Residents of Italy’s Po River Delta Reveals Its History and Backstory
Let us take you to Northern Italy’s Po River Delta! We offer you the perspective of three locals on the cultural heritage of the town of Comacchio, the Pomposa Abbey in Codigoro and the Po Delta Biosphere Reserve.
Archaeologist Laura Ruffoni, English teacher Chiara Ferretti, historian Simonetta Sovrani, and ecologist Jodi Crivellaro each share their insights on different dimensions of this special region of Italy.
Comacchio Resident Laura Share Insights on ‘Little Venice’
Comacchio is in an area of wetlands formed by brackish lagoons that are part of the Po River Delta, which projects into the Adriatic. It is often referred to as “Little Venice” and is built on more than thirteen different islets, joined by bridges. The most important resources of these wetlands are the fish farming and the salt ponds. Eel fishing has been a major staple of the town’s economy for centuries and continues to be a much-enjoyed delicacy.
Laura Ruffoni is a Comacchio resident whose perspective on the area spans the ancient and contemporary. At the Remo Brindisi Museum, she is both an archaeologist and manager. She’s dedicated to the works of the neo-figurative artist who made his home here.
Comacchio: Connected by Adriatic Sea and Po River
“Comacchio was born, in between the Po River and the Adriatic Sea, in the most mysterious period of the Medieval Ages, that of migrations, barbaric invasions and of the fall of the Western Roman Empire,” Laura explained. “The city was built during an imprecise moment, but around the period of the Gothic Reigns, the bloody Greek-Gothic wars and the arrival of the Lombards in Italy.”
“The area of the ancient Po River Delta is an area with a long story,” she observed. “Since the dawn of times, it was considered by the Greeks as one of the borders of the known world, a mythical West where Hercules had found the Hesperides garden, where Phaeton fell after his crazy run on the sun chariot and where amber was hidden.
“Here, between the 6th and 3rd centuries B.C. an important port and commercial hub was born: Spina. It was used as a path between the Etrurian Po Valley and Greece, especially Pericle’s Athens; the big Roman infrastructures for water commerce and industrial production (clay bricks) worked until a late ancient epoque, as well as the military fleet that controlled the Adriatic from Ravenna, that at that time was the capital of the Empire.”
Comacchio: A Town Built on Wood
“Comacchio was born a couple of centuries later, in the 6th century A.D., as a small but lively commercial emporium, perfect for the traffic of west Europe with the Mediterranean Area in the Early Medieval Ages,” she continued. “Even though they were reduced in quantity, these traffics were still recurring (quite the opposite of what some historians thought until not long ago).
“Comacchio was a town built on wood that had all around a vast lagoon, and it was connected to the Adriatic Sea and the Po River through various lagoon canals. The ancient Comacchio had, more or less, the same urbanistic structure of the modern historic center and its port was similar to those of all the active emporiums of northern Europe and its “peer” Venice.”
“However, two centuries later, the commercial fate of the town started to show signs of an end,” Laura said. “The two reasons for this were that the flow of the old Po was starting to run out in favor of northern branches and Venice was becoming more and more important, so it no longer tolerated the rivalry with Comacchio; as a matter of fact, the lagoon town was destroyed more than once by the “Serenissima” (nickname for Venice).
“For centuries Comacchio had been an isolated city in the middle of a huge fishing lagoon. The town was not even able to benefit from the richness of this environment because, until the passage of Napoleon, it was always under the dominance of external authorities, mainly the dukedom of Ferrara and the Holy State that both took advantage of the town’s resources.”
Paradoxes of Comacchio
“For centuries Comacchio has lived on some paradoxes: refined hydraulic constructions and ingenious fishing devices were opposed to poverty and degradation; nice and elegant monuments were next small, poor and grayish houses; a small part of the population was rich while the majority was living in misery,” Laura explained.
“Comacchio was surrounded by mystery, stuck in a life of poverty and isolation, forgotten and abandoned when the reclamation of the swamp began in 1922,” she continued. “However, the urban regeneration project brought to life the ruins of the ancient city of Spina, a city that was described by the Romans and the Greeks as being rich and famous. Apparently, it was so important that, even though the foundation was Etruscan, it was allowed to have a small temple for gifts in the PanHellenic sanctuary of Delphi.”
