A cruise through the Bassa Padana

Written by  Franco Cazzola
A look back at the roads and waterways in the Ferrara region
A society like ours is hungry for communication. But people and goods are increasingly compelled to move more slowly, with constant tiresome delays, through a landscape which is increasingly urban, that is to say, uninterruptedly built up and inhabited. Their users complain that the roads are still inadequate.

Today, millions of tonnes of goods carried on heavy lorries are filling the entire road network from one end of the Peninsula to the other. A network once created to speed up economic links between businesses, and between businesses and consumers. This too is nowadays regarded as generally inadequate or inappropriate.

These superficial reflections on the paradoxes and contradictions of our post-industrial society are just a pretext for inviting the reader? to slow down and go back in time, imagining that they are horseback or horse-drawn travellers, leaving behind the walls of Ferrara and setting out on the roads to the villages and most important centres of the former Duchy and neighbouring states.

Historians of Ferrara give us little help in discovering the road networks of the past. Ferrara, described as the first modern city in Europe thanks to the genius of the architect Biagio Rossetti, is almost always studied and represented as a physical and social environment inexorably locked inside its magnificent and powerful walls.

We have few records of the surrounding villages and countryside, which almost seem to have no history. Even a quick glance at the admittedly very rich collection of maps in the Ferrara archives confirms the general irrelevance of road routes in the lower Po valley, at least until the nineteenth century.

The reason for the scant interest shown by historians and even cartographers in the road system of the Ferrara region is plain to see. Ferrara was founded and grew during the medieval period as a port city and a commercial centre, situated at the first major fork in what was then the main branch of the river Po.

For centuries, goods and travellers in the densely populated Po valley got around mainly by water, whether by sea, lagoon, river or marshland.

The waterways connecting the main cities of the plain with the river Po were numerous, and relatively fast and safe compared with the roads. For towns in Emilia, as for Venice and the centres in its hinterland, it was vital to be able to reach our greatest river, the main 'motorway' of the pre-industrial era, by water.

Historians have now traced the dense network of waterways which in the 13th century linked the town of Ferrara with the other more important centres, before the main riverbed that descends from Bondeno towards Ferrara silted up and lost its current, to the benefit of the Rotta di Ficarolo branch (12th century), the existing route taken the river. Precise evidence of the navigable waters in the area comes to us in the Chronica parva by Riccobaldo da Ferrara.

It was only thanks to the network of waterways that for centuries even heavy goods, like the pink marble from Verona or the precious white stone from Istria could reach Ferrara to decorate the cathedral and the palazzi of the wealthiest families, while grain and hemp grown around Ferrara, its main export products, could reach Venice and the distant markets of Lombardy and the Veneto.

For the Ferrara region and the Po delta, at least until the arrival of the railway, long distance communications for both goods and men were thus provided not by roads but by waterways.

Roads, which were usually impassable in autumn and winter, were mainly used for communications within a small radius, from one village to another. From this we can draw an interesting observation: because the altitude and hydrography of the Ferrara area led to almost all the centres of population to be located along the main active branches of the river or along its abandoned reaches, for obvious practical reasons the main road network in the region wound along the banks or followed the route of rivers and canals.

The Po's earth dikes were, inter alia, the highest places and those least likely to become flooded during the rainy months. Roads and the banks of waterways followed the same routes over extended distances. Small muddy roads or simple grassy tracks through the fields linked the villages to each other and to the scattered hamlets and the landowners' residences which normally lay nearby.

Routes crossing from one arm of the river to another generally followed the ridges left by former branches of the Po and thus took the sinuous lines typical of rivers. A significant example is the existing provincial road running from Cona to Consandolo, via Voghenza and Belriguardo. This follows the Sandolo, an abandoned former arm of the Po, on the banks of which stands the Roman settlement of Voghenza.

There was an important exception to this general picture of scanty land communications: the Romea road, a sandy track following the Ferrara coastline, but somewhat to the east of the Roman Via Popilia which ran from Rimini to Altino and thence, under the name Via Annia, to the centres of Concordia and Aquileia.

The Roman route presumably ran along one of the chains of fossilised dunes which even today feature strung-out settlements (Argine Agosta, Ponte Maodino, Italba, Massenzatica, San Basilio etc.). The existing Romea road is recorded in maps from the 16th to 18th century as the Venetian Republic's post road providing a postal service between Venice and Rome.

The Romea was undoubtedly used by pilgrims, but it was also a rapid land route for messengers carrying news and documents on horseback. This sandy track, running through woods and pine groves from Ravenna to Chioggia, which crosses the delta tributaries of the Po via staging posts providing inns and a change of horses (Mandriole, Primaro, Bellocchio, Pomposa, Mesola etc.) lost its main purpose after the fall of the Venetian Republic.

Only in 1952 did work begin on transforming the sandy track into a modern strip of asphalt, making a different way of life possible and bringing wealth to the area east of Ferrara and the Po delta in general.

Our slow journey through the past landscape of this region could continue, along the many dusty and muddy little roads which used to cross the great plain. Only walkers, cyclists or travellers in rowing boats - those who deliberately choose the slow routes - can now rediscover these paths, to relive for a short time the journey of the imagination to which these lines may serve as a humble invitation.