1902 Encyclopedia > Italy > Climate and Natural Productions of Italy

(Part 6)


Climate and Natural Productions of Italy

The geographical position of Italy, extending from about 46° to 38° N. lat., naturally renders it one of the hottest countries in Europe. But the effect of its southern latitude is to a great extent tempered by its peninsular character, bounded as it is on both sides by seas of considerable extent, as well as by the great range of the Alps with its snows and glaciers to the north. Great differences also exist with regard to climate between Northern and Southern Italy, due in great part to other circumstances as well as to difference of latitude. Thus the great plain of Northern Italy is chilled by the cold winds from the Alps, while the damp warm winds from the Mediterranean are to a great extent intercepted by the Ligurian Apennines. Hence this part of the country has a cold winter climate, so that the thermometer descends as low as 10° Fahr., and the mean winter temperature of Turin is actually lower than that of Copenhagen. Throughout the region north of the Apennines no plants will thrive which cannot stand occasional severe frosts in winter, so that not only oranges and lemons but even the olive tree cannot be grown, except in specially favoured situations. On the other hand the strip of coast between the Apennines and the sea, known as the Riviera of Genoa, is not only extremely favourable to the growth of olives, but produces oranges and lemons in abundance, while even the aloe, the cactus, and the palm flourish in many places. Indeed, the vegetation of parts of this favoured district has a more southern character than is met with again till below Terracina towards the south. The great plain of Lombardy, however, produces rice in large quantities, as well as Indian corn, millet, and wheat; while the mountain slopes both of the Alps and Apennines are covered with vast forests of chestnuts, and the lower hills are clothed with vineyards, which furnish abundance of wines, many of them of excellent quality. Silk is also an important article of produce both in the north of Italy and in Tuscany, and mulberries are largely planted with a view to its production.

Central Italy also presents striking differences of climate and temperature according to the greater or less proximity to the mountains. Thus the greater part of Tuscany, and the provinces from thence to Rome, enjoy a mild winter climate, and are well adapted to the growth of mulberries and olives as well as vines, but it is not till after passing Terracina, in proceeding along the western coast towards the south, that the vegetation of Southern Italy develops itself in its full luxuriance. Even in the central parts of Tuscany, however, the climate is very much affected by the neighbouring mountains, and the increasing elevation of the Apennines as they proceed south naturally produces a corresponding effect upon the temperature. But it is when we reach the central range of the Apennines that we find the coldest districts of Italy. In all the upland valleys of the Abruzzi and of Sannio, snow begins to fall early in November, and heavy storms occur often as late as May; whole communities are shut out for months from any intercourse with their neighbours, and some villages are so long buried in snow that regular passages are made between the different houses for the sake of communication among the inhabitants. The district extending from the south-east of Lake Fucino to the Piano di Cinquemiglia, and enclosing the upper basin of the Sangro and the small lake of Scanno, is the coldest and most bleak part of Italy south of the Alps. Heavy falls of snow in June are not uncommon, and it is only for a short time towards the end of July that the nights are totally exempt from light frosts. Yet less than 40 miles east of this district, and even more to the north, we find the olive, the fig-tree, and the orange thriving luxuriantly on the shores of the Adriatic from Ortona to Vasto. In the same way, whilst in the plains and hills round Naples snow is rarely seen, and never remains long, and the thermometer seldom descends to the freezing point, 20 miles east from it in the fertile valley of Avellino, of no great elevation, but encircled by high mountains, light frosts are not uncommon as late as June; and 18 miles farther east, in the elevated region of S. Angelo de' Lombardi and Bisaccia, the inhabitants are always warmly clad, and vines grow with difficulty and only in sheltered places. But nowhere are these contrasts so striking as in Calabria. The shores, especially on the Tyrrhenian Sea, present almost a continued grove of olive, orange, lemon, and citron trees, which attain a size unknown in the north of Italy. The sugar-cane flourishes, the cotton-plant ripens to perfection, date-trees are seen in the gardens, the rocks are clothed with the prickly-pear or Indian fig, the enclosures of the fields are formed by aloes and sometimes pomegranates, the liquorice-root grows wild, and the mastic, the myrtle, and many varieties of oleander and cistus form the underwood of the natural forests of arbutus and evergreen oak. If we turn inland but 5 or 6 miles from the shore, and often even less, the scene changes. High districts covered with oaks and chestnuts succeed to this almost tropical vegetation; a little higher up and we reach the elevated regions of the Pollino and the Sila, covered with firs and pines, and affording rich pastures even in the midst of summer, when heavy dews and light frosts succeed each other in July and August, and snow begins to appear at the end of September or early in October. Along the shores of the Adriatic, which are exposed to the north-east winds, blowing coldly from over the Albanian mountains, delicate plants do not thrive so well in general as under the same latitude along the shores of the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Southern Italy indeed has in general a very different climate from the northern portion of the kingdom; and, though large tracts are still occupied by rugged mountains of sufficient elevation to retain the snow for a considerable part of the year, the districts adjoining the sea enjoy a climate similar to that of Greece and the southern provinces of Spain. Unfortunately several of these fertile tracts suffer severely from malaria, and especially the great plain adjoining the Gulf of Tarentum, which in the early ages of history was surrounded by a girdle of Greek cities, —some of which attained to almost unexampled prosperity, —has for centuries past been given up to almost complete desolation.

