1902 Encyclopedia > Italy > Topography of Northern Italy

(Part 2)


Topography of Northern Italy

1. Northern Italy.—By far the larger portion of Northern Italy is occupied by the basin of the Po, which comprises the whole of the broad plain extending from the foot of the Apennines to that of the Alps, together with the valleys and slopes on both sides of it. Throughout its whole course indeed, from its source in Monte Viso to its outflow into the Adriatic—a distance of more than 5 degrees of longitude, or 220 miles in a direct line—the Po receives all the waters that flow from the Apennines northwards, and all those that descend from the Alps towards the south, till one comes to the Adige, which, after pursuing a parallel course with the Po for a considerable distance, enters the Adriatic by a separate mouth.

There is no other instance in Europe of a basin of similar extent equally clearly characterized,—the perfectly level character of the plain being as striking as the boldness with which the lower slopes of the mountain ranges begin to rise on each side of it. This is most clearly marked on the side of the Apennines, where the great Emilian Way, which has been the high road from the time of the Romans to our own, preserves an unbroken straight line from Rimini to Piacenza, a distance of more than 150 miles, during which the underfalls of the mountains continually approach it on the left, without once crossing the line of road. On the side of the Alps the boundary is more varied and broken, the great projecting masses of those mountains being intersected by large rivers, which produce valleys of considerable extent running far up into the mountains. But still, from whatever point the traveller approaches the Alps, he will be struck by the manner in which the unbroken alluvial plain extends quite up to the foot of the actual mountains or their immediate offshoots,—presenting in this respect a striking contrast with the broken, hilly country which is found on the north side of the Alps both in Switzerland and in Austria.

The only exception to this uniform level occurs in the Monferrat region, which consists principally of hills of moderate elevation and of Tertiary formation, projecting to the north from the Ligurian Apennines, and occupying a breadth of about 50 miles from the neighbourhood of Turin to that of Alessandria, around which the Po is compelled to form a great bend between Turin and Valenza, leaving, however, a broad strip of plain (from 15 to 30 miles across) between its north bank and the foot of the Alps. The detached group of the Euganean hills, within sight of the Adriatic, though separated from the nearest Alps by a very narrow strip of plain, is wholly independent of that great chain, and forms a separate and isolated mass of volcanic origin.

The geography of Northern Italy will be best described by following the course of the Po. That mighty stream has its origin as a mountain torrent descending from two little dark lakes on the north flank of Monte Viso, at a height of more than 6000 feet above the sea; and after a course of less than 20 miles it enters the plain at Saluzzo, between which and Turin, a distance of only 30 miles, it receives three considerable tributaries,—the Clusone on its left bank, bringing down the waters from the valley of Fenestrelle, and the Varaita and Maira on the south, contributing those of two valleys of the Alps immediately south of that of the Po itself. Between Turin and Valenza it receives no affluent of importance on its right bank, but a few miles below the latter town it is joined by the Tanaro, a large stream, which brings with it the united waters of the Stura, the Bormida, and several minor rivers. All these have their sources on the northern flank or reverse of the Maritime Alps, where the chain bends round towards Savona, and being fed by the snows of those lofty mountains are greatly superior in volume to the rivers that descend from the Apennines farther east.

But far more important are the great rivers that descend from the main chain of the Graian and Pennine Alps, and join the Po on its left bank. Of these the Dora (called for distinction's sake Dora Riparia), which unites with the greater river just beiow Turin, has its source in the Mont Genevre, and flows past Susa at the foot of the Mont Cenis. Next comes the Stura, which rises in the glaciers of the Roche Melon; then the Oreo, flowing through the Val di Locana; and then the Dora Baltea, one of the greatest of all the Alpine tributaries of the Po, which has its source in tlie glaciers of Mont Blanc, above Courmayeur, and thence descends through the Val dAosta for about 70 miles till it enters the plain at Ivrea, and after flowing about 20 miles more joins the Po a few miles below Chivasso. This great valley—one of the most considerable on the southern side of the Alps—has attracted more especial attention, in ancient as well as modern times, from its leading to two of the most frequented passes across the great mountain chain,—the Great and the Little St Bernard, the former diverging at Aosta, and crossing the main ridges to the north iuto the valley of the Rhone, the other following a more westerly direction into Savoy. In its course below Aosta also the Dora Baltea receives several considerable tributaries, which descend from the range of glaciers between Mont Blanc and Monte Rosa.

