1902 Encyclopedia > Italy > Topography of Southern Italy

(Part 4)


Topography of Southern Italy

3. Southern Italy.—The great central mass of the Apennines, which has held its course throughout Central Italy, with a general direction from north-west to south-east, may be considered as continued in the same direction for about 100 miles farther, from the basin-shaped group of the Monti del Matese (which rises to the height of 6660 feet) to the neighbourhood of Potenza, in the heart of the province of Basilicata, corresponding nearly to the ancient Lucania. The whole of the district known in ancient times as Samnium (a part of which still retains the name of Sannio, though now officially designated as the province of Molise) is occupied by an irregular mass of mountains, of much inferior height to those of Central Italy, and having still less of the character of a regular range, being broken up into a number of groups or masses, intersected by rivers, which have for the most part a very tortuous course. This mountainous tract, which has an average breadth of from 50 to 60 miles, is bounded on the west by the plain of Campania, now called the Terra di Lavoro, and on the east by the much broader and more extensive tract of Apulia or Puglia, composed partly of level plains, but for the most part of undulating downs of very slight elevation, and contrasting strongly with the mountain ranges of the Apennines, which rise abruptly above them. The central mass of the mountains, however, throws out two outlying ranges, the one to the west, which separates the Bay of Naples from that of Salerno, and culminates in the Monte St Angelo above Castellamare (4720 feet), while the detached volcanic cone of Vesuvius, which rises to near 4000 feet, is isolated from the neighbouring mountains by an intervening strip of plain. On the east side in like manner the Monte Gargano, a detached lime-stone mass which rises to the height of 5120 feet, and projects in a bold spur-like promontory into the Adriatic, forming the only break in the otherwise uniform coastline of Italy on that sea, though separated from the great body of the Apennines by a considerable interval of low country, may be considered as merely an outlier from the central mass.

From the neighbourhood of Potenza, the main ridge of the Apennines is continued by the Monti della Maddalena in a direction nearly due south, so that it approaches within a short distance of the Gulf of Policastro, from whence it is carried on as far as the Monte Pollino, the last of the lofty summits of the Apennine chain, which exceeds 7000 feet in height. The range is, however, continued through the whole of the province now called Calabria, to the southern extremity or " toe " of Italy, but presents in this part a very much altered character, the broken limestone range which is the true continuation of the chain as far as the neighbourhood of Nicastro and Catanzaro, and keeps close to the west coast, baing flanked on the east by a great mass of granitic mountains, rising to a height of about 6000 feet, and covered with vast forests, from which it derives the name of La Sila. A similar mass, but separated from the preceding by a low neck of Tertiary hills, fills up the whole of the peninsular extremity of Italy from Squillace to Reggio. Its highest point, called Aspromonte, attains to a height of 4300 feet.

While the rugged and mountainous district of Calabria, extending nearly due south for a distance of more than 150 miles, thus derives its character and configuration almost wholly from the range of the Apennines, by which it is traversed from end to end, the case is wholly different with the long spur-like promontory which projects towards the east to Brindisi and Otranto. The older maps of Italy, indeed, with one accord represent the Apennines as bifurcating somewhere in the neighbourhood of Venosa, and sending off an arm of the main range through this eastern district, similar to that which traverses Calabria. But this is entirely erroneous ; the whole of the district in question is merely a continuation of the low tract of Apulia, consisting of undulating downs and low bare hills of very moderate elevation, with a dry calcareous soil of Tertiary origin. The Monte Voltore, which rises in the neighbourhood of Melfi and Venosa to a height of 4357 feet, is of volcanic origin, and in great measure detached from the adjoining mass of the Apennines. But eastward from this nothing like a mountain is to be found, the ranges of low bare hills called the Murgie of Gravina and Altamura gradually sinking into the still more moderate level of those which constitute the peninsular tract that extends between Brindisi and Taranto as far as the Cape of Sta Maria di Leuca, the south-east extremity of Italy. It is this projecting tract, which may be termed the "heel" or "spur" of Southern Italy, that, in conjunction with the great promontory of Calabria, forms the deep bay called the Gulf of Taranto, about 70 miles in width, and somewhat greater depth, which receives a number of streams that descend from the central mass of the Apennines.

The rivers of Southern Italy are none of them of any great importance. The Liris or Garigliano, which has its source in the central Apennines above Sora, not far from the Lake Fucino, and enters the Gulf of Gaeta about 10 miles east of the city of that name, brings down a considerable body of water; as does also the Volturno, which rises in the mountains between Castel di Sangro and Agnone, flows past Isernia, Venafro, and Capua, and enters the sea about 15 miles from the mouth of the Garigliano. About 16 miles above Capua it receives the Calore, which flows by Benevento, and is a tributary of some importance. The Silarus or Sele, which enters the Gulf of Salerno a few miles below the ruins of Psestum, is the only other river of consideration on the western coast of Southern Italy. Below this the watershed of the Apennines is too near to the sea on that side to allow of the formation of any streams of importance. Hence the rivers that flow in the opposite direction into the Adriatic and the Gulf of Taranto have much longer courses, and are of more considerable volume and magnitude, though all of them partaking of the character of mountain torrents, rushing down with great violence in winter and after storms, but dwindling into scanty streams in the summer, which hold a winding and sluggish course through the great plains of Apulia. Proceeding south from the Trigno, which has been already mentioned as constituting the limit of Central Italy, we find (1) the Biferno and (2) the Fortore, both of them rising in the mountains of Samnium, and flowing into the Adriatic west of Monte Gargano; (3) the Cervaro, south of tne great promontory; and (4) the Ofanto, familiar to all scholars as the Aufidus of Horace, whose description of it is characteristic of almost all the rivers of southern Italy, of which it may be taken as the typical representative. It rises about 15 miles west of Conza, and only about 25 miles from the Gulf of Salerno, so that it is frequently (though erroneously) described as traversing the whole range of the Apennines. In its lower course it flows near Canosa and traverses the celebrated battlefield of Cannse. (5) The Bradano, which rises near Venosa, almost at the foot of Monte Voltore, flows towards the south-east into the Gulf of Taranto, as do the Basento, the Agri, and the Sinno, all of which descend from the central chain of the Apennines south of Potenza, and water the extensive plains between the mountains and the shores of the gulf. The Crati, which flows from Cosenza northwards, and then turns abruptly eastward to enter the same gulf, is the only stream worthy of notice in the rugged peninsula of Calabria; while the long extent of arid limestone hills projecting eastwards to Capo di Leuca does not give rise to anything more than a mere streamlet, from the mouth of the Ofanto to the south-eastern extremity of Italy.

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