The power of the Po


“Every river is compelled to flow toward the sea, and it also carries tears with it.”  

I don’t know who wrote that, but it is the perfect epigraph for the Po River.     And nearly 60 years ago, there were  many, many tears.

The Po near Mantova.

The Po near Mantova.

Those two words — Po River — are tremendously evocative to millions, especially those living near it, or in some way depending on it.  It’s the longest  river  in Italy, and although it isn’t much compared to the Nile or the Congo, it is Italy’s mythic mass of water.  

The Po valley comprises some of the richest and most heavily cultivated land in Europe.

The Po valley comprises some of the richest and most heavily cultivated land in Europe.

The Po flows 405 miles [652 kilometers] from Monviso, a dazzling mountain in the Cottian Alps,  to the Adriatic,  through the core of the  north Italian Padania Plain and drains an area of  28,946 square miles [74,970 square kilometers].  

Some people think it’s monotonous and boring, but that’s when it’s just rolling along like Ol’ Man River.   Then every once in a while it floods, and turns into  something cataclysmic, and suddenly people  are  praying to God to make it boring again.   You can read more  in the article I wrote for National Geographic in the May, 2002 issue.

I’m talking about all this because of   my chronic curiosity about a statue stuck off by itself amid a few trees near the Giardini vaporetto stop.

It’s dramatic yet curiously detached; nevertheless, you realize something serious is underway.   A rescue, obviously, but it isn’t immediately clear what the danger is.   It’s the Po.

img_2129-statua-alluvione-compCatastrophic floods have occurred many times, but in November of 1951 there was a confluence of factors which spelled doom for man, beast, buildings, crops, bridges, soil, and anything else that was in, on, or near the river.   People seem to get all worked up about high tide in Venice, but that’s a Gilbert and Sullivan ditty compared to the Wagnerian devastation the Po visited on 200,000 people, nearly 1,000 of whom lost their lives.

I’m not going to try to describe it; the numbers can do it for me.   But I do remember what a friend of mine in Cremona told me about the Po in the major flood of 2000:   “The river under the bridge sounded like a waterfall.”   In 1951, the volume of water was measured at Cremona at 399,055 cubic feet per second  [11,300 cubic meters per second] — it must have sounded like the Last Judgment.

That autumn was especially rainy, not only in Italy but elsewhere in Europe and also in the United States.   From November 7-13, two weather fronts — one from the Atlantic, the other from Africa — brought rain that wasn’t particularly intense,   but it was continuous.   In fact, due to the nature and extent of the catchment basin, it’s long rains, rather than intense ones, that  create serious floods.  

piena515-compBefore long, the ground was saturated, unable to absorb any more water.   Then the rain intensified.      A hot southeast wind hit the snow that was falling in the Alps, and melted it.   More water.  

In the  five days between November 8-12, 600 billion cubic feet [17 billion cubic meters] of water  fell on the Po Plain, the amount which would normally fall in six months.

The Po’s average discharge is 48,400 cubic feet per second [1,370 cubic meters]; at its flood peak in 1951, the Po’s discharge was estimated at almost ten times that, or 424,000 cubic feet [12,000 cubit meters] per second.   That would be Niagara Falls doubled, thundering horizontally toward the sea.  

The river was rising because many of its 141 tributaries were also rising, obviously.   But when some of these smaller rivers tried to empty into the Po, the power of its flow actually forced them back, where they began to flood their own immediate surrounding territory.   That southeast wind wasn’t merely melting snow, it was preventing the Po from emptying into the sea.  

Nov. 13:   During the night, the church bells in Casalmaggiore (Cremona) and Sabbioneta (Mantova) and all the bells in the surrounding towns and villages begin to ring, to summon the men to try to block the rising water.   Urgent requests go out for sandbags.      

Nov. 14:   The Po exceeds 14 feet [4.30 meters].   At 7:00 pm the river bursts its embankments at Paviole di Canaro.   An hour later, it breaks through at Bosco and Malcantone at  the rate of    211,883 cubic feet [6,000 cubic meters] of water per second.    In a few hours 156 square miles [404 square kilometers] are flooded.  

When the flood crest reaches the Po Delta, the area also called Polesine, the level is higher at Rovigo — 15.7 feet [4.8 meters]    — than any recorded flood ever.

Nov. 15:  An emergency truck evacuating people is caught by the water at Frassinelle Polesine; 84 people, including women and children, die in what is remembered as the “death lorry.”      

At 2:00 pm the river bursts the banks at Arqua’ Polesine and the water spreads toward Adria.  

Nov. 18:   Rovigo is evacuated.

Nov. 19:   Adria, Cavarzere, Loreo are completely flooded.   The cities are evacuated.    

Nov. 20:   The embankments at Ceserolo are cut to save Rovigo.    

Nov. 25:   The crest reaches the sea, and the water begins to recede.   After three months, toward the end of February, only about one third of the flooded land is still submerged.    

In all, some 425 square miles [1,100 square kilometers] were flooded.

