1902 Encyclopedia > Italy > Topography of Central Italy

(Part 3)


Topography of Central Italy

2. Central Italy.—It has already been observed that this term is merely one used by geographers as a matter of convenience, and does not correspond to any natural division of the peninsula. Nor does it correspond with any received political division, for though the kingdom of Naples, which so long constituted a separate government, might be considered as representing Southern Italy, its three northern provinces, known as the Abruzzi, certainly belong rather to the central portion of the peninsula, with which they correspond in physical characters as well as in latitude and position. Writers on ancient geography generally include Campania and Samnium also in Central Italy, a division rendered convenient by the close relations existing between those countries and Latium, the political centre of Italy in those days. But as a mere geographical division it seems more convenient to include all the provinces that formed part of the kingdom of Naples, with the exception of the three Abruzzi, in Southern Italy.

The geography of Central Italy is almost wholly determined by the great range of the Apennines, which traverse its whole extent in a direction from about north-north-east to south-south-west, almost precisely parallel to that of the coast of the Adriatic from Rimini to Pescara. The line of the highest summits and of the watershed ranges at a distance of about 30 to 40 miles from the Adriatic, while it is separated by about double that distance from the Tyrrhenian Sea on the west. It is in this part of the range that almost all the highest points of the Apennines are found. Beginning from the group called the Alpi della Luna near the sources of the Tiber, which attain only to a height of 4435 feet, they are continued by the Monte Nerone (5014 feet), Monte Catria (5590), and Monte Maggio to the Monte Penino near Nocera (5169 feet), and thence to the Monte della Sibilla, at the source of the Nar or Nera, which attains an elevation of 7663 feet. Proceeding from thence southwards, we find in succession the Monte Vettore (8134 feet), the Pizzo di Sevo (7945 feet), and the two great mountain masses of the Monte Corno, commonly called the Gran Sasso d'ltalia, the most lofty of all the Apennines, attaining to a height of 9522 feet, and the Monte della Majella, but little inferior, its highest summit measuring 9084 feet. Farther south than this the range decreases in altitude, and no very lofty summits are found till we come to the group of Monte Matese, in Samnium (6660 feet), which according to the division here adopted belongs to Southern Italy. But besides the lofty central masses above enumerated, two other peaks deserve mention which, though outliers from the main range, and separated from it by valleys of considerable extent, rise to a height exceeding that of all but a few of the points already cited. These are the Monte Terminillo, near Leonessa (7278 feet), and the Monte Velino near the Lake Fucino, rising to 8192 feet, both of which are covered with snow from November till May, and being within sight of Rome are familiar objects to most visitors to Italy. But though the Apennines of Central Italy, viewed in the mass, may be considered as thus constituting a continuous range, they are far from having the definite arrangement which characterizes their northern extension from the neighbourhood of Genoa to the Adriatic. Instead of presenting, like the Alps and the northern Apennines, a definite central ridge, with transverse valleys leading down from it on both sides, the central Apennines in reality constitute a mountain mass of very considerable breadth, composed of a number of minor ranges and groups of mountains, which though very broken and irregular preserve a, generally parallel direction, and are separated by upland valleys, some of them of considerable extent as well as considerable elevation above the sea. Such is the basin of the Lake Fucino, situated in the very centre of the whole mass, and almost exactly midway between the two seas, but at an elevation of 2180 feet above them ; while the upper valley of the Aterno, in which Aquila is situated, is not less than 2380 feet above the level of the sea. Still more elevated is the valley of the Gizio (a tributary of the Aterno), of which Sulmona is the chief town, and which communicates with the upper valley of the Sangro by a level plain called the Piano di Cinqua Miglia, at an elevation of not less than 4298 feet, regarded as the most wintry spot in Italy. Nor do the highest summits ever form a continuous ridge of great altitude for any considerable distance; they are rather a series of groups separated by intervals of very inferior elevation forming natural passes across the range, and broken in some places (as is the case in almost all limestone countries) by the waters from the upland valleys turning suddenly at right angles, and breaking through the mountain ranges which bound them. Thus the two loftiest groups of all, the Gran Sasso and theMajella, are separated by the deep valley of the Aterno, while the Tronto, in like manner, breaks through the range between Monte Vettore and the Pizzo di Sevo. This constitution of the great mass of the central Apennines has in all ages exercised an important influence upon the character of this portion of Italy, which may be considered as divided by nature into two great regions, a cold and barren upland country, bordered on both sides by rich and fertile tracts, enjoying a warm but temperate climate.

The district west of the Apennines, extending from the foot of the mountains to the sea, which constitutes a region of great beauty and fertility, though inferior in productiveness to northern Italy, may be considered as coinciding in a, general way with the countries so familiar to all students of ancient history is Etruria and Latium. In modern times (until the recent union of all Italy) they were comprised in Tuscany and the southern Papal States. The northern part of Tuscany is indeed occupied to a considerable extent by the underfalls and offshoots of the Apennines, which, besides the ordinary slopes and spurs of the main range that constitutes its northern frontier towards the plain of the Po, throw off several outlying ranges or groups, which attain to a very considerable elevation. Of these the most remarkable is the group between the valleys of the Serchio and the Magra, commonly known as the mountains of Carrara, from the celebrated marble quarries in the vicinity of that city. Two of the summits of this group, the Pizzo d'Uccello and the Pania della Croce, attain to 6155 and 6100 feet. Another lateral range, the Prato Magno, which branches off from the central chain at the Monte Falterona, and separates the upper valley of the Arno from its second basin, rises to 5188 feet; while a similar branch, called the Alpe della Catenaja, of inferior elevation, divides the upper course of the Arno from that of the Tiber.