About 25 miles below its confluence with the Dora, the Po receives the waters of the Sesia, also a large river, which has its source above Alagna at the southern foot of Monte Rosa, and after flowing by Varallo and Vercelli falls into the Po about 14 miles below the latter city. About 30 miles east of this confluence,—in the course of which the Po makes a great bend south to Valenza, and then returns again to the northward,—it is joined by the Ticino, a large and rapid river, which brings with it the outflow of the great lake called the Lago Maggiore, and all the accumulated waters that flow into it. Of these the Ticino itself has its source about 10 miles above Airolo at the foot of the St Gotthard, and after flowing above 36 miles through the Val Leventina to Bellinzona, where it is joined by the Moesa bringing down the waters of the Val Misocco, enters the lake through a marshy plain at Magadino, about 10 miles distant. On the west side of the lake the Toccia or Tosa descends from the pass of the Gries nearly due south to Domo d'Ossola, where it receives the waters of the Doveria from the Simplon, and a few miles lower down those of the Val Anzasca from the foot of Monte Rosa, and 12 miles farther has its outlet into the lake between Baveno and Pallanza. Besides these two great streams the Lago Maggiore is the receptacle of the waters of two minor but considerable lakes—the Lago di Lugano on the east and the Lago d'Orta on the west. The Ticino has a course of above 50 miles from Sesto Calende, where it issues from the lake, through the level plain, till it joins the Po just below the city of Pavia.

The next great affluent of the Po, the Adda, forms in like manner the outflow of a great lake—the Lake of Como, and has also its sources far away in the Alps, above Bormio, from whence it flows through the broad and fertile valley of the Val Tellina for a distance of more than 65 miles till it enters the lake near Colico. The Adda in this part of its course has a direction almost due east to west; but at the same point where it reaches the lake, another river, the Lira, descends the valley of S. Giacomo, which runs nearly north and south from the pass of the Spliigen, thus affording one of the most direct lines of communication across the Alps. The Adda flows out of the lake at its south-eastern extremity at Lecco, and has thence a course through the plain of above 70 miles till it enters the Po between Piacenza and Cremona. In this part of its course it flows by Lodi and Pizzighettone, and receives the waters of two minor but considerable streams, the Brembo, descending from the Val Brembana, and the Serio from the Val Seriana above Bergamo. The Oglio, a more considerable stream than either of the last two, rises in the Monte Tonale above Edolo, and descends through the Val Camonica to Lovere, where it expands into a large lake, called the Lake of Iseo from the town of that name on its southern shore. Issuing from thence at its south-west extremity, the Oglio has a long and winding course through the plain before it finally reaches the Po a few miles above Borgoforte. In this lower part of its course it receives the smaller streams of the Mella, which flows by Brescia, and the Chiese, which proceeds from a small lake called the Lago dTdro, between the Lake of Iseo and that of Garda.

The last of the great tributaries of the Po is the Mincio, which flows from the Lago di Garda, the largest of all the Italian lakes, and has a course of about 40 miles from Peschiera, where it issues from the lake at its south-eastern angle, till its joins the Po. About 12 miles above the confluence it passes under the walls of Mantua, and expands into a broad lake-like reach so as entirely to encircle that city. Nothwithstanding its extent, the Lake of Garda is not fed, like those of Como and Maggiore, by the snows of the high Alps, nor is the stream which enters it at its northern extremity (at Riva) commonly known as the Mincio, though in reality forming the main source of that river, but is termed the Sarca; it rises at the foot of the Monte Tonale.

The Adige, which is formed by the junction of two streams—the Etsch or Adige proper and the Eisach, both of which belong to Tyrol rather than to Italy—descends as far as Verona, where it enters the great plain, with a course from north to south nearly parallel to the rivers last described, and would seem likely in like manner to discharge its waters into those of the Po, but below Legnago it turns to the eastward and pursues a course parallel to that of the Po itself for a space of about 40 miles, till it enters the Adriatic by an independent mouth about 8 miles from the northern outlet of the greater stream. The waters of the two rivers have, however, been made to communicate by artificial cuts and canals in more than one place.

