Norman Thomas di Giovanni

Along the Mincio by Norman Thomas di Giovanni

When an Italian wants to show you some nook of his world, some special corner of his patch, never turn down the offer. Last autumn, the Venice-based architects Umberto La Caprara and Francesca Varini summoned me to the bucolic hinterlands of Cremona and Mantua, sure I'd be seduced by the area's rich mix of history, art, landscape, food, and wine, I gratefully acceded.

On my first journey, the irrepressible La Caprara arranged to meet me at a place called Sabbioneta, the late sixteenth-century urban creation of one of the lesser Gonzagas. Midway between Mantua and Parma, the town - in the form of a hexagon with six bastions at the points - is still ringed by its original brick ramparts. The principal square boasts a ducal palace, and nearby stands the first purpose-built theatre in Italy, a wildly Mannerist affair completed in 1590. Still preserved in one frescoed, porticoed lane is an early nineteenth-century synagogue transformed into a small Jewish museum.

Sabbioneta has survived virtually intact because it is a backwater. In autumn and winter, veiled in the mists of the Po, the place has about it an air both poignant and haunting, an existence outside time. As if architectural and atmospheric beauty were not enough, what finally hooked me was the simplest and perhaps most satisfying lunch I've ever eaten - a local dish known as spalla cotta e gnocco fritto.

Spalla cotta, served in long slices, is cooked pork shoulder, its lean, reddish-pink meat flavoured with a hint of cinnamon and nutmeg. The product has been known since the twelfth century and was a great favourite of Giuseppe Verdi. The gnocco fritto accompaniment is a deep-fried dough in rectangles measuring perhaps 6cm x 9cm and surprisingly unheavy though nearly 2.5cm thick. The dish is washed down with lambrusco mantovano, a refreshing light wine - nearly black in colour, with a purple froth - that bears no relation to the vile Lambrusco destined for export. La Caprara had easily charmed a barman into serving this meal after the restaurant kitchen had closed.

On subsequent visits to the area, always under the architect's guidance, it was the land that more and more intrigued me. The vast farms of the Po and its tributaries, the Oglio and Mincio; the geometric poplar groves; the wondrous levees that contain and control a network of what would otherwise prove meandering rivers; the ancient and elaborate irrigation systems, with ditches, canals, pumping stations, and pontoon bridges; the distant horizons and big skies; the villages and small towns with their cupolas and campaniles and fortress towers rising like beacons over the dead-flat fields. Somehow the predictable monotony of these places grew on me and turned to comfortable familiarity. The small main squares, where the stench of animal manure and chemical fertilizers stings the nostrils, the one bar, the plaques on the public buildings that invariably commemorate the same few - Garibaldi, local heroes and martyrs of the Risorgimento, Jewish benefactors.

This is the world slowed down, still largely operating to the measure of man, where bicycles are a common means of travel, where on untrafficked roads you can drive over kilometre after kilometre of bending levees with views of the Mincio or Po on one hand and a bird's-eye view of the fertile farms on the other.

Often, like visual eavesdropping, you look straight down the steep banks into neglected and decaying farmsteads, relics of nineteenth-century agricultural prosperity. In Mantua they are known as corti, in Cremona cascine. These once-handsome agricultural establishments - literally, courtyards and dairies - are built of brick and are usually on a grand scale.

The dairy farms produce the milk that makes the thirty-kilo cheeses known as grana padano, vast modern factories of which, colourfully painted, line and spoil some of the main roads. Elsewhere are the reeking pig farms for the production of salame and prosciutto and sausages and the numerous other pork products for which these provinces are noted. In early summer, from a vantage point atop the levees, the patchwork acres of maize, lavishly watered and grown for animal feed, are giant swaying grasses.

The architect, my obliging cicerone, a lean, fit forty-year old who runs the nine kilometres back and forth across the causeway from Venice to Mestre three times a week, had made himself a campaign of fuelling my interests. He and his architect wife recommend excellent out-of-the-way trattorie, book me interesting places to stay, and provide ready answers to my endless questions and back-up literature for my reading. At the same time, they have been tutoring me in all sorts of arcane local knowledge.

