The moment I heard about the extraordinary feat of the draining of Italy’s Pontine Marshes – the Agro Pontino – and the construction of the new towns in the 1930s, I knew I had found the perfect setting for my next book.
It was my husband who first drew my attention to this amazing project of Mussolini’s Fascist regime and I became fascinated by it. The scheme was driven by a risky combination of idealistic vision to create a brave new world and pragmatic political expediency to silence the unrest among the veterans of the Great War and give them employment. But it was the engineering expertise and the bottomless coffers that made it possible. I think it is debatable whether anything but a totalitarian state could have forced through such a vast project at the time. In 1933, at the peak of the work, 124,000 men were employed on it.
Of course I had to go and take a look at the flat expanse of the Agro Pontino as it is now and it was an enthralling research trip – naturally checking out the delicious local Carmenere and limoncello at the same time! The wide open plain covers an extended rectangle about 30 miles long and roughly 20 miles wide, bordered by the coastline of the Tyrrhenian Sea to the west and by the Lepini mountains to the east. It lies 30 miles SW of Rome, between the ancient towns of Cisterna in the north and Terracina in the south.
I started my research by reading all about the area and its history and quickly discovered what the problem was that caused the unhealthy swampland to form. Much of the land is below sea level and there is a quaternary dune that runs parallel to the coastline, preventing the mountain rivers from draining into the sea. So they pool and stagnate on the plain, and as a result these marshlands became an impenetrable forested malarial swamp. It was infested by dense black clouds of anopheles mosquitoes that had plagued this area for centuries. Even Nero and Napoleon and numerous Popes attempted to release the water by digging channels through the barrier dunes but no one succeeded.
Until Benito Mussolini.
His breathtaking ambition stormed through all obstacles.
HOW DID HE DO IT?
In 1930 the forest was cleared by a vast army of workmen, many of them veterans from the war. It’s hard to imagine the logistics of this. The amount of timber that had to be hauled. The fires that had to burn day and night to consume the branches and stumps in the black volcanic earth. It must at times have felt like a scene out of hell.
The workmen lived in camps behind barbed wire, poorly fed and poorly paid. Many hundreds of them, maybe thousands, died from malaria and in accidents, but no records were kept of this. The sick and the dead were removed, so that the Great Scheme could claim it was untainted by failure. The workers then constructed over 10,000 miles of canals and trenches, as well as the essential pumping stations to keep the water flowing into the sea.
Once stripped of vegetation and drained of water, the barren plain was dug and furrowed by hundreds of giant tractors until it was ready to be farmed. Small blue homesteads sprouted up for farmers across the plain and five new towns were built during the years 1932-1939. The first was called Littoria, later renamed Latina, which was followed by Sabaudia, Pontinia, Aprilia and Pomezia.
Mussolini knew the value of propaganda. He employed LUCE Films to make regular newsreels of the Pontine Marshes to be shown in cinemas throughout Italy to demonstrate the success and power of Fascism. He made frequent trips to the area to be photographed in macho poses – shirtless with a shovel in his hand or driving a tractor or threshing wheat at harvest time. He loved to present himself as a man of the people and a lover of the land. But there was never any mention in the propaganda films of his Blackshirts or his secret police who backed up every decision he made.
In 1940 Italy entered World War II as an ally of Germany. The Agro Pontino and its new towns would suffer for this when towards the end of 1943 American and British forces landed nearby to fight the German troops stationed at Anzio. Anzio lies on the edge of the Pontine plain and to gain access to the land a bombardment of the area was carried out by American forces. At the same time the Germans stopped the pumps and opened the dikes, flooding the marsh once again, causing devastation to the population and the agriculture. The Allies and the Germans found themselves fighting in a mosquito-infested bog.
The Battle of Anzio laid waste the area. Everything that Mussolini had accomplished was reversed. The towns were in ruins, the houses blown up, the marshes flooded, the canals filled in and the mosquitoes flourishing. Malaria returned and the remaining population of the towns fled.
This struck me as immensely sad. It had been such an awesome achievement, but rescue came after the war ended in 1945. The major structures for water control were renovated, the Pontine plain was restored and the towns were rebuilt.
I was anxious when I travelled to Latina, afraid that there would be nothing left to see of the grand buildings constructed in the 1930s. But what I saw on my research trip to the Agro Pontino warmed my heart. It is a green and flowering landscape. I saw flourishing towns and a wonderfully fertile plain where a wealth of fruit and grapes are cultivated. Particularly striking are the kiwi-fruits. Mile after mile of tall graceful vines were fluttering in the warm breeze. They were introduced into Italy from New Zealand in the 1980s and Italy now produces 70% of the northern hemisphere’s kiwis. A high percentage of them are grown on the Pontine plain.
And the towns? The wonderful Modernist buildings that my fictional heroine, Isabella, helped to create. What about them?
Though many of them were flattened by the wartime bombardment, fortunately many of them did survive and form a magnificent reminder of an era that has long past. In Latina in particular there is still much to see.
The town of Bellina in my book is, I must emphasise, a fictional town, a creation of my imagination for the purposes of my story. There were in reality only five new towns constructed, not six as I state in my story, but Bellina is loosely based on the impressive centre of Latina (originally Littoria). Dramatic, grandiose and beautiful, the buildings and town plan of Latina are a blend of Modernist and Rationalist styles, and form a tribute to the vision of Mussolini’s great architects and to the people of Italy.
I would also like to point out to readers that the assassination attempt on Mussolini’s life in THE ITALIAN WIFE is fictional.