The Lost City on the Po River
“Since the Medieval Ages, a number of scholars developed some theories on where exactly this lost city was built,” Laura said. “They had to face the difficulty of recreating the ancient stream of the Po River and also the fact that Spina was built all on wood that were then submerged by sediments of the river, so nothing was longer visible. The only visible testimony from the city was its necropolis, composed by rich tombs of the inhabitants. These graves proved to be a real treasure of the art of ceramics and of bronze; these two elements made Spina’s artistic heritage world-wide famous.”
“Then, an unbelievable archaeological finding happened in 1981: that of a Roman shipwreck full of its shipment,” Laura exclaimed. “The ship and its cargo truly were an extraordinary finding because the unusual conditions of the shipwreck kept the shipment altogether. The occurrence is perfectly datable, and it probably happened between the 19th and the 12th centuries B.C.; this was because mud conserved all the materials that usually decompose very quickly, like wood, leather and fabrics.
“This Roman ship could be defined as a small underwater Pompei, a proof of everyday life on the sea during the years before the Empire, a proof of commerce, economy, Roman globalization, and various other aspects of a mariner’s life. It seemed like the crew and the passengers decided to leave the ship while doing their daily activities to deliver it to us.”
The cargo and a part of the exhibition is now inside the new Museo del Delta Antico on Via Agatopisto in Comacchio. Well worth checking out!
Codigoro, Home of Pomposa Abbey
Pomposa Abbey in Codigoro is 20 minutes north of Comacchio. The laid-back vibe of this deeply historic and beautiful area is appreciated by its residents, one of whom is Chiara Ferretti, an English teacher at the Codigoro high school. Her family has roots in the town that goes back generations, and she shared her perspective on what it means to call the greater Po Delta home.
“The little town where I live is the place I was born but not brought up in,” she explained. “It is the place where, as a child, I spent an exciting month of my summer holidays. A very pleasant destination, where everything seemed to be easier and nicer than in Milan where I actually lived. A very sweet memory I have is the sense of happiness I felt when, on approaching Codigoro by car, I saw in the distance the red-brick chimneys of the huge and elegant 19th– century building of the “Zuccherificio” (the sugar factory). And how sad I felt when leaving that charming ‘wonderland’!”
“As a result of this experience, I still perceive my town as a holiday place and not just as my living place,” she continued. “I live in an inherited home dating back to the 17th century. This big ancient house belonged to my grandparents, on my father’s side. It was bought in the 1920s from a Venetian family of noble origins. I was fascinated by my grandparents’ home as a child. As a child, I was fascinated by my grandparents’ home. But, at the same time, also a bit scared by the atmosphere of its large rooms with dark, massive furniture.”
“Now, it is a very comfortable house with a long entrance hall where, in summer, we organize unforgettable dinners with friends on special occasions,” Chiara said. “Their fascinating attic is full of old things and valuable memorabilia, like travel trunks, postcards, wrought-iron bed frames, and more. A house full of history but still full of life.”
Lunch at Pomposa Abbey
Navigating to Pomposa Abbey is not difficult, as rising high from above a patchwork quilt of fertile fields is its imposing belltower. At just over 157 feet tall, the “campanile” as its known in Italian has stood as a beacon for the faithful and the curious since the year 1063.
Just below the bell tower is Abbazia Pomposa restaurant, where we had a really delicious lunch before touring the Abbey. We shared a seafood salad with cherry tomatoes potatoes and taggiasca olives as an appetizer. For our main course, we savored “tagliolini straw and hay with Parma ham” and cappelletti with beef ragout, all for 26 euro. Bellissimo!
History of Pomposa Abbey
Pomposa’s abbot Don Stefano Gigli explained that every year, Pomposa hosts a historical festival called “Pomposia Imperialis Abbatia.” The festival celebrates the Medieval foundation of the abbey. The Abbey’s early history reflects the intrigue and power dynamics at play 1.5 millennia ago in the Po River Delta.
