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Four large towns, more than two thousand farms and homesteads and a great network of modern motor roads now occupy what was once a swampy Italian wilderness with an area of 180 square miles

The Pontine Marshes

FLOODED FENLAND and fever-infested swamps — the unpromising expanse of land which the Italian engineers drained and converted into a vast region of fertile crop and pasture lands. The work was carried out by members of the Italian Ex-Servicemen’s Association.

MAN’S struggles with the great swampy wilderness lying between the Volscian Mountains, the Alban Hills and the purple-blue waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea have lasted for more than two thousand years.

This region — known as the Pontine Plain or Agro Pontino — covers an area of roughly 180 square miles, and was described by the ancient historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus as the most tremendous plain in all the Latin people’s coastal territories. Back in the dim infancy of European civilization, before Rome was great, the Pontine district was inhabited by an agricultural community known as the Volsci. These Volsci, in the course of years, had dried out the vast bogs of the plain, and had converted its stagnant waterways into irrigation channels.

Then Rome began to expand. Ambitious Romans objected to the existence of the Volsci. It was bad enough to have an uncongenial community living at the very gates of Rome, but it was worse still for that community to be highly successful and prosperous, menacing the prestige and trade supremacy of the Roman people. So the Roman legions poured over the Pontine lands, and the Volsci, with their twenty-four cities, were destroyed, about 338 B.C. The irrigation channels became blocked up, embankments crumbled through neglect, and the Pontine Plain became the Pontine Marshes again — a horrid, desolate wilderness of drowned fields and bottomless bogs, a place of deadly humid swamp mists, teeming with malaria. The few inhabitants lived in squalid misery, struggling against poverty and fever.

Year by year and decade by decade, the marshes spread over the wasted country. The first real attempt to check this spread was made by Roman engineers who wanted to keep the waterlogged area from encroaching on their famous road, the Appian Way, from Rome to Brundusium (Brindisi). It was then that Julius Caesar showed himself to be not only a great general but also a great statesman and engineer. He drew up a scheme for cutting a canal right through the territory from Ostia, the port of Rome, to Terracina, in the south-east. This canal was to take not only the waters of the marshes but also the superfluous flow of the Tiber, enabling considerable expansion to take place in the city of Rome, where building land was becoming overcrowded and expensive.

Caesar aimed at making the Appian Way once more passable and healthy for troops and commerce. He intended also to make the marshes useful again, to drain and irrigate the once flourishing lands that the conquered Volsci had drained and irrigated. Political moves interfered, however; Caesar was struck down in the Senate House on March 15, 44 B.C. A great man died, and a great scheme died with him. It was Theodoric, the Ostrogoth king and ruler of Italy, from A.D. 493 to 526, who initiated the reclamation of the lands wasted after the Volscian War. He commissioned a Roman named Cecina to restore the original Volscian work, ownership of the reclaimed land being Cecina’s reward. Much of the country was made useful again by Cecina’s renovations, but Imperial Rome was a broken power by then. Civil war and successive Gothic and other invasions ruined Cecina’s work, and Nature, in her least kindly phase, once again ruled supreme over the wilderness of the Pontine Plain.

During the Middle Ages, successive popes announced schemes for rescuing the lost lands, but nothing of permanent value was done. Not until the eighteenth century did plans for reclaiming the Pontine Marshes have any tangible results. The area was certainly in a pitiable state. Not a sign was there of the once famous fields and pastures, but stagnant water with stunted trees and bushes growing in the soggy soil between. The great Appian Way, which had resounded to the tramp of the Roman armies and to the rumble of the supply trains, could no longer be distinguished in many places.

In 1777, Pope Pius VI called in three famous civil engineers from the city of Bologna to report on the condition of the marshes and to carry out the best possible scheme for saving the lost land. These engineers were Rappini, Zanotti and Boldrini. Of these, Gaetano Rappini took first place. He went over the whole area, braving the fever-laden miasma of the bogs, and made a thorough survey of the country that was to be reclaimed. Rappini’s greatest work was the digging of a big canal parallel to the course of the Appian Way. This canal carried off the suspended water lying on either side of the route, and rendered the ancient road passable once more. The canal was given the name of Linea Pio, or Pius’s Line, and survives as a great central drainage artery of the Pontine district.