It is remarkable that, of the vegetable productions of Italy, many of those which are at the present day among the first to attract the attention of the visitor, and might be thought characteristic of the country, are of comparatively late introduction, and were wholly unknown in ancient times. The olive indeed in all ages clothed the hills of a large part of the country; but the orange and lemon, which now constitute so prominent a feature in the warmer districts of the peninsula, are a late importation from the East, while the cactus or Indian fig and the aloe, both of them so conspicuous on the shores of southern Italy, as well as of the Riviera of Genoa, are of Mexican origin, and consequently could not have been introduced earlier than the 16th century. The same remark applies to the maize or Indian corn, which is now so extensively cultivated in every part of Italy. Many botanists are even of opinion that the sweet chestnut, which now constitutes so large a part of the forests that clothe the sides both of the Alps and the Apennines, and in some districts supplies the chief food of the inhabitants, is not originally of Italian growth; it is certain at least that it had not attained in ancient times to anything like the extension and importance which it possesses at the present day.

It may have been gathered from the preceding sketch of the physical conformation and the climate of Italy that it is difficult to take a general view of the state of its agriculture. The cultivation of Lombardy differs from that of Calabria as much as that of Massachusetts does from that of Carolina. All that can be done therefore in this general description is to notice those results of agriculture which yield food, drink, or clothing to its inhabitants, or which form the basis of manufacturing industry or the rudiments of foreign commerce. The cereals form, as elsewhere in Europe, the chief aliment of the inhabitants ; in Italy, however, the lower classes in many parts subsist much on maize and beans, which require little preparation to render them fit for food. In some of the southern provinces wheat is made use of by the same class, both in the form of bread and as macaroni, which is manipulated with great facility. Wheat and maize are, on the average of years, about equal to the consumption, but little can be spared for exportation; and in many of the ports depots of foreign wheat are kept to meet the variations of seasons, or to be used as articles of commerce with other countries.

As Italy produces abundance of wine, and consequently needs neither beer nor grain-spirits, no barley is needed for these drinks, and scarcely any is cultivated. Oats are but little grown, but beans of various kinds are produced in abundance. Rye, the common bread-corn of the far greater portion of Europe, is only raised in a few spots in the very northernmost parts of Italy, where it is made into bread for the poor; whilst those of the higher classes there, as well as throughout the whole peninsula in the cities, make use of wheaten bread. Rice grows in many parts, in fact wherever there is a sufficiency of water to insure a good produce, at such a distance from towns as not to be injurious to the health of the inhabitants. A great variety of lupines are used as food, especially in the soups. In some parts of the mountainous regions chestnuts are a substitute for corn, and even form the principal food of the population. Fruits are plentifully used, particularly figs, grapes, and melons, as food; whilst the cheapness of onions, garlic, tomatos or love-apples, and capsicums renders them valuable as condiments. The potato, which is in such common use in other parts of Europe, has been but partially introduced into Italy; and, where it is cultivated, it occupies a very small proportion of the soil. Lettuces, asparagus, endive, artichokes, and several kinds of turnips and of carrots are grown everywhere.

