certainly not forming any natural portion of that country.

The only other part of the northern frontier of Italy where the boundary is not clearly marked by nature is Tyrol or the valley of the Adige. Here the main chain of the Alps (as marked by the watershed) recedes so far to the north that it has never constituted, as it has done throughout the greater part of its extent, the national limit between populations of different race and language. In ancient times the upper valleys of the Adige and its tributaries were inhabited by Rhaetian tribes and included in the province of Rhaetia; and the line of demarcation between that province and Italy was purely arbitrary, as it remains to this day. Tridentum or Trent was in the time of Pliny included in the tenth region of Italy or Venetia, but he tells us that the inhabitants were a Rhaetian tribe. At the present day the frontier between Austria and the kingdom of Italy crosses the Adige about 30 miles below Trent, —that city and its territory, which previous to the treaty of Luneville in 1802 was governed by sovereign archbishops of its own, subject only to the German emperors, being now included in the Austrian empire. While the Alps thus constitute the northern boundary of Italy, its configuration and internal geography are determined almost entirely by the great chain of the Apennines, which branches off from the Maritime Alps between Nice and Genoa, and, after stretching in the first instance in an unbroken line across from the Gulf of Genoa to the Adriatic, then turns more to the south, and is continued throughout the whole of Central and Southern Italy, of which it forms as it were the backbone, until it ends in the southernmost extremity of Calabria at Cape Spartivento. The great spur or promontory projecting towards the east to Brindisi and Otranto, which figures in the older maps of Italy as if it were constituted by a branch from the main range of the Apennines, is not in reality so formed, and has no direct connexion with the central chain.

One chief result of the manner in which the Apennines thus traverse the whole of Italy from the Mediterranean to the Adriatic is the marked division between Northern Italy, including the region north of the Apennines and extending thence to the foot of the Alps, and the central and more Central and Southern Italy, though in general use among geographers, and convenient for descriptive purposes, do not correspond to any natural divisions of the great Italian peninsula.

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Italy - Table of Contents

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