Although the Appian Way emerged once again to its former position among the world’s highways, the entire Pontine Marsh system remained unconquered. Away from the zone of the roadway, the fever-infested swamps still extended to the sea coast on one side and to the mountains on the other. There was one big consideration which these early forerunners of modern engineers always overlooked. From the remote days of Theodoric to the almost modem times of Pius VI, would-be rescuers of the lost Agro Pontino thought that they could restore the region to its ancient state of healthiness and prosperity simply by reopening the old canals and by supplementing them if necessary.

Inspiration of the New Italy

What they seemed to forget was that in the far-off days of the Volscian civilization, with its famous twenty-four cities, the whole district had been thickly populated and the land, as well as the waterways, had received constant treatment from contemporary agriculturists. It was not much good digging or re-digging big drainage canals if the intervening spaces were still filled with huge and tremendously deep masses of waterlogged vegetable material. No canal could deal with the deep bog formed by a great depression in the surface of the plain. There were many such depressions.

The workers might have attained partial success had they been equipped with modern pumping machinery, but there was nothing more advanced at that time than the early steam-atmospheric and steam engines devised in Great Britain by Newcomen and Watt for pumping water out of mines. He would have been an optimistic engineer who tried to drain the Pontine Marshes with a set of Watt’s low-pressure engines and a network of restored but still ancient canals.

A great change came about under the guidance of Benito Mussolini, and it began in the middle of the nineteen-twenties. As early as 1919, before the Fascist Revolution, a body called the Piscinara Consortium had been formed for the reclamation of the land lying on the right bank of the River Sisto, and the Pontine Consortium had been formed a year before for dealing similarly with the territory on the left bank. They had to level waterlogged depressions in the plain, to build great new canals and pumping stations, and to produce an efficient system of motor roads. Light railways of the Decauville type had to be laid down for carrying materials and soil, and permanent branch railways had to be built to connect the district with the main Italian railway system.


THE SQUARE AT SABAUDIA, a town which was officially founded by Signor Mussolini on December 18, 1933, and was built in less than nine months. Sabaudia is fifty-six miles from Rome, from which it is accessible by an excellent road. Near the town is Lake Sabaudia, four miles long.

In 1926 the workers and engineers of the new Italy went into action with a will. Having found the local landowners unwilling to undertake any great enterprise, Mussolini took the law into his own hands and entrusted the Italian Ex-Servicemen’s Association with the entire task of reclaiming the Pontine Marshes and rendering them healthy and pleasant to live in.

The Association observed a policy of dividing the land up into plots of some fifty acres each, for future development as farms. As the farms would be of more value in some places than in others, if the area remained constant, the area of potential farms on the poorer land was fixed at about sixty or sixty-five acres, and that on the better class of land adjoining the Appian Way at about twenty-five to thirty acres. The layout of waterways in the locality of each plot was taken into account also. New roads were laid down and new canals were dug across the length and breadth of the district.

The great work of the irrigation engineers consisted of building a main canal from Sermonetta to the River Morcarallo in the Piscinara area. This canal, called the Mussolini Channel, involved the excavation of 140,000,000 cubic feet of earth. The canal is just under twenty-three and a half miles in length and collects the waters of a mountainous basin with an area of 70,000 acres, as well as those of 24,000 acres of land elsewhere. The canal is 30 feet wide and 4 feet deep at its mouth, and it is crossed by fifteen bridges.

ITHE MUSSOLINI CHANNEL during constructionn the same area, the Middle Level Canal is over nineteen miles long; it has the same width at the mouth as the Mussolini Channel, but is 3 feet deep. It is crossed by nine bridges, and the excavations for it accounted for 58,000,000 cubic feet of earth.

In addition to building the two foregoing major canals, the engineers dredged and canalized the River Sisto over seventeen miles of its course, and although this was shorter than the Middle Level Canal, and already had a natural waterway, the work involved the removal of 80,000,000 cubic feet of earth and bog material.

THE MUSSOLINI CHANNEL during construction. This is the most important canal in the area. It is twenty-three and a half miles long and 30 feet wide. In the course of three years the Italian Ex-Servicemen’s Association built 850 miles of canals for irrigation purposes, and 5,125 miles of smaller channels.

These three waterways in the Piscinara area are fed by sixty-two miles of secondary canals and drains, in the building of which 63,000,000 cubic feet of earth were excavated. To augment the drainage of the Pontine area, the engineers of the Ex-Servicemen’s Association canalized the three principal rivers traversing the zone.

