“Here was a river”: The Po at Casei Gerola in March 2023

Old Man River

For centuries, the Po has been the lifeblood of Northern Italy

This article is taken from the May 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Gianni Brera was never quite sure how to feel about the River Po. Like most people from San Zenone al Po — just outside Pavia — he had always treated it with respect. Back when he was a boy, just after the First World War, the whole village had relied on it. Winding its way through the low-lying fields, it was a vital source of transport, irrigation, even food. 

The Po: An Elegy for Italy’s Longest River, Tobias Jones (Head of Zeus, £25)

Yet Brera rarely thought about it without disdain. At times, he almost despised it. He’d often describe it as a snake, even a sentina — a cesspit. The image he used the most was that of a “drunken father”. Though the river looked lazy enough most of the time, it only took an “evil bellyful” for it to start rolling about “like a blind man”, destroying everything in its way. 

Brera always had a colourful way with words. One of Italy’s most famous sports journalists, he had a knack for inventing nicknames for footballers. He’d have been the first to admit that San Zenone al Po was hardly typical, but he was on to something, all the same. Like Brera, Italy has always had a complex relationship with its longest river. As Tobias Jones shows, that image of Padre Po — “Father Po” — goes to the very heart of it.

There’s no denying that the Po has a fatherlike quality to it. Rising in the Cottian Alps, and running out into the Adriatic, it bestrides the north of Italy with easy assurance. Its basin, though hard to define, holds much of the peninsula in its embrace. By some estimates, the Po valley is home to almost 30 per cent of the Italian population. Yet the Po is anything but straightforward. Following its course from mouth to source, Jones reveals a protean waterway, which seems to show a different face around every corner. 

Where it meets the sea, just south of Venice, it is a confused, lacy delta, drenched in light and despair. In Turin, it is stately and grand; near Parma, lazy. Whilst up by Crissolo, near the French border, it is a tiny stream, glinting out from between the rocks, heedless of what lies ahead.

For centuries, the Po has been the lifeblood of Northern Italy. It has nurtured agriculture, driven industry, carried goods from mountain to sea, and much more besides. As far back as the Bronze Age, farmers near Cremona were growing cereals in fortified villages along its banks. Under the Roman Republic, veterans in Andria made bricks from the mud it left behind. Until as late as the 19th century, peasants in La Bassa Reggiana were still cultivating rice, hemp and silk in its soils. 

Even when the Po has been at peace, it has rarely been kind

There is no sign of it letting up any time soon, either. In addition to its still vital role in farming, it powers the hydro-electric plant at Isola Serafina and keeps countless factories cool. As politicians never tire of pointing out, many industries couldn’t survive without it.

Living with the Po hasn’t always been easy, though. Precisely because of its importance to the Italian economy, it has often been fought over. Even when the Po has been at peace, it has rarely been kind. The river, unpredictable and shifting, has granted smallholders no more than a meagre living. What it has given with one hand, it has usually taken with the other. At Pialassa, where its course has always been unsettled, land appears and disappears without warning — with devastating results for farming. 

In the 1940s, the director, Federico Fellini, was struck by the “wild … silent” poverty he encountered there. Even today, the blurry riverbanks are dotted with abandoned houses. The Po’s temper can be terrible, too. A heavy rainfall can result in the loss of an entire crop — or worse. As Jones notes, “in 1968, the flooding of the Po caused 72 deaths; in 1994, 68 lost their lives and in 2000, 44.” There will no doubt be more in future. 

All this has left a deep impression on the people of the Padania. Like a father, the Po has shaped its children, and the characters Jones introduces us to are as varied as the landscape itself. Some are dreamers. In 1887, the anarchist Giovanni Rossi set up a short-lived utopian community at Stagno Lombardo to showcase the virtues of a socialist society. 

Others are mad. According to the writer Alberto Bevilacqua, the locals in Luzzara, unsettled by the emptiness, have long since lived “in defiance of logic”. Still others are eccentric. Take Antonio Ligabue (1899–1965). After suffering a breakdown, he was expelled from his native Switzerland and sent to live in Gualtieri, near Parma, in 1919. 

His paintings teem with animals and insects found along the banks of the Po

There, he gained a reputation for doing strange things, like washing rabbits with soap, before shooting to fame as a painter. His works are mostly intense, unsettling self-portraits — but they teem with animals and insects found along the banks of the Po. 

Finally, there are the loners, crooks, chancers whom the precarity of the river seems specially to favour. Guido Conti once said that the inhabitants of Sermide were “like the forgotten people of a civilisation that always arrived late and slow”, whilst Bergantino is reputed to have been “a place of brigands … and piracy”. 

Jones is at his best when describing these people. He has an intimate, profound knowledge of Italy, and he obviously regards it with deep affection. Yet he is gloriously free of preconceptions. Just as in his earlier works — notably The Dark Heart of Italy and Ultras — he has set out to present his subject as it is, rather than as we might want it to be. He has travelled every inch of the river, read everything there is to read about its history and culture. Most importantly, he has listened to the people he has met. 

This endows his narrative not just with a unique insight into the Po’s impact on Italian life, but also a deep and moving sense of humanity. Like no other author, Jones succeeds in conveying the swirling welter of emotions conjured up by the river: the joy and the sorrow, the exuberance and the despair, the grief and the suffering, the wonder and the dismay. 

This is a testament to Jones’s talent as a writer, but it also lays bare the essence of the Po itself. It leaves no doubt why Brera spoke of the river as a father — or why this book is an elegy. At root, the Italians’ relationship with the Po is nothing if not Oedipal. The river has given them life, fed them, made them aware — even tormented and abused them, at times. They love and hate it in equal measure. 

Little by little, they are killing it, too. Farms and factories are poisoning it with pollutants; invasive species are strangling its wildlife; climate change is sucking it dry. Last summer, the newspaper L’Essenziale printed a photograph of an arid bed, beneath the headline “Here Was a River”, and there are warnings of worse droughts to come. If something does not change, the Po will die.

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