Italy's longest river the Po stretches for more than 400 miles from the mountains nuture into the wetlands and the Venetian Laguna. For Virgil it was the king of riversa and like a king, the Po can it seems, make or break the fortunes of an entire country
Welcome to the Italian files a podcast of conversations about lesser known protagonists, themes and stories of Italian culture, society and history. I'm Thea Leanarduzzi.
For 1000s of years, the river Po has been one of the main sources of wealth in the rich Pianura Padana than the vast and boggy plains of northern Italy. But the Po is important for less material reasons too. It draws an imaginary line between the northern regions and the rest of the country, and the rivers mythology has been used by the populist Lega Nord party for political gain. In reality, its banks tell the story of anarchists and smugglers partisans and fishermen. It whispers in the angering working class epic that lives on the work of some of Italy's most prominent artists. And yet today, this eerily beautiful landscape is threatened by the climate crisis. The river is facing terrible droughts and the consequences of indiscriminate human exploitation. In this episode will follow the rivers twists and turns taking in its rich past and its uncertain future. And who better to welcome as our guide and the journalist and writer Tobias Jones, whose books have consistently made us look at the less postcard ready aspects of Italy. The Po, an Ilady de for Italy's longest river is no exception. Tobias, thanks so much for joining us. Thank you. There seems to have been a bit of a surge of interest in the history and landscape of the Po. A couple of years ago, Marco Belpoliti, for example, wrote an essay on it, which then gave rise to a podcast series completely dedicated to this one river. And then, of course, your brilliant book, which came out last year. So what drew you to the Po and why do you think others are being drawn to the river today?
Here? It's interesting, isn't it? So there are also those great crime novels by Valeria Varese that are sort of set in the fog of the Bassa. I don't know why, I mean, I was drawn to it because I live in Parma. And that's very close to the Po. And when I first moved here in 99, a lot of friends of eulogise the Po and and said, You know, it's it's something that's in our soul, and I really didn't get in, I thought it was just a sort of grey, cold, dark kind of weather. And then over the years, I kind of understood the fascination with it. And there's something about living in a landscape that's very, very flat and on in appearance, very dull that actually, I think, leads to eccentricity. And I don't want to say madness, but sort of unorthodox personalities. And there's something, there's something fascinating about a flat fertile landscape. Certainly. Yeah,
I think there's something there's it's such a such a specific atmosphere there, isn't it that exactly as you say, these kind of vast open skies that when the fog sets in, you know, the vast and they're open, but it's also that sense of it closing down on you, there's a compression, a pressure that you can kind of almost feel on your on your chest. I say this having grown up in that same kind of, you know, around that landscape, kind of oscillating between Lombardy and on Piemonte following the Po, almost we used to do it almost every weekend, we go walking, and the colours are just so specific, aren't they? Especially once you get to autumn and head into winter, that kind of almost bleached muddiness, it sounds horrible, but it's it's curiously beautiful.
Yeah, it really is. I mean, I grew up in Somerset, so I'm used to the Somerset levels, and there's something sort of comparable, especially the roles of the monasteries, in land reclamation, in the early Middle Ages, draining the land and creating farmland out of marshes. So there's a sort of an interesting monastic history there. It's hard to you know, you can't obviously put your finger on what it is that creates They're these music. But there's lots of theories that you know, he is from the past. And there are reasons why his music is as it is, whether it's the, you know, the the melodrama that people talk about, or the you know, the fiery sunsets that you get in a in a flat landscape or the refraction of the air or, yeah, it is very particular, although I must say, when I was about for less than halfway through the book I was yearning for, you know, steepness and for hills and for mountains. But it is interesting, something about flatness. You know, especially the Delta and you know, one of the the writers that I sort of discovered I came across on the on the journey was Renata Vegano, who wrote Agnese va a morire, and she became one of my sort of reference points. And she's very interesting because in writing about the partisans, and the resistance, it's not that classic partisans in the mountains where you can hide perhaps in The Woodlands, or the caves or whatever she's writing about partisans in this landscape that's incredibly open, you know, there's almost no way to hide, so it becomes, in a way much more interesting. It's about deception, rather than hiding in a way.