The largest of these rivers was the Amaseno, a stream less than eight miles long, as far as the canalization zone was concerned. From its bed they dredged 42,000,000 cubic feet of spoil. It is now 5 feet deep and 17 feet wide at the mouth and is crossed by five bridges. The deepest of all the channels was that formed out of the River Portatore, though the length and extent of the excavations were quite small. As regularized, the channel has a length of only three miles, but it is 6 feet deep at the mouth and 20 feet wide.

The regularization of the River Ufente, over a course of ten miles, involved the excavation of 15,000,000 cubic feet of earth. The channel is 3 feet deep and 18 feet wide at the mouth. In addition to these three river channels, the ex-service engineers built 115 miles of secondary canals, and excavated 96,000,000 cubic feet of earth and sludge. Altogether, in the Piscinara and Pontine areas, the engineers were responsible, during this stage, for the cutting of nearly 260 miles of regularized water-courses, canals and drains, for which they had to excavate 508,000,000 cubic feet of spoil.

The building of these great main canals enabled a start to be made on the conversion of the marsh areas into a vast region of fertile crop and pasture lands. When the men first went to work on the reclamation, they did so in punts, poled from island to island.

Apart from the building of canals, agricultural engineers had to deal with the dried-out land before it could be converted into useful fields. Much of it was covered with tangled woodland and scrub. On either side of the River Ufente, before it was canalized, there were bogs at least 200 feet deep; bogs that could swallow a regiment. The drains deprived the ancient bogs of much of their menace, but other means were necessary to attack the woods.

Woodcutters went through them in companies and battalions, cutting down everything in their way except the largest and finest trees, which, in view of the civilization to come, were preserved, for aesthetic reasons, to grace the future towns of the reclaimed wilderness. Not only did they cut down the trees, but they also uprooted and cleared the soil to a depth of 3 feet all over the former woodlands, destroying the age-old tangle of roots and fibrous peaty soil.

Reclaiming the Pontine Marshes

REMINISCENT OF NORTH AFRICA,  this scene in the heart of the Pontine Marshes shows the great change that has taken place in the whole character of the region. The pipes are used for water supply, which was a serious though paradoxical problem, in view of the swampy nature of the area. Every house and farm in the area is provided with a tubular or artesian well.

PONTINIA, one of the four towns which have been built on land reclaimed from the marshes, in an early stage of its development. It was founded on December 19, 1934, and its inauguration took place on December 18, 1935. The town is less than a mile from the Appian Way.

Next came the ploughing of the land in the wake of the destroyers. For this the engineers used eighty Fowler motor ploughs and forty Pavesi machines, and mechanical ditch-cutters dug out the minor drainage canals at regular intervals of 45 yards. The levelling and ploughing of 15,500 acres of former woodland began on June 30, 1932. On December 18, the new city of Littoria was founded. It was officially inaugurated, with a surrounding group of 515 farms, on August 5, 1933. These dates provide a sidelight on the pluck and perseverance of the pioneers who were responsible for the vast undertaking. High summer in Italy is a hot and uncomfortable time for the manual labourer; high summer in the Pontine Marshes before their reclamation was a period of appalling oppressiveness.

On December 18, 1933, Signor Mussolini officially founded the new town of Sabaudia and, at Littoria, he threshed the first wheat grown in the area since the pre-Roman days of the ancient Yolsci.

Co-ordinated Transport

Events now followed in rapid sequence. Another 850 farms started work in April 1934. In the same year, the country surrounding Littoria be-became a province. In 1935 and 1936 the towns of Pontinia and Aprilia were founded, and 808 more farms came into existence during this period.

Apart from the arduous work of reclamation, the tilling of the reclaimed lands had problems of its own. Nobody had tilled the Pontine fields for well over two thousand years, and experimental State farms haft to be set up, to determine the best way of dealing with each district, before the Government could allow the private small farmers to risk their all in the new venture. Speculative farming would probably have ruined many a hopeful peasant utterly undeserving of such a fate. The immigrants came chiefly from Venetia, and the first arrived during the autumn of 1932. It seems strange to mention problems of water supply in a region which was at one time a vast swamp. Italy is a country of extremes where dry and wet weather are concerned. Instead of building a series of catchments and conduits connecting the towns and villages with the neighbouring mountains, almost complete reliance was placed on water supply from wells. Every house and farm has a tubular or artesian well penetrating to any depth up to about 50 feet. For the State centres, the water engineers sank artesian wells to depths of 100 or 130 feet. Boring to great depths was not necessary here, but at the same time there was better water to be found at moderate depth than in the irrigation canals and rivers.

