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Charting the flow: water science and state hydrography in the Po watershed, 1872-1917.


Environmental history literature has acknowledged the role of hydrological knowledge in remaking rivers and water systems. The production of such knowledge, however, has thus far remained in the shadows, along with the human-environment interplay that underpins it. This paper brings these aspects into focus by combining the perspective, methods and questions of environmental history with insights from the history and geography of science. It analyses in particular the environmental history of Po River hydrography, from mid-nineteenth century experiments to the inception of a state hydrological service for the Po River basin after World War I. The paper argues that environmental forces and features of the Po watershed shaped the scientific enterprise of hydrological knowledge production, by stimulating its undertaking and influencing its outcome. From initial experimental measurements of discharge to responding to pressing concerns about flood protection, hydrography evolved into constant basin-wide monitoring to overcome the river system's resistance to prediction. The versatile hydrological knowledge produced via watershed monitoring would prove the key to all kinds of water uses and management projects, making hydrography a crucial articulation of state administrative rule over water resource development in the Po Valley. This paper, therefore, contributes to an environmental history of modern water science and the state, while writing an important chapter on the environmental history of the Po River basin. Furthermore, it highlights the value of exploring the environmental dimensions of scientific knowledge production as a way to better grasp its implications for environmental change and governance.


Water, river history, river measurement, hydrography, hydrology, environmental knowledge, water science, floods, water engineering


The Po watershed encompasses much of northern Italy, including sizable cities like Milan and Turin, one of the richest agribusiness complexes of the European Union, and much of the industrial core of the country. All these activities depend, in one way or another, on hydrological monitoring and forecasting: knowing how much water will be in a given place at a given time is essential to programming irrigation cycles, production in hundreds of power plants and water distribution to millions of urban consumers. A special hydrological monitoring service fulfils that function, by amassing in a centre of calculation and analysing via computer models data about water temperatures, discharge and other parameters, together with weather forecasts. (1) This service, now largely automated, was established for the first time in the mid-1910s, after decades of failed attempts, as the experimental 'Po River Hydrographic Bureau'. In this paper, I analyse the history of these failed attempts and the successful establishment of the Po River Hydrographic Bureau. Through the lens of this particular history, I aim to shed light on the making of hydrological knowledge of river systems and on the role environmental factors play in this process. I maintain here that the production of such knowledge essentially involves complex forms of human interaction with river systems themselves. Furthermore, I argue that looking at the production of hydrological knowledge from this perspective enables a better understanding of its functioning, historical development and impact on water management.

Nowadays, virtually every major urban-industrial watershed on the planet has its own monitoring service. (2) These services work at the interface between hydrological processes and human activities. By gauging, measuring and charting, they transform the mercurial life of river systems into a set of variables and regularities, producing simplified and functional representations of very complex processes. These representations are what makes modern water engineering and governance possible. Literature in the environmental history of rivers and water resource has shed light on physical manipulations of river channels, aimed at 'synchronising' the rhythm of rivers with modern urban and industrial societies. (3) In the influential phrase of historian Richard White, these manipulations transformed rivers into 'organic machines', in which the biophysical and the technological blended almost indistinguishably. (4) Monitoring services are crucial to synchronisation, and are integral components of 'organic machines'. They represent, therefore, a very interesting angle from which to analyse water in modern urban and industrial societies.

Numerous river and water histories have acknowledged the importance of hydrological knowledge in river transformation. Hydrological knowledge was called upon to assess the potential and support for navigation, irrigation or hydroelectric development schemes, and participated in the efforts of concerned administrators to expand urban water supply. (5) Although its practitioners often promoted it as 'neutral', it contributed to establishing new power relations between centralising states and local constituencies, between developers and communities and between colonisers and colonised. (6) Hydrological knowledge helped draw discursive boundaries between the 'natural' and the 'social' in 'envirotechnical regimes', while in effect contributing to forging new 'envirotechnical systems'. (7) In promoting 'natural' representations of the water cycle, then, hydrological knowledge has played a major role in developing and diffusing the 'watershed' concept, which in turn has been key to modern water and river management across the globe. (8) The production of hydrological knowledge, however, including its rationales, practical problems, actors and development, has seldom been tackled in a sustained manner, despite growing attention towards the environmental aspects of knowledge production in general. (9)

Rather than focusing primarily on the contributions of hydrological knowledge to river transformation, this paper brings into focus the process of production of that knowledge. In doing so, it joins the recent efforts made by scholarship at the intersection of environmental history and science and technology studies to investigate environmental knowledge production. (10) While acknowledging that 'complex social and historical processes shape knowledge making and ultimately knowledge itself', (11) this paper emphasises the active role played by biophysical forces and features (such as the energy of the flow, rainfall distribution, and physical topography) in these processes and thus in knowledge making itself. This emphasis, I argue, can enrich our understanding of both knowledge production and human-environment interplay. This approach, moreover, illuminates not only the environmental impact of hydrological knowledge, but also its historical role as a key articulation of water governance and management.