And I mean, as a lens as a way of telling the story, the river itself kind of lends so much you quote, Olivia Lang at one point, she said, the history of rivers is always more shifting than the history of the land. This fluidity perhaps is something to talk about, you know, it seems to have a particular resonance.
I partly wanted to write the word I want to throw the book for all sorts of reasons. But one of the reasons I thought, Oh, this will be fun is because I'm fascinated by structuring books and how you structure a book, and I'm quite organic. As a writer, I'm not an architect who, who lays it all out and plans it, and then does it sort of the book emerges. And I'm incredibly inefficient, because I'll chase leads and spend months researching something that is wasted, because it's not relevant for the book. So I thought with a river, I will have a clear, a clear line to follow. That was the favourite. And then, and then in practice, of course, you know, the PO has changed course so many times, especially because, you know, 1000s of years ago, it wasn't banked. There weren't flood defences. The whole of the Pianura Padana was was really a soggy Marsh, and the waters rose and receded. But actually, it was more of a sort of a brackish lagoon than an actual river. So, you know, I tried to work out where I was going to go, if I was following the river, which sounds in theory, very simple. But in practice, you know, if there's a very important thing that happened on the bow, a few 100 years ago, that's now 20 kilometres from where the river now is, is that legitimate to go to in the book, you know, I thought it was so. So actually, that that simple structure that I yearned for, wasn't there quite as much as I hoped it would be. But that in itself, I kind of find interesting that, like you said, that fluidity, that, that, that sense of something that's not always solid, of, of a waterway, that it's been nudged by humans and and banked up and it's flooded. And it's, it's a sort of a give and take between land and water that's constantly ongoing.
And it's a really interesting detail that thing of it being backed up that thing of it having actually been raised higher than the rest of the land, because it sort of it makes it more commanding, it also makes it much more threatening. And it's just quite a strange thing to imagine, I think that you're walking up to the water. And I suppose that kind of that fits with this idea of that being a protagonist in the story, isn't it? It's not just something that sort of passively meandering past, its commanding your attention, and it's making you look up at it, you know, the history of Italy has always been bound up with this river. If you think the 15th century, house invested in a city and then the Germans defensive strategy during the Second World War, and then the Lega Nord, and how they've used the mythology of the river, it's always been a protagonist. i Well, could you sort of talk us through some of the various roles that the Po has played and continues to play? Really?
Yes, interesting, isn't it, you know, all those phrases and songs about going down to the river. And, actually, for a lot of the journey, you go up to it, and that means that it's, you know, what geographers call, it's perched you know, it's raised as you said, above the surface hunting land. So it gives you an idea of artificiality in a way that we've narrowed it and banked against it. And yet, the more we do that, the more dangerous it becomes in a way because because it's obviously, you know, many metres above the surrounding farmland. And it's a river that's always been given such symbolic importance. And I was fascinated in the journey about how the locals described it and one adjectives they always use his treacherous you know, whether it's, you know, whirlpools that that drag people down or the fact that it it floods or flooded frequently in the past still does, obviously. But it's also seen as a deity. There's quite a lot of sort of language that's, that's quasar, religious about about the river. And then the Delta, the churches that the church does actually face the water which I find interesting, and Enquirer esque in Giovanni Guareschi's famous of Don Camillo short stories, the protagonist is always going to the river to, to confess it's a it's a place of sort of, it's like a confessional where people go to spill secrets or or to, to weep, or a place of purification, metaphorically and literally. So, you know, it was a place where people wash their linen. And even now, you can still see all these, these old sort of wash houses and washing stones and ribbed, sort of inclines into the water where people used to do their laundry. So it was literally a place of, of cleansing, but also also metaphorically, in some way. It symbols are really interesting.
And it's interesting to think of it as as this thing that that cuts through Italy. I mentioned the Lega Nord earlier in my introduction, but the Lega and ordered is one of the this populist right wing populist party that that has historically and now they're a bit fuzzier on it, but has historically believed in cleaving Italy into where they would propose to do that is pretty much along the line of the Po, isn't it? And that's kind of one of the more recent iterations of of the pose, kind of the way that the Po has been used geopolitically?