“In the year 1001 the ancient Abbey of Saint Mary in Pomposa, built on an isle in the Po Delta, belonged to the Benedectine Order of the Rule Ora et Labora (Pray and Work),” Don Gigli explained. “Commitment of the monks in farming, lagoon fishing and salt collection slowly gained strategic function of the river trade inlands.
“Pomposa was under the control of the Abbey of Saint Salvatore of Pavia. However, claims for the possession of the monastery from the Archbishop of Ravenna became more frequent and intimidating. The conflict ended with the arrival of Emperor Otto III. As the heir of the Saxon dynasty, he represented the major political authority in Italy. The young Emperor, like his predecessors, meant to recreate the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne. This was to reinforce that the emperor was the protector of Christianity and of the Church of Rome.
“February 1001, the rebellious Roman aristocracy, who wouldn’t accept this political project, obliged Otto III to leave Rome,” he continued. “On his way to the north, on April 4, he arrived in Pomposa where he stayed for meditation and became the disciple of the hermit Romualdo. The meeting of Otto III and Romualdo was decisive for the fate of Pomposa. The hermit convinced the emperor to distance the abbey from San Salvatore in Pavia. He also suggested to put it immediately under the control of the Archbishop of Ravenna. As a result, on November 22, Pomposa became autonomous and was allowed the title of Imperial Abbey.”
Modern Day Pomposa Abbey
“Nowadays the Pomposa Abbey is inhabited by a religious community named “Ricostruttori nella preghiera”; Faith builders might be the closest translation,” he said. “Since 1995 this group manages the spiritual side of the abbatial complex. The divine grace of this community is to teach people how to pray, by practising the so called “Preghiera del cuore” (Prayer of the heart) or “Preghiera di Gesù” (Jesus’ prayer). This is a very old way of praying, and it features a peculiar lifestyle that favours the contemplating side of religion. Usually, the community of the Ricostruttori organises every year conferences and spiritual catechesis. Moreover, the monks hold a course to learn the rudiment of the “Preghiera del cuore” for all the people that want to learn.”
Artisans Who Built Pomposa Abbey
Simonetta Sovrani is an historian and guide whose expertise is Pomposa Abbey. Her insights reveal the stories of the artisans who brought its structures and symbolism to life.
“The workers who built the buildings and the bell tower were certainly the inhabitants of the area, just like the monks themselves,” she explained. “They work was led by craftsmen called ‘magisters’ who were also entrusted with the most complex operations. Among these craftsmen we must remember a certain Mazulo, the builder of the atrium which is probably of Oriental origin. He was ‘magister Deusdedit’, the builder of the bell tower, and probably of Lombard origin. The Church dedicated to Santa Maria has the appearance of a late-Ravenna basilica with Byzantine influences. It was enlarged with two other bays in the 11th century.”
“The oldest frescoes of the 14th century cycle are in the Chapter room,” she continued. “They were initially attributed to Giotto as they present many similarities with those of the Scrovegni chapel in Padua. Of great interest is also the fresco of the Refectory (last supper, ‘deesis’ and miracle of San Guido). It is attributed to Pietro da Rimini, a prominent figure of the lively pictorial school of Rimini who was strongly influenced by Giotto. But there are clearly signs of the Byzantine iconographic tradition in the work.”
Art Imagery Teaches Message of Faith
“The main message of the paintings in the church is education of the faithful,” Simonetta said. “They had to teach all those who saw the frescoes the history of human salvation and warn them. Paradise, depicted in the apse basin, is counter-opposed by the Last Judgment. They are painted with infernal scenes such as Lucifer devouring sinners, the devils with bat wings and donkey ears. The images remind everyone who leaves the church of the consequences of their own sins. Three pairs of animals and the crosses are depicted on the facade of the atrium. They symbolize the eternal struggle between good and evil and Man’s aspiration to God.”
“The fresco with the ruined face was damaged during preparation of the wall surface for a new fresco,” she explained. “A statue, whose face is ruined, represents Asia and was part of four terracotta statues of the nineteenth century. They are currently housed in the museum and depict the allegories of the four continents. They stood in the garden of the villa of Count Guiccioli. He had purchased and transformed the ancient monastery into a farm in 1802. The statue was probably damaged during the restoration works of the abbey complex. These began in the early 1900s and with the demolition of the manor house. It had been built illegally beside the church.”
