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Po valley near source in the western Alps.
The Po Valley, Po Plain, Plain of the Po, or Padan Plain ( ) is a major geographical feature of Italymarker. It extends approximately in an east-west direction, including its Venetic extension not actually related to the Po rivermarker; it runs from the Western Alps to the Adriatic Seamarker. The flatlands of Veneto and Friulimarker are often considered apart since they do not drain into the Po, but they effectively combine into an unbroken plain.

The plain has a geologic basis. It represents the surface of an in-filled system of ancient canyons (the "Appennine Foredeep") extending from the Appenninesmarker in the south to the Alps in the north, including the northern Adriaticmarker. In addition to the Po and its affluents the contemporary surface includes the Savio, Lamonemarker and Renomarker to the south, the Adigemarker, Brenta, Piave and Tagliamentomarker to the north, among the many streams that empty into the north Adriatic from the west and north

Geo-political definitions of the valley depend on the defining authority. The Po Basin Water Board (Autorità di bacino del fiume Po), authorized in 1989 by Law no. 183/89 to oversee "protection of lands, water rehabilitation, the use and management of hydro resources for the rational economic and social development, and protection of related environment" within the Po basin, has authority in several administrative regions of north Italy, including the plain north of the Adriatic and the territory south of the lower Po, as shown in the regional depiction included with this article. The law defines the Po basin as "the territory from which rainwater or snow and glacier melt flows on the surface, gathers in streams of water either directly or via tributaries...". The United Nations Environment Program includes the Alps and Appennines as far as the sources of the tributaries of the Po but excludes Veneto and that portion of Emilia-Romana south of the lower Po; that is, it includes the region drained by the Po but only the Po and its tributaries.

The altitude of the valley through which the Po flows exclusive of its tributaries varies from approximately below sea level in the Polesine subregion (the delta around Ferraramarker) to about at the river's origin in the southern Piedmontese province of Cuneo, also known as the Provincia granda. The valley is crossed by a number of affluents running down from the Alps in the north and from the Apenninesmarker in the south. The Po's major affluents include the Tanaro, Scriviamarker, Trebbiamarker, Panaromarker and Secchiamarker in the south, Dora Ripariamarker, Dora Balteamarker, Sesiamarker, Ticinomarker (draining Lake Maggioremarker), Addamarker (draining Lake Comomarker), Ogliomarker (draining Lake Iseomarker) and Minciomarker (draining Lake Gardamarker and called Sarcamarker in its upper reaches) in the north.


The Po Valley and the Adriatic overlay a system of deeply buried ancient canyons surviving from the tectonic collision of an offshore land mass, Tyrrhenis, with the mainland, an incident within the collision of the African and Eurasian plates. Since the Messinian (7-5 mya) the system has been filling with sediment mainly from the older Appenninesmarker but also from the Alps. The shoreline of the Adriatic depends on a balance between the sedimentation rate and isostatic factors. Until about 1950 the Po delta was prograding into the Adriatic. After that time due to human alteration of geologic factors, such as the sedimentation rate, the delta has been degrading and the coastline subsiding, resulting in ongoing contemporaneous crises in the city of Venicemarker, where much irreplaceable art and architecture is likely to be lost due to soaring sea level in the next centuries. Where the land surface now dips below sea level the river must run at a relative elevation between dikes.


The Po Valley is often regarded as a syncline, or dip in the crust due to compression at the edges. Regardless of whether this concept accurately describes its geology, the valley is manifestly a sediment-filled trough, or virtual syncline, continuous with the deeps of the Adriatic Seamarker. The surface terrain is therefore divided into two overall types of landform: the plain, or flat surface of the fill, and the anticline at the edges, taking the form of hilly country in which the outcrops of the original rock are visible along with alluvial fans formed from the outwash of the more severe anticlinal terrain; that is, the Appennines and the Alps.

The valley is broadly divided into an upper, drier part, often not particularly suited for agriculture, and a lower, very fertile, and well irrigated section, known in Lombardy and western Emilia as la Bassa, "the low (plain)". The upper areas of the Po valley take local names which reflect in their meanings their being modestly suited for farming. So we have the Piedmontese vaude and baragge, the Lombard brughiera|brughiere and Groane, or, exiting from the Po valley proper, the Friulianmarker magredi, areas remote from easily reachable water tables and covered with dense woods or dry soils.

Fontanile Maccherone, Lombardy
This specific meaning for "lower plain" derive from a geologic feature called the fontanili ("spring") line or zone, a band of springs around the Val Po, heaviest on the north, on the lowermost slopes of the anticline. It varies from a few kilometres to as much as wide. The fontanili line is the outcrop, or intersection, of the anticline's water table with the surface at the edge of the bassa. The rock above the line is porous. Surface water in the intermittent streams of the mountains tends to disappear below ground only to spring out again in the spring zone. The spring zone is often called "the middle valley."