Yeah, I mean, Bossi in the, in the 90s, would famously go to the source of the river up in the Italian French border, and get a get out sort of file of the, of the waters and, and proclaim how the Pianura Padana was his territory, in a way his part, his territory, and, you know, Padania would have been the name of his is one of the country, you know, that was that was the symbol of entirely was linked to the river Po. And yet, it's always been a very wide moat. I mean, it's easy to forget, now that you know, there are steel and concrete bridges, and you can cross it in a train or a car or a bike, in a matter of minutes, how impossible the river was to so many armies. So, you know, I was interested in tracing the battles all along the river, just because it gave an idea of what an important frontier it was, it's obviously nothing compared to say, the English Channel but, you know, from Hannibal, to Attila the Hun, to various other Holy Roman emperors and onwards, it's always been a place where the armies from the south met the armies from the north it was just a natural place where they would they would be encamped to the side of the river. And, you know, either try and make peace or or fight it out, sometimes even fighting it out on the river itself. So yeah, it's been it's been a very important barrier in Italian history, often, often saving the south from invasion from the north rather than the other way around normally, I mean, even Hannibal calls famously, you know, approach from the North.
That's one of the things I think that comes across so strongly in your book, this, the sense of all that is hidden, you know that all that has been hidden in the river, the Hidden History of Italy, in a sense, you kind of tell it a counter history. It's one of poor people trying to survive or to live differently and finding something beside the Po that might help them that might help them to do that. Is the post still today, do you think a kind of a magnet for outcasts and opposes?
Yeah, it's that's interesting as well, isn't it because the land was so precarious there because of the flooding. That it was the one place where the sort of the excluded in the dispossessed and that sort of psychiatrically unstable could could find shelter. And, yet, at the same time, it was historically so important, because it was like a motorway that that went through northern Italy, you know, gave you access from the the Adriatic Sea, all the way to Turin. And so it was it was both very important, but the land either side of it was sort of the poor man's shacks. Really. What's happened now is that it's almost an industrial rust belt that, you know, as I was trudging along the river, going against the current, you would see all these sort of gravel works and concrete works and various industries that were just sort of these blasting hoppers and conveyor belts, every half mile or so. And this sense of just an industry that doesn't exist anymore along the riverbanks, and the villages were desolate, you know, there were a very high percentage of the houses had for sale signs. So it's almost as if, yes, again, it's it's this sort of these spaces where the poor can afford houses. I mean, there's, there's a lot of immigration, immigrant communities along the riverbank now because of, you know, just the economics of the affordability the houses, but I quite like that desolation. I like that. I like the fact that through history, it's been been a place of, of sort of shelter for for eccentrics or outcasts. But what you're saying about the revelation of it, I mean, it was interesting this summer, wasn't it when the water was so low, because of the drought because of the climate emergency. The water was so low that suddenly things were being discovered that have been hidden for 5060 years, you know, whether it was second world war paraphernalia, or architectural finds, it was it was almost as if it was giving up its go. So it was, it was fascinating to see that aspect of it as well.
And yeah, just gives you a sense of how many stories that are to be told, and you've done such a good job of telling so many, but it just, it just keeps on giving us more and more and more, you write beautifully about about some of the well, many of the things really many of the things that people used to do in terms of making, they're making their forging, forging a life on the pose of the skills that they had, whether they're basket Weaver's or eel captures all of these old ways of living that have vanished and have well have pretty much all vanished now, haven't they?
Yeah, I was. I was very interested in all those sort of ancient forms of agriculture or you know, other sides of the simplest peasant culture. And it sort of revealed to me a side of Northern Italy that I really didn't know. So, you know, there used to be around 300 mills on the river Po, which is where, you know, people for all around would come to mill that flour because there's negligible wind in this very low lying flat landscape. And without any drops. There's no sort of waterfalls to power a mill. So it was very important for for milling like you say eels, fish. The famous post sturgeon produced famous caviar a lot of the a lot of the important A textiles of Italy will produce level of power because the presence of if water was important, you know, hemp was a vital, vital textile for Northern Italy and they would rock the rock, the Stokes in the in that sort of the wet marshes silk was, was produced either all the mulberry trees which were, were planted to feed the silkworms, the leaves fed to the silkworm. So there's a whole aspect of the country that that isn't really sort of, certainly to me, wasn't, wasn't known at all. So I found it fascinating to go in and look at these these old traditions and try and understand how they worked and how that affected the landscape.