Art of Pomposa’s Nave & Apse
“Arranged on three registers along the side walls of the main nave, the church depicts scenes from the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Apocalypse,” Simonetta pointed out. “The centerpiece of the entire cycle is the apsidal basin with Christ surrounded by Angels and Saints. Below are depicted the four evangelists, the four doctors of the church, San Giovanni Battista and San Martino. Under these last representations, there is the original representation of the conversion and martyrdom of Saint Eustace.”
“The frescoes in the apse and the apsidal basin are the work of Vitale da Bologna while the side walls and the counter-façade were frescoed by painters from his workshop,” she explained. “The mosaic and inlaid floors are made with precious marbles dated from the 11th and 12th centuries. Four sections can be recognized starting from the presbytery. The first three sections, enclosed by marble barriers, corresponded to the choir of the monks.”
Simonetta explained that another section consists of a 6th century mosaic taken from Ravenna. She said the second section is a marble inlay with a round central area boasting an engraved eight-pointed star. This is the symbol of Pomposa, and with the inscription of the name in the rays of the star. The third section is a mosaic worked in ‘opus tessellatum’ and presents representations of symbolic animals. The fourth section, carried out in the mid 12th century, is made by Venetian workers using the ‘opus sectile’ technique with triangles of precious marble. The church is built almost entirely with materials from Ravenna and from buildings destroyed by the invasion of the Lombards in 751 A.D.
Decline and Revival of Pomposa Abbey
“The reason for the abandonment of Pomposa was the route of the River Po,” Simonetta said. “Called Ficarolo in 1151, the river changed its course and led to the area becoming swamp land. Environmental conditions worsened and the territory became inhospitable over the centuries. Around the year 1000 the monastery was very powerful and rich. It had the title of “Imperial” and was called “monasterium in Italia princeps.” However, a long phase of decline followed which was only changed around 1300. This stimulated a period of vigorous activity within the monastery, including renovation of the buildings and the cycle of frescoes.”
“Nevertheless, in 1671, the monastery was completely abandoned. The church transformed into a simple parish under the bishop of Comacchio,” she said. “The other buildings were abandoned and began being used for agricultural purposes. Many collapsed. With Italy’s unity, the awareness of Pamposa’s cultural heritage led to its protection, and was acquired by the state. The government expropriated the entire complex from the owners and, around 1920, began impressive restoration works which we admire today.”
Musical Notation by Pamposa on Po River
“Among the many things to Pomposa has given us is musical notation,” Simonetta revealed. “We must thank the monk Guido di Pomposa during the period in which the monastery was led by the Abbot San Guido. Thanks to him it was possible to codify modern musical notation which revolutionized the way of teaching, composing and passing on music. However, this invention aroused the envy of fellow monks and forced Guido to abandon Pomposa and move to Arezzo.
“Dante Alighieri, the great Italian poet, stayed on various occasions in Pomposa,” she said. “Legend has it that manuscripts of some songs of the Divine Comedy are hidden within the walls of the Abbey. Dante quotes Pomposa in XXI canto of Paradise.”
“There is also a love story enacted in Pomposa between Lord Byron, English hero and romantic poet, and the Ravenna noblewoman Teresa Gamba Guiccioli, wife of Count Guiccioli,” she shared. “That’s the same Guiccioli I mentioned earlier, who purchased the monastery after the Napoleonic suppression of the Monastic orders.”
“Pomposa has always inspired poets and artists; it was an obligatory stop on the Grand Tour” Simonetta observed. “Among these we can mention the American architect Stanford White. He was assistant in Richardson’s studio in New York. He probably visited Pomposa in 1879. From the church and tower of Pomposa he took inspiration for the project for the Methodist church ‘Lovely Lane’ in Baltimore, completed in 1877.”