The history of hydrography in the Po River basin effectively illustrates these themes. The Po River basin is one of the most important urban-industrial European watersheds, yet surprisingly understudied from the viewpoint of environmental history. (12) The establishment of the Po River Hydrographic Bureau is an important chapter of this history. The Bureau was the first to produce, on a regular basis, simplified, quantitative representations of water flows on the scale of the watershed. Quantification offered strategic advantages over previous modes of water knowledge: objectivity and interoperability. (13) Objectivity proved crucial in regulating conflicts and competition, while interoperability facilitated all sorts of water engineering projects. However, the process by which the Hydrographic Bureau came to exist and produce such simplified and functional representations of the watershed hydrology was a long and tortuous one.

The Po River basin, as both a diverse geographical space and a dynamic set of biophysical forces and features, played a key role in this process. Recurrent floods and ensuing conflicts pushed forward the agenda of river hydrology, stimulating new experiments and convincing the authorities to fund them. On the other hand, the shape, size and complexity of the river system complicated these attempts enormously, and ultimately provoked a significant shift from localised experiments to the establishment of an infrastructure for constant monitoring. This adjustment, in turn, determined hydrology's final success. Different rationales were evoked alongside flood protection to justify discharge measurements and advance the research agenda, from irrigation to inland navigation development. In the final analysis, however, none of those motives alone was sufficient to determine the success of hydrography. That success depended, rather, on the ability of river system monitoring to serve all these different purposes, by producing a constantly updated knowledge base that would facilitate water management and exploitation on an unprecedented scale. The incorporation of this versatile and 'objective' knowledge production system into the apparatus of public administration, then, enabled the state to become the crucial arbiter of water resource development throughout the entire twentieth century.

What follows is organised into five sections. The first section analyses early proposals for hydrographic measurements and the impact of two disastrous floods in 1872 on this debate. After the floods, the government funded a series of experiments in 'hydrometrics' of the Po River, which I analyse in section two. The third section examines the reprise of larger-scale investigations on the Po River hydrography in the first decade of the twentieth century under the auspices of a special commission on inland navigation. The fourth section discusses the conditions, characteristics and consequences of the shift towards monitoring and the establishment of a permanent Po River Hydrographic Bureau in the 1910s. The final section summarises the broader significance of this paper's findings for the environmental history of water knowledge and management.


The Po River basin is the largest river system in Italy. The river conventionally originates in the western Italian Alps from the Monviso Mountain. Along its course it receives water from hundreds of small Alpine and Apennine streams, major Alpine rivers like the Tanaro and the Dora Baltea, the emissaries of Lake Maggiore, Lake Como and Lake Garda (Ticino, Adda and Mincio), and empties into the Adriatic Sea south of Venice. Its watershed covers some 74,000 square kilometres and encompasses different kinds of hydro-climatic regimes and environments, from Alpine peaks and perennial glaciers to forested Apennine slopes, from hilly piedmonts and fontanili (water springs) to impermeable lower plains and deltaic wetlands. The varied hydro-climatic regimes of Alpine rivers, lakes and their emissaries, and Apennine streams, regulate the flow of the Po River and ensure its large year-round discharge. The watershed also encompasses a rich and diverse human presence, with a very long history. Many important Italian cities are located there and, in the mid-nineteenth century, the Po Valley was already one of the most populated and developed regions of Europe. The regulation of water flows was one of the main sources of its wealth. Canals watered fields in Lombardy and rice paddies in Piedmont. Waterwheels powered thousands of mills and factories. Drainage enabled the cultivation of large expanses of former wetlands.

