Ancient Voghenza

Written by  Ottorino Bacilieri
History and economy of a Roman district.
Voghiera and Voghenza, on the right and left banks of the former main Po-Eridano branch, were situated on a level with the large river island which can be identified today in the Massari-Mazzoni park, at a time when the main branch of the river was the more southerly, emerging at Spina, which signified life, trade and resources for these lands which were the site of several rich imperial saltus.

The saltus could be today defined as a large farm with extensive wooded areas providing building timber and fuelling the region's many kilns which relied on the practically inexhaustible quantity of clay removed from the banks of the Po.

Of fundamental importance to the saltus was the plentiful water supplied by the many channels linking it to the great river, and also collected artificially in basins and in hollows, diverted from drainage schemes, which provided the conditions for the fish farming which was a crucial element in the Roman economy.

One of the main foodstuffs in Roman times was garum, a sauce used for seasoning which was made from fermented fish and mixed with a wide range of foods.
Characteristically, a saltus had vast areas of land reserved for farming and raising livestock. Agriculture of the time mainly focused on cereals such as emmer wheat, but the widespread cultivation of vines is also recorded.
Strabone, writing at the beginning of our era, speaks of land in the Po district drained for agricultural purposes, flanked by navigable river tributaries which could rapidly transport goods to the major consular roads for trading throughout the empire. Some of these roads, such as the Via Popilia, Via Emilia and Via Annia, passed close to Voghenza. Considerable quantities of locally produced meat were also transported along these roads.

Archaeological evidence from ancient Voghenza confirms the pre-eminent role of this centre in the Po delta - until at least the 7th century AD - as an imperial administrative centre, where tax collectors and saltus administrators were based.

Voghenza was a kind of customs point, through which there passed across the Po goods bound for the north-east of the empire. towards the markets in Adria and Aquileia or southwards, with easy road and cross-lagoon links with the port of Ravenna, home to the praetorian fleet for the whole of the eastern empire.

Archaeological excavations have uncovered an entire necropolis on the outskirts of Voghenza which can be dated to the first to third centuries AD, at the height of the power of imperial Rome.
Archaeological research has been under way at Voghenza since 1976, but we are still a long way from identifying the exact size and real nature of this ancient district, which is not even described in the sources as a town but which, shortly after the Edict of Constantine in 313 AD, had the honour of becoming the first diocese in the Ferrara region, with fifteen successive bishops before the founding of Ferrara itself.

The quality and quantity of archaeological documentation surviving from the Roman era suggests that the centres of Voghenza and Voghiera had a particularly important social and economic status in the delta. In the 7th century, with the transfer of the diocese and the consequent birth of Ferrara, the importance of these areas seems to have come to an end.

The Este, as lords of Ferrara, gave a fresh impetus to the district when the marchese Niccolò III decided to build the Belriguardo castle at Voghiera, the first delizia outside the city walls which, with its sumptuous setting and beauty, became the summer palace and gained the Este family its reputation as exceptional hosts and patrons of the arts and sciences.