Po River Delta
As Laura revealed, civilizations have been forming around deltas since man’s earliest days. This type of environment is usually fertile and the shallow waters make for ideal circumstances to conduct trade and commerce. These wetlands form as rivers empty into another body of water, depositing their sediment and creating a special ecosystem. The Po River Delta is the only such biosphere in Italy. Not surprisingly, the area plays a significant role in Italy’s history and exploring those reasons make a visit here worthwhile. Not to mention, the dunes, lagoons and marshes are serene and stunning.
Po Delta Regional Park
Jodi Crivellaro offered a different perspective on the Po Delta: its ecology. He studied biology at the University of Ferrara and has a master’s degree in Ecology and Nature Conservation.
“During the spring and autumn time, I work as a tourist guide in the Comacchio lagoon, or better in the “Valli di Comacchio”, in the north-eastern part of Italy,” Jodi said.“This territory, the youngest in Italy, was born around 1000 years ago in the heart of the Po Delta, the real creator of the whole Padan Valley. For many reasons, natural and anthropic, the Delta moved 20 km North leaving this unique environment isolated. It is a shallow and brackish water environment, in part connected to the Adriatic Sea.”
“This lagoon has been hardly hardened from 60.000 hectares to nowadays 12.000 ha to obtain farmlands,” he explained. “Only in the ’70s, it was recognized as a real biodiversity hotspot. It hosts more than 370 different bird species during the year and numerous fish species. In addition, a very particular type of vegetation that was able to adapt to the salty environments. For these reasons, in 1998 the Po Delta Regional Park was born. It’s an administrational organization aimed at protecting this great natural heritage and its relationships with the local people.”
“In fact, the traditions and the cultural habits of the city of Comacchio have always been deeply connected to the lagoon. The ancient village was built on 13 little islands connected by bridges; its roads were water channels and the people living here were occupied in fishing activities, mainly involving eels,” Jodi said.
Ancient Tradition of Eel Fishing on Po River
“The tour that I lead brings the visitors into the heart of the lagoon. We follow an ancient dead branch of the Po River to reach a 17th century eel fishing station,” he explained. “The first part of the path touches the western side of the ancient saltworks. They’ve been unused since 1984, but are managed by the Regional Park to facilitate the nesting of multiple bird species. These include the Mediterranean Flamingos, present here with a colony of around 15000 individuals.”
“Proceeding along the old channel we pass by two different fishing stations within a few meters. This suggests how rich this environment was when these structures were inactivity, which was up to 1950,” Jodi said. “Herons, cormorants, flamingos, hawks and hundreds of little sparrows fly over our heads while browsing deeper inside the lagoon. The landscape is a mix of natural hand and human hand. It’s recognizable by the artificial walls made of mud and the wooden poles maintaining the old channels. Some little artificial islands were built for the birds to nest and the traditional fishing buildings.”
The Lavoriero Trap
“At the end of the channel, we visit a big fishing station and ‘guests’ learn about the journey eels make. The eels come here from the Sargasso Sea and guests learn about the unique fishing technique used for more than six centuries in this lagoon: the “Lavoriero” trap,” Jodi said. “This fishing method is very similar to agriculture and needs a lot of work during the “no-fishing” season. During this time, the channels are scraped, and tools and boats are adjusted. Most importantly the “Lavoriero” trap is placed, to be ready for the fishing season, which is in autumn.”
“During autumn, all the fishermen come to live in the fishing stations. There are around 70 in the whole lagoon–to be ready for the harvest,” he explained. “Eels are expertly caught by managing the water streams after black and stormy nights. That’s when these fishes try to reach the sea to start the mating journey back to the Mexico Gulf.”
UNESCO Recognition of Po River
“All these deep connections between the local traditions and the lagoon are some of the reasons that UNESCO recognized this territory as a Biosphere Reserve in 2015, underlying the equilibrium between nature and human activities as one of the goals of sustainable development,” Jodi explained.
“After being included in the UNESCO MAB (Man and Biosphere) program, the institutions of the Po Delta Park organized the first International Youth Forum of UNESCO Biosphere Reserves, where around 300 young people coming from all over the world met to find solutions for future sustainable development,” he said.
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Header photo credit: Sergio Boscaino, Flickr