The rest of this tract is for the most part a hilly, broken country, but does not in general rise into anything like mountains, with the exception of the Monte Amiata, near Radicofani, a lofty isolated mass of volcanic origin, which attains to a height of 5650 feet. South of this the country between the frontier of Tuscany and the Tiber is in great part of volcanic origin, forming hills of no great elevation, with distinct crater-shaped basins, in several instances occupied by small lakes (the Lake of Bolsena, Lake of Vico, and Lake of Bracciano); and this volcanic tract extends across the Campagna of Rome, till it rises again in the lofty group of the Alban hills, the highest summit of which, the Monte Cavo, is 3160 feet above the sea. In this part the Apennines are separated from the sea by a space of only about 30 miles in width, occupied by the undulating volcanic plain of the Roman Campagna, from which the mountains rise in a wall-like barrier, of which the highest point, the Monte Gennaro, attains to a height of 4165 feet. South of Palestrina again, the main mass of the Apennines throws off another lateral mass, known in ancient times as the Volscian mountains (now called the Monti Lepini), separated from the central ranges by the broad valley of the Sacco, a tributary of the Liris or Garigliano, and forming a large and rugged mountain mass, nearly 5000 feet in height, which descends to the sea at Terracina, and between that point and the mouth of the Liris throws out several rugged mountain headlands, which may be considered as constituting the natural boundary between Latium and Campania, and consequently the natural limit of Central Italy. But besides these offshoots of the Apennines there are in this part of Central Italy several detached mountains, rising almost like islands on the seashore, of which the two most remarkable are the Monte Argentaro on the coast of Tuscany near Orbetello (2087 feet high) and the Monte Circello (1771 feet) at the angle of the Pontine Marshes, by the whole breadth of which it is separated from the Volscian Apennines.

The two valleys of the Arno and the Tiber (called in Italian Tevere) may be considered as furnishing the key to the geography of all this portion of Italy west of the Apennines. The Arno, which has its source in the Monte Falterona, one of the most elevated summits of the main chain of the Tuscan Apennines, flows at first nearly south till in the neighbourhood of Arezzo it turns abruptly to the north-west, and pursues that course as far as Pontassieve, where it again makes a sudden bend to the west, and pursues a westerly course from thence to the sea, passing through the two celebrated cities of Florence and Pisa. Its principal tributary is the Sieve, which joins it at Pontassieve, bringing down the waters of the Val di Mugello. The Elza and the Era, which join it on its right bank, descending from the hills near Siena and Volterra, are inconsiderable streams; and the Serchio, which flows from the territory of Lucca and the Alpi Apuani, and formerly joined the Arno a few miles from its mouth, now enters the sea by a separate channel. The most considerable rivers of Tuscany south of the Arno are the Cecina, which flows through the plain below Volterra, and the Ombrone, which rises in the hills near Siena, and enters the sea about 12 miles below Grosseto.

The Tiber, a much more important river than the Arno, and the largest in Italy with the exception of the Po, rises in the Apennines, about 20 miles east of the source of the Arno, and flows nearly south by Borgo S. Sepolcro and Citta di Castello, then between Perugia and Todi to Orte, just below which it receives the waters of the Nera. Its tributaries in the upper part of its course are of little importance, but the Nera, which rises in the lofty group of the Monte della Sibilla, is a very considerable stream, and brings with it the waters of the Velino (with its tributaries the Turano and the Salto), which joins it a few miles below its celebrated waterfall at Terui. The Teverone or Anio, which enters the Tiber a few miles above Rome, is a very inferior stream to the Nera, but brings down a considerable body of water from the mountains above Subiaco. It is a singular fact in the geography of Central Italy that the valley of the Tiber and that of the Arno are in some measure connected by that of the Chiana, a level and marshy tract, the waters from which flow partly into the Arno and partly into the Tiber.

The eastern declivity of the central Apennines towards the Adriatic is far less interesting and varied than the western. The central range here approaches (as has been already pointed out) much nearer to the sea, and hence, with few exceptions, the rivers that flow from it have but short courses and are of comparatively little importance. They may be briefly enumerated, proceeding from Rimini southwards :—(1) the Foglia ; (2) the Metauro, of historical celebrity, and affording access to one of the most frequented passes of the Apennines ; (3) the Esino ; (4) the Potenza; (5) the Chienti; (6) the Aso; (7) the Tronto; (8) the Vomano; (9) the Aterno; (10) the Sangro; (ll) the Trigno, which forms the boundary of the southernmost province of the Abruzzi, and may therefore be taken as the limit of Central Italy. Much the most considerable of these rivers is the Aterno (called also the Pescara, from the city of that name at its mouth); this has its sources in the Apennines above Aquila, and flows through a broad upland valley in a south-east direction for above 40 miles till it approaches Popoli, when it turns abruptly to the north-east, and cuts directly through the main chain of the Apennines between the range of the Gran Sasso and that of the Majella, descending with a very rapid course till it enters the sea at Pescara.

The whole of this portion of Central Italy, between the Apennines and the sea, is a hilly country, much broken and cut up by the torrents from the mountains, but fertile, especially in fruit-trees, olives, and vines ; and hence it has been, both in ancient and modern times, a populous district, containing many small towns though no great cities. Its chief disadvantage is the absence of ports, the coast preserving an almost unbroken straight line, with the single exception of Ancona, which has in all ages been the only port worthy of the name on the eastern coast of Central Italy.

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