A floating mill on the Po

Written by  Silvia Poletti
A very special mill that grinds incomparable flour. A symbol of sustainable development, the hero of Bacchelli's novel returns to work the waters of Po.
Until a few years ago, it would have seem impossible to imagine that another floating mill would one day be found on the stretch of river once occupied by the San Michele mill owned by Lazzaro Scacerni, the hero of Il Mulino del Po by Riccardo Bacchelli. More than sixty years after the disappearance of the last of Ferrara's floating mills, the spring of this year will mark the return of one of these former landmarks of our river banks, celebrated by Bacchelli's novel in an epic tale of Italy during the century from the campaigns of Napoleon to the Great War.

The first volume of the novel appeared in 1938 when little remained of the hundreds of mills along the Po. As recently as the 1970s, some residents of the region still remembered that in around 1935, a stout gentleman wearing a wide-brimmed hat and carrying a notebook in his hand wandered through the fields and along the banks, often intent on making notes.

At that time the very last of the local watermills was still in existence and in perfect working order, on the bend of the river near the village of Zocca. Some of its features suggested that it had been built in the eighteenth century. In December 1944 occupying German troops sank it a little downstream, possibly to deprive allied aircraft of an easy target. Senator Emilio Arlotti had acquired the mill in 1926, for practical rather than aesthetic reasons.
A lover of polenta ground by river mill, he had the old floating mill restored before handing it over to 'his' miller, Edmondo Bariani, who that autumn began to grind the new wheat when the first flood waters arrived to speed up the wheel that churned the waters and turned the millstone.

In his villa on the riverbank, the senator often entertained visitors such as Filippo de Pisis, Pietro Mascagni, Beniamino Gigli, Corrado Govoni and Riccardo Bacchelli himself. It is not too fanciful to imagine that the greatest historical novel of twentieth century Italy was born over a plate of steaming polenta served during a long evening's conversation.

It was hugely successful, especially among those living along the river, among whom the story of the Scacerni family acquired a legendary status.

Today, more than forty years on, research in the archives and museums of the Po Valley was needed in order to recreate the floating mill that the Ro Ferrarese municipality has placed at the heart of its project to revitalise the district and attract tourists in greater numbers.

Not out of nostalgia, or from an interest in antiquities, but rather to find a practical response to the need to find in one's own history the roots of an inclination towards simplicity, sustainability and the good life.