The Po itself, which is here a very large stream, with an average width of from 400 to 600 yards, continues to flow with an undivided mass of waters as far as a place called Sta Maria di Ariano, where it parts into two arms, known as the Po della Maestra and Po di Goro, and these again are subdivided into several other branches, forming an extensive delta above 20 miles in width from north to south. The point of bifurcation is at present about 25 miles from the sea, but was formerly much farther inland, more than 10 miles west of Ferrara, where a small arm of the river, still called the Po di Ferrara, branches off from the main stream. Previous to the year 1154 this channel was the main stream, and the two small branches into which it subdivides, called the Po di Volano and Po di Primaro, were in early times the two main outlets of the great river. The southernmost of these, the Po cli Primaro, enters the Adriatic only about 12 miles north of Eavenna, so that if these two arms be included, the whole delta of the Po extends through a space of about 36 miles from south to north. The whole course of the river, including its windings, is estimated at about 450 miles.

Besides the delta of the Po and the large marshy tracts which it forms, there exist on both sides of it extensive lagoons of salt water, generally separated from the Adriatic by narrow strips of sand or embankments, partly natural partly artificial, but having openings from distance to distance through these barriers, which admit of the influx and efflux of the seawater, and serve as ports for communication with the mainland. The best known and the most extensive of these lagoons is that in which Venice is situated, and which extends from Torcello in the north to Chioggia and Brondolo in the south, a distance of above 40 miles; but they were formerly much more extensive, and afforded a continuous means of internal navigation, by what were called " the Seven Seas " (Septem Maria), from Eavenna to Altinum, a few miles north of Torcello. That city, like Eavenna, originally stood in the midst of a lagoon; and the coast to the east of it, the whole way to near Monfalcone, where it meets the mountains, is occupied by similar expanses of water, which are, however, continually drying up and becoming gradually converted into dry land. The changes in the coastline have consequently been considerable throughout this extent.

The tract in the interior, adjoining this long line of lagoons, is, like the basin of the Po, a broad expanse of perfectly level alluvial plain, extending from the Adige eastwards to the Carnic Alps, where they approach close to the Adriatic between Aquileia and Trieste, and north-wards to the foot of the great chain, which here sweeps round in a semicircle from the neighbourhood of Vicenza to that of Aquileia. The space thus included was known in ancient times as Venetia,a name applied in the Middle Ages to the well-known city; the eastern portion of it became known in the Middle Ages as the Frioul or Friuli. It is traversed by a number of rivers, descending from the Alpine chain; but these are for the most part nothing more than mountain torrents, bringing clown vast masses of stones and shingle to the plain below. Beginning from the Adige and proceeding from west to east the streams worthy of notice are—(1) the Brenta, a navigable stream of a different character from the rest, which descends from the Val Sugana, and passes within a few miles of Padua; (2) the Piave, flowing by Belluno; (3) the Tagliamento, which descends from the Carnic Alps above Tolmezzo, and though a large stream has a very torrent-like character; (4) the Isonzo, a deep and rapid river, which has its sources in the highest group of the Julian Alps, at the foot of Mont Terglou, and brings with it the waters of the Natisone, also a considerable stream.

Returning to the south of the Po, the tributaries of that river on its right bank below the Tanaro are very inferior in volume and importance to those from the north. Flowing from the Ligurian Apennines, which are of no great elevation and never attain to the limit of perpetual snow, they have no continuous supply through the year, and in summer generally dwindle into insignificant streams flowing through dry beds of shingle. Beginning from the Tanaro, the principal of them are—(1) the Scrivia, a small but rapid stream flowing from the Apennines at the back of Genoa; (2) the Trebbia, a much larger river, though of the same torrent-like character, which rises near Torriglia within 20 miles of Genoa, flows by Bobbio, and joins the Po a few miles above Piacenza; (3) the Nure, a few miles east of the preceding ; (4) the Taro, a more considerable stream; (5) the Parma, flowing by the city of the same name; (6) the Enza; (7) the Secchia, which flows by Modena ; (8) the Panaro, a few miles to the east of that city; (9) the Reno, which flows by Bologna, but instead of holding its course till it discharges its waters into the Po, is turned aside by an artificial channel into the Po di Primaro. The other small streams east of this—of which the most considerable are the Solaro, the Santerno, flowing by Imola, the Lamone by Faenza, the Montone by Forli —all have their outlet in like manner into the Po di Primaro, or by artificial mouths into the Adriatic between j Ravenna and Rimini. The river Marecchia, which enters the sea immediately north of Rimini, may be considered as the natural limit of Northern Italy. It was adopted by Augustus as the boundary of Gallia Cispadana; the far-famed Rubicon was a trifling stream a few miles farther j north, now called Fiumicino.