Flooding was a permanent menace to this heavily engineered water system and, from the Middle Ages, artificial embankments protected farmland and human settlements from the fury of floodwaters. Measuring the flow had been a crucial concern for generations of embankment constructors. The height of embankments depended indeed on the highest flood crest recorded; therefore hydrometers had been installed along the course of the river from at least the sixteenth century. In the mid-1800s, however, these traditional methods were increasingly questioned. In a series of writings on the Po River published from 1839 onwards, renowned Milanese hydrologist and engineer Elia Lombardini argued that the existing hydrological knowledge of the Po River was insufficient. (14) The main reason for this was the lack of precise, standardised and systematic measurements of discharge. Flood crests alone could not provide information on how much water the Po River could carry. Lack of knowledge about discharge, in turn, caused the construction of insufficiently high or weak embankments, which periodically failed, provoking widespread destruction. The river's discharge depended on the complex interaction of multiple meteorological, geological and hydraulic conditions at the scale of the watershed, but in Lombardini's opinion, it could be studied by combining experimental field data from selected locations with mathematic inferences. (15) This knowledge would be beneficial not only to flood protection, but to a broad array of activities and interests related to water use, and thus had to become a systematic enterprise under the umbrella of state administration. (16)

Lombardini was definitely neither the first nor the only one to make such claims. In the seventeenth century, Italian scientists had advanced formulas and methods for measurements of water flow discharge, later followed by French, Dutch and German colleagues. (17) In the nineteenth century, then, river flow measurement had gained international momentum. German scientists compiled lengthy records of discharge gauges for the Elbe, the Rhine and the Oder rivers; and Johann Gottfried Tulla repeatedly gauged the flow of the Rhine prior to designing his infamous Rhine rectification project. (18) French engineers were particularly active in flow measurement and, in the mid-1850s, the French government would create the first official hydrographic service in the Loire River basin, soon followed by similar services in other French water-sheds. (19) In the late 1850s, military engineers Humphrey and Abbot performed extensive measurements of the Mississippi River flow, and summarised methods and results in a voluminous report in 1861. (20) It is worth noting that each of these individuals was aware of the work of colleagues in other countries. Lombardini's works, for instance, had also been published in the Annales des Ponts et Chaussees and his theories and observations were discussed at length by Humphrey and Abbot. (21) The rationales for these experiments varied, but were generally connected with engineering projects, for either flood protection or other purposes.

These early attempts exemplify the problems attached to river flow measurement. Scholarship in the history and geography of science has stressed the importance of integrating the spatiality of knowledge into our understanding of science. From this perspective, the universalising claims of science appear to be rooted in specific local features, political configurations and spatial relationships. (22) When interpreted with the lens of environmental history, this approach also points to the significance of biophysical features in the production of environmental knowledge. The ultimate goal of these early measurements was to obtain reliable, standardised and comparable representations of the quantity of water flowing in a watercourse. (23) Yet the same measurements were conditioned by seasonal and often unpredictable water levels, and by the irregular shape of river channels. In addition, they had to take into account the size, shape and location of the watershed, the nature of the river's tributaries and the precipitation patterns in the region. The generalising ambitions of flow measurement, therefore, depended heavily on the unique geographical and environmental features of the watercourse to measure. These unique features would act both as obstacle and driver for flow measurements in the Po watershed.

The geography of the Po River confronted measurement advocates with significant difficulties. Its hydraulic regime depends upon the combination of three very different hydro-climatic systems. The first includes Alpine rivers fed by perennial glaciers and winter snow, whose flow is thus larger during the summer. The second encompasses those Alpine rivers whose discharge and sediment load is regulated by subalpine lakes, like the Ticino, the Adda and the Mincio rivers. The third comprises Apennine rivers with a very heavy sediment load and an inconsistent discharge that is regulated partly by winter snow and partly by seasonal rainfall. A vast range of diverse locations accompanies this combination of different hydro-climatic systems. Around the mid-nineteenth century, it seemed practically impossible to cover such sheer geographical and environmental diversity. Lombardini, for instance, while acknowledging the impact of rainfall on the river's discharge, discarded as 'impossible' the measurement of precipitation and water flows in the 'inhospitable Alpine peaks'. (24) The only solution, in his view, was to devise mathematical formulae capable of providing faithful representations of the flow via measurements in a few selected points downstream. This would still demand considerable efforts, but on a smaller geographical and temporal scale, and could in theory be achieved with reasonable support from the administration of one or more of the various state formations that cohabited in the Po watershed.

The national unification of Italy was a potential turning point. From 1866, the newly established Kingdom of Italy controlled the entire course of the Po River and most of its tributaries. In 1865, moreover, a new law had entrusted the Ministry of Public Works with maintaining the embankments along the stretch of the river enclosed between the confluence of the Ticino River and the Delta, corresponding to more than 250 kilometres. The new Italian state thus had a direct interest in river management and could provide money and resources for measurement experiments. Still, it would take a major disaster for measurements to be on the agenda of the Kingdom. On 28 May 1872, following heavy rains, Po River dikes began to fail in several points along the south bank near Ferrara, a few kilometres upstream of the delta. Water spilled out for days, ultimately flooding approximately 700 square kilometres. Many floods had occurred in this area in the past. Once the river reaches that region, it has already received the water of all of its tributaries and is usually at its maximum discharge. The impact on embankments is thus heavier. The flooded area, furthermore, was low-lying and interspersed with small reliefs and depressions that further obstructed drainage. These lowlands were intensely cultivated and the devastation of crops was almost complete. In addition, many small rural settlements were inundated, forcing a population of 45,000 people out of their homes. In October 1872, while reconstruction works were still ongoing in the Ferrara countryside, new flood events occurred in the Po River and some of its Alpine tributaries. This time, the major breaches happened a few kilometres upstream of those in May, along the south riverbank near Mantua. Their consequences for crops and people were no less disastrous. Water flooded an area of some 580 square kilometres. Thousands of people became homeless and the flood severely damaged the farmland and built environments of many riverine communities. (25)