STARTING THE PLOUGHS in the zone of Littoria

STARTING THE PLOUGHS in the zone of Littoria, the first of the new towns to be completed. Eighty Fowler motor ploughs and forty Pavesi machines were used. The illustration shows the inauguration ceremony, which took place on June 30, 1932. This was claimed to be the largest gathering of mechanical ploughs recorded in history.

So the great reclamation went on. In the course of three years, engineers and workmen appointed by the Italian Ex-Servicemen’s Association built 215 miles of roadway, with large modern bus stations in the towns; 2,066 farms and other homesteads; 850 miles of irrigation channels and 5,125 miles of drains for carrying off the surplus water from the fields; and fourteen new villages, in addition to the four towns of Littoria, Sabaudia, Pontinia and Aprilia. They cleared, in all, 50,000 acres of ancient woodland and scrub, and ploughed 103,000 acres of formerly waste land. Where the virgin soil needed deep furrows, giant cable ploughs drawn by drum-fitted winding engines were used. For normal ploughing, where a furrow of not more than eighteen inches was needed, ordinary petrol tractors drew the ploughs.

Transport arrangements in the Pontine district, being entirely new, are a notable example of modern co-ordination. Nothing is superfluous, and at the same time nothing is lacking. The main railway connexion comes into Littoria from the direct Rome-Naples line, which skirts the site of the former marshes. Roads with magnificent surfaces link up all the towns and villages, running as straight as possible, and every single farmstead is in close connexion with this road system. Agricultural machinery can be moved from place to place with a minimum of difficulty. Every place is linked up to its neighbours and to the railhead by a modern motor bus service.

The city of Littoria is the capital of the new Pontine province. It stands on the site of an ancient and squalid village called Quadrato, which used to eke out a miserable existence on an island in the worst part of the marshes. Littoria is a fine example of modern town planning, built round two main squares in which the public buildings are situated. Adjoining the city is a beautiful public park, in which survivors of the ancient trees may be seen to full advantage, which had never occurred in the days when they were surrounded by untidy scrub and reedy morass.

From Littoria a great motor road leads along the coast, following for much of its course the sand-dunes bordering the seashore. On one side is the intense blue of the Tyrrhenian Sea, and on the other a chain of small lakes and lagoons. The greatest of these is Lake Sabaudia, four miles long. The road skirts its landward side, having by then left the dunes. Situated on its shores is the town of Sabaudia, which was built in 253 days.

Colossal Scheme of Modernization

Another road, the Great Eastern Avenue, runs out of Sabaudia from a junction on the Littoria Road in the outskirts of the town, and extends to Terracina. Pontinia, the third of the Pontine towns, was built in a year. Its foundation took place on December 19,

1934, and its inauguration on December 18, 1935. This town is less than a mile from the Appian Way. Careful considerations governed the placing of all these new towns. They had to be convenient from a transport point of view, and they also had to be well placed as centres for an agricultural community. Not even the matter of pleasant surroundings was neglected. Engineers and sanitarians had to report on the potential facilities for water supply, drainage and sources of electricity. Not until all these factors had been considered could the architects and road-builders go ahead with the planning of their towns.

As with Littoria, Sabaudia and Pontinia, so with Aprilia, the fourth of the Pontine towns. It was founded on April 25, 1936, and forms an excellent centre for the highest part of the reclaimed agricultural country. It is close to a new arterial road linking it with Littoria and the Aurelian Way, and in 1937 it was being linked up with the main railway line from Rome to Anzio.

Other towns than the four already mentioned are rising from what was once the most desolate waste in southern Europe. The whole programme of reclaiming and rendering habitable and useful the ancient Pontine Plain is part of a colossal scheme of modernization inaugurated by the Italian Government and intended to be carried out in its entirety before 1944. It involves the modernization of farms and agricultural centres and the reclamation of land, the conversion of main roads for modern motor traffic, and the electrification of steam-operated main line railways.

LITTORIA in an early stage of construction

LITTORIA in an early stage of construction. In the background are the Lepini Mountains. The low-lying ground on which the city now stands was a fever-infested swamp for 2,000 years. Long, straight roads with magnificent surfaces link up all the towns and villages, and the towns also are linked by railways. Littoria is the capital of the new Pontine province.

[From part 24 and part 25, published 10 & 17 August 1937]

You can read more on “Agricultural Tractor”, “Alpine Tunnels” and “Power and the Plough” on this website.

Reclaiming the Pontine Marshes