The narrow strip of coastland between the Maritime Alps, the Apennines, and the sea—called in ancient times Liguria, and now known as the Riviera of Genoa— though belonging in respect of latitude to Northern Italy, is in other respects quite distinct from the region included under that name. Throughout its whole extent, from Nice to Genoa on the one side, and again from Genoa to Spezia on the other, it is almost wholly mountainous, being occupied by the branches and offshoots of the mountain ranges at the back, which separate it throughout from the great plain to the north, while they send down their lateral ridges close to the water's edge, leaving only in places a few square miles of level plains at the mouths of the rivers and openings of the valleys. Rugged as it is, the district thus bounded is by no means devoid of fertility, the steep slopes facing the south enjoying so fine a climate as to render them very favourable for the growth of fruit trees, especially the olive, which is cultivated in terraces to a considerable height up the face of the mountains, while the openings of the valleys are generally occupied by towns or villages.

From the proximity of the mountains to the sea none of the rivers in this part of Italy have any long course, and they are generally mere mountain torrents, rapid and swollen in winter and spring, and almost dry in summer. The largest and most important are those which descend from the Maritime Alps between Nice and Albenga. Beginning from the Var, which as already stated is now included in France, the most considerable of them are—the Roja, which rises in the Col di Tenda, and descends to Ventimiglia; the Taggia, between San Remo and Oneglia; and the Centa, which enters the sea at Albenga. The other streams, which flow from the range of the Apennines to the sea between Savona and Genoa, are of very little importance, from the proximity of the watershed and its small elevation. The same remark applies to the Riviera east of Genoa, where the Lavagna, which enters the sea at Chiavari, is the only stream of any importance between Genoa and the Gulf of Spezia. But immediately east of that inlet (a remarkable instance of a deep land-locked gulf with no river flowing into it) the Magra, which descends from Pontremoli down the valley known as the Lunigiana, is a large stream, and brings with it the waters of another considerable stream, the Vara. The Magra (Macra) was in ancient times the boundary between Liguria and Etruria, and may be considered as constituting on this side the limit of Northern Italy.

The Apennines, as has been already mentioned, here traverse the whole breadth of Italy, cutting off the peninsula properly so termed from the broader mass of Northern Italy by a continuous barrier of considerable breadth, though of far inferior elevation to that of the Alps. The Ligurian Apennines, which may be considered as taking their rise in the neighbourhood of Savona, where a pass of very moderate elevation connects them with the Maritime Alps, of which they are in fact only a continuation, are among the least lofty portions of that long range. From the neighbourhood of Savona to that of Genoa they do not rise to more than 3000 to 4000 feet, and are traversed by passes oi less than 2000 feet. As they extend towards the east they increase in elevation: thus Monte Penna, at the. sources of the Taro, rises to 5704 feet; Monte Molinadigo, at the head of the valley of Pontremoli, to 5100; and the Alpe di Succisa, near the pass which is crossed by the road from Sarzana to Reggio, to 6600; while the Monte Cimone, a little farther east, attains to the height of 7088 feet. This is the highest point in the northern Apennines, and belongs to a group of summits of nearly equal altitude; the range which from thence is continued between Tuscany and what are now. known as the Emilian provinces has a very uniform character both in elevation and direction, and presents a continuous ridge from the mountains at the head of the Val di Mugello (due north of Florence) to the point where they are traversed by the celebrated Furlo Pass. The highest point in this part of the range is the Monte Falterona, above the sources of the Arno, which attains to a height of 5408 feet. Throughout this tract the Apennines are generally covered with extensive forests of chestnut, oak, and beech; while their upper slopes afford admirable pasturage. But few towns of any importance are found either on their northern or southern declivity, and the former region especially, though occupying a broad tract of from 30 to 40 miles in width, between the crest of the Apennines and the plain of the Po, is one of the least known and at the same time least interesting portions of Italy.

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