The Great Wood of the Mesola

Written by  Pier Luigi Cervellati
A natural monument threatened by extinction, suffocated by the civilization of the motor car.
Let's construct together an image of the great wood, starting with the maps. Observe the panel Ferrariæ Ducatus in the Vatican's Galleria delle Carte we note that it shows the territory around Ferrara with particular reference to the Po. There are also the cities of Reggio, Modena and Carpi, but the interest in centred on Ferrara. The scroll shows views of Ferrara, the Fortress and Comacchio. The cartographer has emphasized both the reclamation of the area of land known as the "Malea valle" and the industry and wealth of the lands already drained.

There is no mention of the great Wood. The portrait of the territory around Ferrara, which Gregory XIII admired along with all the other lands of Italy, shows a place largely made up of marshland that was to become fertile thanks precisely to those public works that the new "proprietor" was to promote.
The second "portrait" is the one that Giovanni Battista Aleotti dedicated to Clement VIII in 1603. This was five years after a part of the Este lands had passed in to the hands of the Pope and one year before the work at Porto Viro was brought to a conclusion.

The area around the Po known as the "Polesine di Ferrara" was undergoing its final, disturbing metamorphosis. But as this sumptuous map shows, the Elysian Wood did not stretch beyond the branch of the Po at Primaro. The zone known as the Sacca di Goro was mostly underwater and the dell'Abate port was actually in the sea. Two extraordinary events, the imminent change of ownership and the Po's change in course, underway at that time, condition these images.

The absence of the Wood is perhaps deliberate. The Wood, the castle of Mesola and the surrounding walls remained in Este hands until the mid-Eighteenth century. It is not necessary to emphasize this presence overmuch: a sinful former pleasaunce whose splendours are becoming only a vague memory.

In the Seventeenth century Atlante del ferrarese by Alberto Penna we note the "wood known AS la Giliola". Like those of the Eighteenth century, this is not a perfect map: the Wood lay within lands that were in movement. The boundaries delimiting land and sea changed continuously. The canals intersected one another or subsided; the valleys got longer or broader and seemed to be multiplying. Amid this chaos, cartography is hard put to provide clear boundaries. The Wood nonetheless begins to become a presence in precisely those Eighteenth century maps.

Tommaso Barbantini, in his Topography of the province of Ferrara... showing the hydraulic works carried out from 1767 to the end of June 1836, documents the situation prior to the land reclamation schemes of the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries. The Wood is shown and it is really big. It was already large in the Pianta del tenimento della Mesola - drawn up by agricultural surveyors in 1794 - in which the Wood appears in all its magnificence, a great green patch furrowed with paths that link it closely to the blue areas of land-water in the valleys.

In the fine Mappa of 1787, now kept in the State Archives in Rome, the "great Wood" surrounds the little Gigliola valley and is surrounded by other valleys. By then the "great" Wood had become known. But the wood was not to reach its philological apotheosis (i.e., Boscone) until almost the end of the Napoleonic republic.
The Carta del ferrarese / Dipartimento del basso Po - 1812 - 1814 - is a breathtaking cartographical reconstruction, almost an aerial survey, now kept in the Vienna Kriegsarchiv. Not only is the wood reproduced faithfully, the entire valley area is described with extreme precision. Not even the later highly detailed military maps were to illustrate with such fineness of detail the relation between land and water.

One map leads to another. It has always been like that, right up to these days of digitalized satellite photographs. Such modern techniques do not show the Wood very clearly: the colours do not correspond to reality and what seems "great", so much so that it stands out from all the others, is virtually unrecognizable in modern maps. The "great Wood" now seems like the sinopia of itself. Is this only a matter of cartography?

Antonio Beltramelli described it like this in 1905: «the Falce cut is a great and placid meander in which the water is barely ruffled by the wind, as in a lake; it extends over a vast area and is crowned to the north by the wood of Mesola. Another ferry, the Falce ferry, and behold!, the marvellous ancient woodland suddenly opens up in all its sweet and unforgettable enchantment».

Beltramelli had read Ariosto and Tasso. He is seeking for the roots of the Great Wood, which he compares to the selva oscura [dark woodland] of the poets: «... sometimes we can lose ourselves in a skein of branches and foliage so dense that the sky disappears from sight, hidden by impenetrable domes of greenery... Reflections of the sea and the ancient silence of centuries-old trees, that is the forest of the Mesola».
All the fascination of the place lies in the following: «the impassioned waters reflect their motionless companions of silence». The waters and the trees have given and continue to give life to the Wood.

The Wood lives on, but it no longer entrances. After Bassani not even the literati have taken an interest. They no longer listen to its silence, or better, its voice. There's no doubt about it: it is hard, today, to describe the Wood, to fall under its spell. One is unlikely to encounter Morgana le Fay. The deer are still there, one may see herons fly... but the wood is different now. The "SPACE" is not the way it used to be because the water is missing. Water doubles beauty. Touching the water, the Wood doubled, the space dilated. Seen from the sea, the great pines were impressive, seeming to spring from the water.

Recent reclamation work and the cement barriers that line the confines with the sea have eliminated its specific character. Useless roads have eaten into it to the north: the magnificence of the Wood derived from the water. Without water, the experts say, the Wood will suffer. Subsidence has got worse.
You don't have to be a catastrophist to worry about the future of the delta. The woodland that since ancient times has constituted a fixed point in the landscape of the delta risks becoming a memory. The former "estate OF the Mesola" was transfigured when the Falce valley was reclaimed at the end of the Sixties. Of the original 1,500 hectares only a little over 900 remain.

When the Castle was built, Tasso compared this place to Paradise. Between the pinewoods of Ravenna and the great Wood of the Mesola - near the mouth of the Po at Primaro - there was the Bosco Elisio, or Elysian Wood, the toponym, of another, pagan, Paradise. All the maps mentioned before show it. In the maps of this century there is no sign of it.
No, you do not have to be a catastrophist to worry about this. And yet, our day and age, which is also the epoch of science and technology, could restore the great Wood to us. And to restore the environment you do not have to go to the Moon or Pluto.

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