And did you encounter any kind of bastions of that traditional way? Or any younger people sort of trying to revive any of those traditions?
Yeah, not many. I mean, it's, you know, there are hemp producers, and, you know, the capital of Italian hemp has always been Campagnola, near Turin, it's kind of more a heritage thing. Now, you know, you'll find a small museum that will take you around and, and show you how, how things used to be done, you know, there aren't any Mills anymore. They say the yields don't come to come back you anymore. silk production, certainly not. And some of the, some of the interesting you know, sort of agriculture is a lot more recent, so I was sort of very interested in the paddy fields. And they are, you know, very interesting historically, because it's, that was were really sort of one of the most important places of, of nascent feminism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, because it was almost all female manual labourers who were working sort of knee deep in these cold, soggy fields, singing songs and, and demanding, you know, minimum wage or not more than eight hours a day. So, but Rice was was a fairly late addition to Italian agriculture. In fact, it was outlawed by the, by the Dukes of Savoy, because it was thought to encourage malaria. So that, you know, there are lots of interesting agriculture. I mean, another one is mint, you know, pumpkin yearly where, where they produce in this tiny little village, they produce 50% of the entire mint essence in Italy. Again, thanks in part to the soil of the Riverside. So there's lots of interesting contemporary agricultural, but those old ones that have vanished really,
I suppose it's not a million, it's not a million miles away from these women in the paddy fields demanding a different way of living to, for us to then talk about the artists who have been drawn to these to this strange landscape that kind of the lively communities have grown up along the banks of this, of this river is pretty astonishing. I'll list a few but that I mean, there are too many you've already mentioned a few writers is also Gianni Celati. Then there's filmmakers Michelangelo Antonioni, Ermanno Olmi, the great photographer, Luigi Ghiri, the novelist Giorgio Bassani. I mean, it goes on and on. Oh, the godfather of Neo realism, Cesare Zavattini. Even the great American photographer, Paul Strand, he found a home here for a while. So I mean, the list, as I said, it goes on and on and on. So what do you think attracted these these artists here? You know, is there? Is there a common thread? Do you think
it's so difficult to say, isn't it? You know, it's it's so hard to say what it is in that landscape or in that climate? Or what is it that that makes a place creative? I mean, many of those people you've just mentioned, were obviously born there. So they didn't come here. But I yeah, I don't know what it is. I mean, that's one of the questions. I kept asking myself, you know, why does so many of the great Italian filmmakers come from the sides of the river Po, and Zavattini was obsessed by it. And he was always I mean, he's very for both and. But interesting about why it is that this space has this extraordinary creative power and his his theory was that it's sort of this moody brooding side silence. Guareschi said it's like the Mexico of Italy, this sort of idea of impoverished peasants who have Have these sort of violent feuds and will sort of suddenly get trigger happy that some sense of injustice? I can't really give you an answer, but I do find it fascinating. I'm still trying to to understand what it is because you know, we think we're brought up to think that dramatic landscape because of you know, theories of the sublime and the Romantic period or whatever, create great art whereas here you've got this valley, dull, flat, low lying, humid, dang, polythene sky kind of atmosphere, and yet it it creates. It creates great painters and musicians.
I wonder if it's almost something like it. It's sort of the geographical equivalent of a blank page or blank canvas.
that's really interesting.
I was particularly struck by the case of one of the painters, you mentioned luggable, where as he came as he came to be known because he was both an outsider and an artist and is his story. I wasn't familiar with his story. So I wonder if you could tell us, tell us a bit about him.