Surface runoff water (the Po and its affluents) is not of much value to the valley's dense population for drinking and other immediate uses, being unreliable, often destructive and heavily polluted by sewage and fertilizers. Its main anthropic value is for hydro-electric power, irrigation and industrial transport. The cost of purifying it for human consumption makes that process less feasible. The fresh drinking water comes from hundreds of thousands of wells concentrated especially in the fontanili zone. The major settlements therefore are also in that zone, which has become the center of economic development and industry in Italy, and now is an almost continuous megalopolis stretching from Turinmarker to Triestemarker.

The bassa Padana was settled and farmed earliest, in Etruscan and Roman times, and has been completely devoted to agriculture since the Middle Ages, when efforts from monastic orders, feudal lords and free communes converged. The older and smaller cities deriving from ancient times are still located there.


The Po has a mild continental climate and a humid subtropical climate, depending on the part of the Po Valley one is referring to. Winters are not long, but foggy, damp and chilly, with sudden bursts of frost from the Siberian anticyclone; the urban heat effect has made them less foggy and cold than before. Snow was once commonplace, but is now scarce; prolonged winter droughts increasingly deny sufficient moisture to the soil. Spring and autumn are well marked and pleasant, while summer can be quite oppressive, hot and humid, with sudden violent hailstorms and, sometimes, what amounts to minor tornadoes. Both winter and summer are more extreme in the lower parts along the Po; the great lakes moderate the local climate around them. Wind is quite rare; only sudden bursts of foehn or thunderstorms manage to sweep the air clean. The almost enclosed nature of the Padan basin, indeed, added to the crushing weight of road traffic, makes it prone to a high level of pollution, especially in winter when cold air clings to the soil.

Ancient history

Cities are more recent by the Po than in Southern Italy or Greece. The first known inhabitants of the thick forests and swamps in ancient times were the Ligurians, a race of pre-Indo-European stock. After the progressive immigration of Indo-European peoples of Umbrian (Italic) stock, known as the Insubres (hence the name of Insubria sometimes given to northwestern Lombardy), in the 7th century BC the southern and central regions were conquered and colonized here and there by another non-Indoeuropean people, the Etruscansmarker, who left some city names such as Parmamarker, Ravennamarker or Felsina, the ancient name of Bolognamarker, as part of their cultural heritage. The Etruscan domination left significant marks and introduced urban civilization, but was short-lived. As the 5th century BC dawned, a Celtic horde swarmed through the easy passes of the Western Alps and conquered most of the Po Valley, apart Veneto which had its inhabitants, the Venetics likely of a distinct stock and in time already influenced by both Etruscansmarker and Greeks.

The Gaulish conquerors, divided in major tribes as the Boii (from whom Bolognamarker, Bononia, is name), the Taurini (whence the name of Turinmarker) or the Cenomani, dwelled mostly into the plains, in time absorbing the Alpine populations. A warlike people, they even raided and burnt Romemarker itself in 390 BC under a leader named Brennus. Roman revenge took time, but was total and definitive: Celticity, while leaving significant traces in the substratum of Gallo-Italic languages, was cancelled from northern Italy and replaced by Latin language and culture. This happened after the Romans defeated the Gauls at the Battle of Clastidium and later subdued them for good after Hannibal's final defeat at Zama. By 196 BC Rome was master of the woody plains and soon took over the role of the Etruscans, dotting the region with bustling colonies, clearing the land, fighting the last rebel tribes and gradually imposing its civilization.

The centuries of Roman domination decided forever the main aspect of the Po Valley. Cities dotted the areas at the foothills of the Alps and Apennines in two stretches; in the south along the via Aemilia, in the north along a Milanmarker-Aquileiamarker route. Julius Caesar granted Roman citizenship to these lands, whence he recruited many of his bravest troops. The Po Valley for a time hosted the capital of the Western Roman Empire, in Mediolanummarker from 286 to 403, and then in Ravennamarker till the end. It was attacked in the 3rd century by Germanic tribes bursting out from the Alps and sacked two centuries later by Attila the Hun, till its final conquest first by Odoacer, then at the hands of the Ostrogoths of king Theoderic the Great in the final years of the 5th century.

Middle Ages

Lombard rule

The Gothic War and Justinian's plague devastated the Padan population. In this scenario of desolation, from which many people had fled to the mountains for safety (making them fairly populated till the 20th century) came the Germanic Lombards, a warrior people who gave their name to almost the whole of the Po valley: Lombardy. In the Middle Ages the term was used to indicate all of northern Italy. The Lombards divided their domain in duchies, often contending for the throne; Turinmarker and Friuli, in the extreme west and east end respectively, seem to have been the most powerful, whereas the capital soon shifted from Veronamarker to Paviamarker. Monzamarker also was an important town in that time, more so than ruined Milanmarker. The Lombards' harsh, caste-like rule over the natives softened somewhat with their conversion from Arianism to Catholicism.