The rescue efforts were massive: The Army, Navy, Air Force, firemen, police, Red Cross, Scouts, and volunteers descended on the stricken towns, working continuously with the help of some 2,000 boatmen.   People spent days trapped on the roofs of their isolated houses, hoping someone would come by.

bovini-compThe damage in Polesine:   900 houses destroyed, 300 houses damaged, 38 communities flooded, 160,000 people forced to evacuate, 113,000 hectares of farmland flooded, and 300 hectares of land covered by a layer of sand 6 feet [2 meters] deep.

4500 cattle, 150 horses, 7800 pigs, 700 sheep and goats, and one million quintals [220 million pounds]  of fodder, all lost.  


37 miles [60 kilometers] of embankments and 52 bridges destroyed.    

Of course no one had insurance.   What was lost was gone forever.   It was Biblical.

Contributions poured — excuse the expression — in, from 65 countries, including Uruguay, Tunisia, Haiti, Indonesia, Lebanon, Costa Rica, Somaliland (as it was known), and Albania, as well as NATO.  

Lino remembers the effect it had on people in Venice who, like people for miles around,  responded by bringing mattresses, clothes, shoes, blankets, and more to collection points around the city.   My friend Roberto, from Milan, was just a tyke at the time, but he still remembers his mother telling him he had to donate one of his toys to the children in Polesine, and not just any toy.   She decreed, “Your favorite toy.'”    

“It was my favorite teddy bear,” he told me, “but I sent it away.”

"To the soldiers of land and sea TKTK" and below it, "To the memory of Alberto Vio, symbol of the generous impulse of Venice for the brothers of Polesine."

"To the soldiers of land and sea Venice salutes the Italians" and below it, "To the memory of Alberto Vio, symbol of the generous impulse of Venice for the brothers of Polesine." On the right side of the pedestal is incised MARZO MDCCCLXXXV and below it, NOVEMBRE MCMLI. The plot thickens.

Many improvements were attempted to prevent anything like this happening again.   One of the measures taken was to build ever higher embankments, often (in the cities) walled with concrete.   You know how water behaves when it’s forced into a tighter channel or tube?   Think of turning on your faucet very hard.   Yes.   That’s what the Po does now when it floods.  

Therefore,  when the river floods in spring (melting snow) or autumn (rains), as it will do until snow and rain cease from the earth,  it inevitably gains force as it races seaward.  

So floods continue — not much anyone can do about that — but the effects are still, if not as catastrophic as in 1951, expensive and distressing.   Because houses and fields and poplar forests planted for cellulose keep increasing, and always closer to the river’s edge.  

Oh, and some 30 million cubic yards of sand and gravel are illegally dug out of the riverbed for construction every year.   Not good if you were looking for ways to minimize flooding, which if you’re a gravel-robber you probably aren’t.

In 1994, the Po flood caused  70 deaths and 10,000 people lost their homes, due mainly to failures in the flood warning system.   The human element — always the wild card.

In 2000, the Po flood caused 25 deaths and 40,000 were evacuated.

And so it goes.   The Po.   Majestic.   Magnificent.   But I’d never call it  monotonous.

NOTE:   About the statue with the double inscription:   Everyone but me will already have figured it out —  it was originally made to commemorate the heroic efforts of the Army to help the victims of the Po flood in the spring of 1882.   (I know that the inscription reads 1885, but I am trusting my source, the immortal Giulio Lorenzetti, for this information.)   After the inundation of 1951, the statue was recycled to commemorate the equally heroic rescue work (hence the noticeably non-1951 garb of the figures depicted).  

Alberto Vio, Lino tells me, was “famous” for having provided boats for the rescue efforts.   I don’t know any more than that just now,  but  it explains why he is mentioned on the plinth.   I can tell you, though,  that the statue was made by Augusto Benvenuti in 1885, and that it used to stand in Campo San Biagio, the small area in front of the Naval Museum and church of San Biagio.   Lino remembers seeing it there when he was a lad.   Then someone decided it should move out and they found this anonymous little spot for it by the Giardini.   Kind of a modest end to a work that was entitled “Monument to the Italian Army.”   But if everybody’s fine with this, so am I.

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Categories : History, Nature, Water


  1. As a witness to several floods, I know the danger they pose and the disruption of life that can occur. I literally watched as all of our posessions where picked up and hauled off as they were so badly damaged. I just hope that rivers like these are controlled well enough to ensure that epc floods don’t occur again.
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    • Erla Zwingle says:

      Of course I’m really sorry to hear about happened to you. Unfortunately, it appears that many, if not most, of the interventions made to control rivers tend, in the end, to make the floods worse. But we can always hope for the best.

  2. This river is a great place to go fishing or just enjoy a day out on a boat with the family. The importance of this river to local people is also huge as the core of their memories are sourced from this river.
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    • Erla Zwingle says:

      Yes, I know — I wrote an article for National Geographic about the river (“Po: River of Pain and Plenty,” May 2002). I went fishing and boating, as you mention, and did a million other things too. Met some amazing people.

  3. I really enjoy your blog…. i just wants to say keep it up……
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  4. No one can stop it my friend. Flood is a natural calamity. We just beware of that.
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    • Erla Zwingle says:

      Perhaps they can’t stop it, but they ought to stop doing things that are guaranteed to make it worse. Such as building too close to the river, or heightening and/or narrowing the embankments. I learned a lot about rivers and floods when I wrote an article for National Geographic about the Po River (“Po: River of Pain and Plenty,” May 2002).

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