Yeah, his was an extraordinary life story. He was he was actually born in Switzerland to a, a Swiss sex worker and her it's an Italian man who was from Gualtieri and he grew up there and was clearly had both physical and psychiatric problems. And he was eventually expelled from Switzerland for sort of various various issues and was deported and sent back to this very small village quality area along the the river bank. He thought his mother had been poisoned by his stepfather so refused to use his surname and took on this name Legabue. And was really sort of the eccentric cross-dressing man living in the woods, loving animals and talking to animals, and was more sort of close to the animal world really then to the human one. And he didn't have a penny so he used to pay people with his weird naive paintings, these sort of garish paintings that were sort of half Switzerland, half river Po kind of backdrops
with these wild animals kind of very, very from the Sun that something almost kind of like almost Leonora Carrington. Like about it, sometimes his paintings
Yeah, exactly. And they were sort of, you know, there'll be Tigers or serpents or spiders or flies, they're sort of edgy in a in a in a lovely way. And, of course, Zavattini, he was always celebrating the local artists and musicians from from his area of the poem in the regional promoted him along with various other people who championed him and he, this artist just became quite famous, you know, he his paintings, we use famously in better Luci films, and he became quite rich and got a chauffeur and towards the end of his life became really sort of quite well heeled, but but was always the same sort of very troubled, eccentric man. And yet there are two or three other very famous naive painters from the next or villages. So again, there's this cluster of very interesting artists who, who, you know, nationally, who are just the sort of village painters who had something about them, there's something about this sort of their authenticity and simplicity that that seems to speak to people and
the environment. We haven't really talked about that very much, but there's plenty there's plenty to say about that. It's I mean, it's obviously a great catalyst for for broader societal problems, the river, the pope crosses, I think seven different Italian regions and touches I think you say it's 27% of the Italian population. So there's obviously an administrative challenge here each region exploit the river for its own interests instead of considering a kind of a common good the wider well being of this of this, this resource that is finite really, and and the lands around it. So what's the PO tell us about the dysfunctional side of Italy, if you like?
Well, it's it's a depressing story, I'm afraid I mean, you know, as I was either canoeing or cycling along the river, you would see the detritus that, you know, the plastic bags and the ping pong balls and the soul of a shoe whizzing past constantly. And the frothy foam that seemed to suggest sort of lurking nastiness in the waters. But of course, you know, the main dangers are invisible to the eye. And all the scientific samples of the waters are alarming in terms of not just nitrates and phosphates, but but heavy metals and so on and so forth. I mean, the situation is far, far better than it was 20 30 40 years ago. So perhaps we're going in the right direction. But you know, wherever I set up my tent and camp for the night, which is normally in a sort of a, you know, a quiet part of the river in the floodplains, you would see the eutrophication of the waters, this sort of electric green algae that was that was created by the runoff from hundreds of 1000s of hectares of farmlands, where they're sort of spraying chemical fertiliser. And of course, that it all ends up in the Po or a lot of it ends up in the Po and creates these algal blooms that of course, reduce the light and the oxygen in the waters for, for fish, and so on, so forth. There's problem of invasive species. So all along the river are these coypu, which are fairly cute animals, they're like a cross between a rat and a beaver, really, but they were imported from South America for the fur, in the 19th century. And they're no longer used for further so. So they sort of, they have no prey and rampant destroying lots of farmland and, you know, the banking along the river, there's the famous what they could do cap paths or the Mad pumpkin. Or, you know, it's actually called the Star cucumber, which, again, was imported and is a rampant vine that covers all the floodplains. This it's a bit like Japanese knotweed, which is another thing that you find all along the, the banks and other invasive species in so many ways, it's it's a sad story, all along the river, there used to be these dimples, these fractals of natural lakes called cobalt three. And there used to be, I think, about 130 of them, and now there are two or three dozen left, because of course, you know, they build in been filled in by farmers, or, you know, the water so low, they no longer fill up. An agriculture takes off so much of the water, you know, the, the, the need for water for crops is, is intense. And so, you know, agriculture is both drawing off water and polluting, and at the same time, so it's a shit show.
I was trying to think of a way to put it, but I think, I think that's the way it's very accurate. It's very, very accurate. And it's a bit it's a bit kind of frying pan to the fire. Now what I'm about to ask you next, which is, I mean, agriculture, as you say, it's drawing and polluting, but it's also suffering itself the river is it's at the forefront of the climate emergency. So you know, it's Delta has been eroded by rising sea levels, that does harm to the local agriculture. I think its flow has been halved, by droughts and overuse, I think that's what you say, It's been half. So I mean, I mean, what's the future of the river? You know, how much awareness is there that something that something does need to be done? And the challenge is really understood? Do you think?
