The Comacchio saltworks

Written by  Sergio Lucci
History and nature in a rediscovered natural paradise
It is difficult today to imagine how a common, simple product like salt could have been so important in the past. Until the industrial revolution, salt was not just a condiment; it was also one of the few preservatives for foodstuffs.

The absence of mechanical means for extracting rock salt meant that sea salt was the only type which could be produced without immense effort. In addition, the collection of sea salt requires very specific climatic and geographical conditions, which are anything but widespread.

For centuries the attention of the states that dominated Italian history was drawn to the Comacchio marshes for their natural ability to trap sea water, their clay shoals and their close proximity to that important trade route, the Po.

Though the Delta region enjoyed a degree of economic and commercial prosperity throughout the middle ages, as the millennium approached Comacchio salt began to become a become a source of continuing tension in the relations between Venice and the Este rulers. The Serenissima, which had numerous saltpans within its territory, never tolerated the competition from its Comacchio neighbours.

For centuries, therefore, Venice succeeded in preventing Comacchio from producing salt. At least in theory, since Comacchio was always able to create flourishing black markets.

From the sixteenth century, a new player appeared on the regional political scene, the Papacy. But nothing changed for Comacchio: instead of being the natural owners of this resource they were reduced for centuries to illegal workers on their own land, forced to "steal" what should have been legitimately theirs.

It was only in the early nineteenth century, during the brief Napoleonic period, that it was decided to revive the salt works, transforming them into a modern establishment for large-scale production. The project designed by French engineers and later carried out by the papal authorities returned to Ferrara's control after the Congress of Vienna.

During the following century and a half, the salt works experienced the most successful period in its history, reaching maximum production (about 150 000 quintals a year) and creating hundreds of jobs.

But in 1962, the mechanisation of salt collection and the morphological changes to the final evaporation vessels, instead of increasing the productive capacity of the plant proved to be a disaster. Production fell irredeemably to a third of that recorded a century earlier. Insufficiently productive, and simultaneously increasingly exposed to competition from rock salt, the Ministry of Finance finally closed the Comacchio salt works in 1985.

During the last twenty years economic activity has given way to new guests. The almost total absence of human activity has transformed the saltpans into an oasis of nature, the home of a wide range of birds - including spoonbills, flamingos, slender-billed gulls, common sea swallows, sandwich terns and little terns the importance of which has been recognised by the European Union.

In July 2001, the European Union, the Emilia-Romagna Region and the Po Delta Park launched a LIFE project for ecological rehabilitation and conservation in the saltpans. This is an important project, both environmentally and culturally. Once the ecological balance is guaranteed, it will be possible for the public to visit the saltpans so that the project to protect the habitat will also offer an opportunity to increase environmental awareness.