Animal food is far from being extensively used. The oxen yield in some parts excellent in others very indifferent meat. The mutton is neither good nor abundant, but has been much improved of late years. Swine furnish a plentiful supply during the winter months; they are also prepared as bacon or hams, and above all as sausages, the fame of which has reached England under the name of the city of Bologna, where they were early and extensively prepared. The large dairy farms in Lombardy also furnish great quantities of cheese of very superior quality, especially that known by the name of Parmesan.

The fisheries contribute largely to the supply of food in Italy, though, from the number of fasts countenanced by the Catholic Church, not enough for the consumption; and the deficiency is procured by commerce with the English, French, and Americans, who convey to the seaports salted cod-fish from the banks of Newfoundland. The native fisheries on the coast give much occupation; the most considerable are those for the tunny, a very large fish, and for the anchovy, a very small one. These are conducted upon a large scale by joint-stock companies. The lakes and the rivers also yield some, though not a great proportion, of that kind of food which ecclesiastical restrictions render indispensable.

The sugar-cane is not cultivated in the south of Italy, as it is found that in point of strength, as well as of cost, the sugar made from it does not succeed in competition with that imported from the West Indies.

The products of agriculture are sufficient for the clothing of all its inhabitants; for, though wool is in general neither good nor plentiful, hemp and flax are grown everywhere, and are manufactured at home; and, from the nature of the climate, linen can be substituted for woollen dress during most of the months of the year. Some cotton is grown in the southern divisions of Italy, but not sufficient to furnish materials for their inconsiderable manufactures of that article.

The chief product of Italian agriculture is silk. It is produced in every part, and much of is it converted into articles of dress or of furniture, where it is collected; but the chief production of it is in the Neapolitan provinces and Lombardy, whence the looms of England, Austria, Russia, and Germany are supplied. The value of this commodity exceeds that of all the other productions of Italy which are exported to foreign countries. The manufacture has of late years made great progress, which it is still steadily maintaining, and the great increase which has taken place in the propagation of the mulberry tree has, within the last fifty years, increased the quantity of raw silk to an extent that had never before been dreamed of.

Another very important Italian product, which is partly used as food, partly employed in home manufactures, and extensively exported as an article of foreign commerce, is the oil of the olive tree. It is used as a substitute for butter in the south, and even to a great degree supplies the place of milk, which is comparatively little used in the peninsula. It is exported to England for use with various fabrics, and as a table luxury. The planting and watching costs but little labour or expense, and in a few years the income more than repays the labour. The best olive oil is produced near Genoa, in Lucca, in Tuscany, and in Calabria; but it is plentiful throughout the whole of Italy, except in Lombardy and in Piedmont.

The wines of Italy are not very highly valued in other countries, and almost the whole that is produced is consumed at home. Yet there is little doubt that with more care in the culture and preparation they might rival those of the best parts of Europe. The vines are not so much grown in vineyards as in the.hedgerows,—a system which doubtless injures the quality of the wine. In the southern parts, however, where the vines are grown in low vineyards as in France, the wines are of higher quality.

The mineral productions of Italy are of comparatively small value; but the copper mines of Tuscany, which were extensively wrought in ancient times, are still worked to a considerable extent. The iron of Elba, so celebrated in antiquity, still bears a high character for its excellent quality, but the quantity produced is limited. Many marbles of superior quality are found in different parts of the Apennines, of which the white statuary marble of Carrara is the most celebrated. Alabaster also abounds in Tuscany. Coal is wanting in all parts of the peninsula, which must ever be a great drawback to the prosperity of Italy.