I know that grana padano, generally produced north of the Po, is made from the semi-skimmed product of two milkings on the same day, cooked twice, the second time at a higher temperature. I have learned that the world-renowned parmigiano-reggiano (mistakenly known as parmesan in England) is made from an evening's milking, also semi-skimmed, added to whole milk of the next morning and cooked once. There are other distinctions, including what the cows for each product are fed. The two cheeses have been in production for 800 or more years; Mantua is the only province that produces both.

This spring, when La Caprara put forward the offer of an excursion on the Mincio, I leapt at it. The river is Virgil's Mincius. An outlet of Lake Garda, it joins the Po seventy-three kilometres downstream. Along its course stands magnificent Mantua, the city of the Gonzagas and of Mantegna, where the monumental Piazza Sordello looks like an over-the-top set for a Shakespearean extravaganza. In 1187, for defensive purposes, four lagoons were created round the city, fed and drained by the Mincio on its course to the often rambunctious Po. (One of these shallow lakes was filled in towards the middle of the eighteenth century.)

Only the lower reaches of the river are navigable. In a small motor launch, we travelled slowly up from Governolo between the steep embankment on one side and a dense drapery of poplars and willows on the other. It was May, it rained off and on, and an abundance of cotton from the trees floated on the glassy surface. The river is intimate, its bends overhung with lush greenery, like a stream in tropical South America. But all at once the spell is disrupted by a motorway bridge and a steady parade of big colourful lorries whizzing overhead. Here are the two Italys, side by side - the highly industrial and the highly rural. Farther on, the two combining, we glide through a long narrow lock, all steel and concrete, that our knowledgeable boatman tells us with sarcasm never served any purpose. Then, opening ahead, is the Lago Inferiore above whose far shore Mantua's noble skyline looms.

The Mincio's waters are now artificially regulated so as to maintain the level of the shallow lakes round the city and also to irrigate the farms. Sluice gates at Governolo hold the river from dashing into the broad Po. This is no longer the 'smooth-sliding Mincius' that Milton saw in 1639. Today's sluggish current skirts La Virgiliana, the Roman poet's putative birthplace, and nearby is the site of one of La Caprara and Varini's projects, a set of stylish but unobtrusive mooring pontoons for pleasure craft. La Virgiliana is an elegant corte boasting hundreds of milk cows and a striking Renaissance palazzo, a place once important enough for Pope Pius II to have stopped here, in 1459, on his way to the Diet of Mantua to proclaim a crusade against the Turks.

Virgil is imprecise in his descriptions, but in Roman times the stream's margins would have been fenland. Dante (Inferno, XX) charts the Mincio's course from Benaco, as Garda was once known, 'fino a Governol, dove cade in Po.' - as far as Governolo, where it meets the Po. History is abundantly layered in these parts. Half a millenium before Virgil, Etruscans living by the Mincio were trading overseas with Attic Greece and overland with the Gauls. The Po was a fluvial autostrada. Gauls, Romans, Goths, Byzantines, Lombards, all passed this way. As did Attila and Charlemagne. It was at Governolo, in 452 that Pope Leo I met the former's Huns and persuaded them to accept tribute instead of sacking Rome.

The rivers of Lombardy - among them the Adda, Serio, Oglio, and Mincio - are now cossetted by a profusion of regional parks, nature reserves, and archaeological sites. Ribbons of cycle paths are everywhere; eco-tourism and agriturismo are staunchly promoted. Bird species, like the white stork, have been reintroduced. The schemes are heroic, and parks such as these and institutions like the Slow Food movement, with its revolutionary programme and impressive book list, are bringing Arcadia back.

Was it legend, Virgil's account of the Etruscan foundation of Mantua several hundred years before his time? Apparently not. In 1981, il Forcello, the only known Etruscan settlement north of the Po, yielded to scientific excavation. The site, at Bagnolo San Vito, stands in plain view of La Virgiliana across the fields of maize. Chiara Gradella, an archaeologist and scholar, recently guided me over the diggings. It was La Caprara, of course, who had enticed me there. He and his Mantuan wife had designed the place's beautifully understated buildings and central connecting boardwalk.

Nearly the whole sum of my ramblings and interests seemed to converge at il Forcello: ancient history, classical poetry, Renaissance and modern architecture, and the painstaking study of the past. At any moment, I felt, some Etruscan tutelary spirit was sure to step in.

First published, in slightly different form, under the title 'Where the world slows down', in the Financial Times Weekend, October 20/October 21 2007.

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