Well, I'm afraid I'm constantly amazed by human stupidity. You know, it's very easy when it rains to say, what crisis, it's like when there's cold weather and people say, you know, global warming is a myth. You know, one needs to look at the long term trends. And those paints a very clear picture in terms of precipitation. And it's not obviously just precipitation around the river. It's the amount of snow that's falling in the Alps, that then should in theory, melt in the late spring and add to the flow of the river, you know, the pose actually highest in June, which isn't what you'd expect because of the snow melt in both your pylons and the Alps. And the river when the flow is that low, is you say it can't keep the Surtsey at bay so there was salinated water this summer was coming up 17 or 18 kilometres upstream. So obviously But for crops that are that are watered by the river near the Delta, that's a disaster. But to answer your question, I mean, how much realisation is there? I think there are a lot of very wise, clever, creative environmental experts who are doing everything they can to improve it. And, you know, it's a pretty impressive logistical Enigma trying to put, as you say, so many different provinces and regions together to protect this waterway. And I think, you know, the strategies that are being adopted, are on the whole pretty good. But it's the it's the humans at the coalface who, who are not clever and don't realise, I think, what, what they're doing. And yeah, it's not a happy story,
don't realise what they're doing and what the result of not doing anything is, I suppose I mean, it seems sort of strange to say this, if this sort of historically very marshy peninsula but the scarcity of water, it's going to be a recurrent problem for Italy as it you know, as for so many other places in the second half of, of this century, as you say it already is, I think, last summer, the Po was so dry that in very Italian turn of events, a bishop was urged to go out and, and bless it in the hope that that would bring the reigns. You know, I'm sort of laughing as I say it, but but there's a sadness there, too. It's a sad laughter. So I suppose at the risk of ending this fascinating episode on on such a depressing note, let's look a little beyond the Po. What's the current state of discussion in Italy, when it comes to global warming? Do you think how much awareness is there? Do you feel? Do you feel hopeful overall?
Well, I'm someone who is often accused of being overly optimistic. But on this one, I'm not at all, you know, I think Italy's really, as you say, at the forefront of some pretty serious problems, that desertification of, of of land, the consumption of the soil, which happens at an incredible rate, in Italy, you know, the statistics that certain environmental charities and organisations put out year by year are, you know, pretty astonishing, that the sort of the pouring of concrete over over land is worrying. I am not optimistic, I'm afraid I think people talk a good game. But actually, there's, there's no realism about what's required. And I think, you know, a lot of, as I understand it, a lot of the messages about one of the simplest things to do is to stop eating meat or greatly reduce meat and dairy consumption. And, you know, in a place like Parma, where parma ham is, you know, the big great prize product alongside Parmigiano Reggiano, or, you know, the famous Parmesan cheese. People look at me as if I'm bonkers when I when I say don't eat meat so
well, because they mean, they will say not only is this our heritage, not only is this our pride and joy, it's also our biggest employer.
Yeah. And, you know, even there, you know, I said in the book, I've never seen a pig in 25 years of, of living here on and off. I've never
seen they're all indoors, aren't they? I mean, that's the whole other sadness. And that
brings its own problems, because then what do you do with a waste? So you have these huge slurry pits? And what do you do with it? And there are limitations on the amount of slurry allowed to disperse on the soil for all the reasons we've been mentioning, but who can check on how much slurry is going into the soil? And, you know, so so that nature intensive farming brings brings its own problems? So yeah, I'm afraid despite being a very optimistic person on the whole I am I am a pessimist on such things.
Well, yeah, I mean, I'm about to buy his love to leave it there on that on that sobering slurry for you. note, thank you so much for joining us. Your tool. Thank you. Tobias Jones. His book the Po and Ida for Italy's longest river published by Apollo is out now do get hold of a copy. That's it for today's episode. And not only that, that is it for the series. It's been a pleasure taking these fortnightly trips along Italy's less trodden paths. I hope you've enjoyed it as much as I have. If you feel so inclined, please do leave us a review, tweet about the show or help us spread the word in whatever way you can. We're hoping to be back for a second series and your support is invaluable in making that happen. In the meantime, I'm happy to report that fill the festival of Italian literature in London is back this April, with events taking place on the 21st and 22nd at the coronet Theatre in Notting Hill, London. I'll be there so do come say hello. You've been listening to the Italian files created by Phil and supported by the Italian Cultural Institute in London. It was produced by Emily Naylor