The geology of Italy is mainly dependent upon that of the APENNINES (q.v.). On each side of that great chain, which, as has been already stated, with its ramifications and underfalls, fills up the greater part of the peninsula, are found extensive Tertiary deposits, sometimes, as in Tuscany, the Monferrat, &c, forming a broken, hilly country, at others spreading into broad plains or undulating downs, such as the Tavoliere of Puglia, and the tract that forms the spur of Italy from Bari to Otranto.

But besides these, and leaving out of account the islands, the Italian peninsula presents four distinct volcanic districts. In three of them the volcanoes are entirely extinct, while the fourth is still in great activity.

(1) The Euganean hills form a small group extending for about 10 miles from the neighbourhood of Padua to Este, and separated from the lower offshoots of the Alps by a portion of the wide plain of the Padovano. Monte Venda, their highest peak, is 1806 feet high.

(2) The Roman district, the largest of the four, extends from the hills of Albano to the frontier of Tuscany, and from the lower slopes of the Apennines to the Tyrrhenian Sea. It may be divided into three groups:—the Monti Albani, the highest of which, Monte Cavo, 3160 feet, is the ancient Mons Albanus, on the summit of which stood the temple of Jupiter Latialis, where the assemblies of the cities forming the Latin confederation were held; the Monti Cimini, which extend from the valley of the Tiber to the neighbourhood of Civita Vecchia, and attain at their culminating point an elevation of more than 3000 feet; and the mountains of Radicofani and Monte Amiata, the latter of which is 5650 feet high. The lakes of Bolsena (Vulsiniensis), of Bracciano (Sabatinus), of Vico (Ciminus), of Albano (Albanus), of Nemi (Nemorensis), and other smaller ones belong to this district; while between its south-west extremity and Monte Circello the Pontine Marshes form a broad strip of alluvial soil infested by malaria.

(3) The volcanic region of Terra di Lavoro is separated by the Volscian mountains from the Roman district. It may be also divided into three groups. Of Roccamonfina, at the north-north-west end of the Campanian Plain, the highest cone, called Montagna di Santa Croce, is 3200 feet. The Phlegraean Fields embrace all the country round Baise and Pozzuoli and the adjoining islands. Monte Barbaro (Gaurus), north-east of the site of Cumas, Monte S. Nicola (Epomeus), 2610 feet, in Ischia, and Camaldoli, 1488 feet, west of Naples, are the highest cones. The lakes Averno (Avernus), Lucrino (Lucrinus), Fusaro (Palus Acherusia), and Agnano are within this group, which has shown activity in historical times. A stream of lava issued in 1198 from the crater of the Solfatara, which still continues to exhale steam and noxious gases; the Lava dell' Arso came out of the north-east flank of Monte Epomeo in 1302; and Monte Nuovo, north-west of Pozzuoli, 440 feet high, was thrown up in three days in September 1538. Since its first historical eruption in 79 A.D., Vesuvius or Somma, which forms the third group, has been in constant activity, and repeated eruptions have taken place within the last few years. The Punta del Nasone, the highest point of Somma, is 3747 feet high, while the Punta del Palo, the highest point of the brim of the crater of Vesuvius, varies materially with successive eruptions from 3856 to 4235 feet.

(4) The Apulian volcanic formation consists of the great mass of Monte Voltore, which rises at the west end of the plains of Apulia, on the frontier of Basilicata, and is surrounded by the Apennines on its south-west and north-west sides. Its highest peak, the Pizzuto di Melfi, attains an elevation of 4357 feet. Within the widest crater there are the two small lakes of Monticchio and S. Michele.

In connexion with the volcanic districts we may mention Le Mofete, the Pools of Amsanctus (Amsancti Vallis), lying in a wooded valley south-east of Frigento, in the centre of Principato Ultra and described by Virgil (Aeneid, vii. 563 -71). The largest of the two is not more than 160 feet in circumference, and 7 feet deep. These pools emit noxious gases which, when wafted from the pools by the wind, endanger animal life in the open air.

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