Frankish rule

The Lombard kingdom was overthrown in 774 by Charlemagne and his Frankish armies, becoming a prized part of the Carolingian Empire. After the chaotic feudal dissolution of the empire and much fighting among pretenders to the imperial crown, Otto I of Saxonymarker set the stage for the following phase of the region's history by adding the Po Valley to the Holy Roman Empire of the Germanic nation in 962. In Veneto, the lagoon capital of Venicemarker, emerged a great sea power in alliance with its old master, the Byzantine Empire. In time the Comuni emerged, as towns thrived in commerce. Soon Milanmarker became the most powerful city of the central plain of Lombardy proper, and despite being razed in 1162, it was a Milan-driven Lombard League with Papal benediction that defeated emperor Frederick Barbarossa at the Battle of Legnano in 1176.

The rise of Venice and Milan

Further civil wars escalated in the Guelph-Ghibelline reciprocate bloodbath of the 13th and 14th century. The Signorie came from spent out Communal institutions. With Venicemarker's expansion on the eastern mainland in the first half of the 15th century and Milanmarker's supremacy in the center and west the region (not significantly diminished by the Black Death of 1348) reached unprecedented peaks of prosperity. Vast areas were irrigated and cultivated with the most modern techniques available. The population averaged some 50 people per square kilometer, a very high standard for those times.

Modern era

Foreign domination

In 1494 the ruinous Italian Wars began between Francemarker and Spainmarker, which lasted for decades. " ", the desperate Italians said, "France or Spain, provided we have something to eat". Land changed hands frequently. Even Switzerlandmarker received some Italian-speaking lands in the north (Canton Ticinomarker, not technically a part of the Padan region), and the Venetianmarker domain was invaded, forcing Venicemarker into neutrality as an independent power. In the end, Spain prevailed with Charles V's victory over Francis I of France at the Battle of Pavia in 1525.

Agricultural productions in the Padan Plain.

The Spanishmarker domination was oppressive, adding its burden to the Counterreformation imposed by the archbishopric of Milan; Protestantism was prevented from making inroads in the area. Burning at the stake became common practice during witchhunts, especially in the neighboring Alpine lands. During this bleak period, however, Lombard industry recovered, especially the textile branch, its pillar.When the War of Spanish Succession traded Milanmarker to Austriamarker, government and administration improved significantly. Though the peasantry began a century-long plunge into misery, cities prospered and grew.

When Napoleon I entered the Po Valley during some of his brightest campaigns (1796 and 1800, culminating in the historical Battle of Marengo), he found an advanced country and made it into his Kingdom of Italy. With Napoleon's final defeat the Austrians came back, but they were no more welcome: the inhabitants of the region had discovered they were capable and ready to rule themselves as well as any foreign master, and in the west Piedmont, ruled by the Italianized Savoy dynasty who had emerged from its Alpine domains in the 16th century, was to serve as a springboard for Italian unification.

Italian nationalism

The Risorgimento, after an unsuccessful start in 1848 and 1849, triumphed ten years later in Lombardy, which was conquered by a Franco-Piedmontese army. In 1866 Veneto joined young Italy, thanks to Prussia's defeat of Austriamarker. Poverty in the countryside increased emigration to the Americas, a phenomenon which subsided in the central region towards the end of the 19th century, but persisted in Veneto well into the 20th century. Industry grew rapidly, thanks to an abundance of water and literate manpower.

World wars

The World Wars did not significantly damage the area, despite the destruction caused by Allied aerial bombing of many cities and heavy frontline fighting in Romagnamarker. The Resistance protected the main industries, which the Third Reich was using for war production, preventing their destruction: on the 25th of April, 1945 a general insurrection in the wake of the German defeat was a huge success. Most cities and towns, notably Milan and Turin, were freed by the partisans days before the Allies arrived.

Post-war period

After the war the Padan area took the lead in the economic miracle of the 1950s and 60s. It tended to polarize politically. Emilia-Romagna, south of the Po, was mostly Communist and today still is strongly leftist. It is rich and productive thanks to a tightly knit net of cooperatives. Veneto, traditionally poor, remained staunchly Catholic in politics but changed unrecognizably in the 70s. Lombardy saw a prevalence of Catholic views (Christian Democracy), Piedmont of leftist forces especially in the zone around Turinmarker. In recent times, while Emilia-Romagna (whence former Prime Minister Romano Prodi) has remained firmly center-left, the remaining regions have become increasingly rightist, following the lead of the Milanese Silvio Berlusconi. Since 1989, Lega Nord, a federation of Northern regionalist parties, has promoted either secession or larger autonomy for the Padan area which they call Padania.


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