The embankment failures that had caused the two flood events--and in particular the first one in Ferrara--sparked a heated debate about responsibilities. As mentioned, the Ministry of Public Works was directly charged with maintaining the embankments on the stretch of the river where the failures had occurred. A local commission was thus established to investigate the causes of embankment failures in Ferrara, followed a few months later by a national commission under the authority of the Chamber of Deputies. Landowners who had sustained damages accused the government, and many eyewitnesses who testified in front of the commission were convinced that the cause of the disaster was technical rather than natural. The locals blamed the poor quality of a recent embankment improvement and the state personnel charged with surveillance. Nevertheless, the local and the national commissions discarded these accusations, and concluded that the main cause for the failure was the explosion of natural gas trapped in the peat soil underneath the embankment. (26)

Embankment failures were not the only concerns provoked by the floods. In 1872, the hydrometer at Pontelagoscuro, located just before the Po River Delta, registered the highest water level ever recorded, confirming an alarming trend of rising flood crests already noticeable in past floods. This phenomenon had occupied Lombardini and other hydraulic scientists for more than two decades. Much of the debate revolved around the role played by deforestation in increasing both the velocity of mountain streams and the quantity of solid matter they carried, which, according to some, had raised the Po riverbed. The connection between deforestation and flooding was a major theme in nineteenth-century Italian hydrology well beyond the Po Valley. These debates revolved around the notion that deforestation had disrupted the 'hydraulic order' of rivers, and that reforestation was therefore the only effective long-term flood control measure. (27) Lombardini denied that the Po riverbed had raised, but blamed deforestation for increasing velocity and discharge of mountain streams in the case of heavy rain, which in turn caused a larger discharge of the Po River. (28) Furthermore, Lombardini insisted that increasing flood crests depended also on flood control in the main channel of the Po River and in the lower course of its tributaries. The extension of embankments had caused floodplains to shrink, whereas their technical improvement had reduced the frequency of upstream breaches: therefore, a higher amount of water reached the lower course of the Po. (29) The 1872 floods revamped these debates, giving strength to those clamouring for extensive scientific investigation of the river's hydrology.


Scientific debates about the river's hydrology were perhaps not as popular as those about embankment failures. Yet they were as central to the concerns of the national government. Measurement of river discharge promised to address both. In 1873, the Ministry of Public Works established a Commissione per lo studio del regime idraulico del fiume Po (Commission for the study of the hydraulic regime of the Po River). The Board of the commission counted among its members some the most renowned Italian experts on fluvial hydraulics. Elia Lombardini, then 79, was appointed honorary president, while acting president was Francesco Brioschi. Brioschi was a Senator of the Kingdom, mathematician and hydraulic engineer, close friend of Lombardini and cofounder of the Technical Institute of Milan--the late Politecnico. All other members were either professors of mathematics and hydraulics at Italian universities, or hydraulic engineers for the state administration and the Genio Civile--the Italian Corps of Civil Engineers. In many cases, they had mixed careers, moving between public work administration and university appointments and vice versa. (30)

Although the primary mission of what was later known as the 'Brioschi commission' was to advise the government on flood protection, Brioschi and his associates conceived their activity from a broader perspective than simple disaster response. The creation of the commission offered an unprecedented opportunity to survey the whole river and study its hydrology with state support, personnel and funding. The commissioners were determined to seize that opportunity, and worked with the intention of offering a long-term contribution to the knowledge of the Po. The commission at first investigated the embankment system of the Po River and its tributaries. In 1876, following the commission's precise recommendations, a new law modified the technical standards for embankments and allocated funds for public works to raise and reinforce them accordingly. The principal change was the increase of the minimum height for embankments in relation to the highest recorded flood crest. (31) In addition, the commissioners produced a new, accurate cartographic survey of the river from the confluence of the Ticino River, the emissary of Lake Maggiore, to the Po River Delta. This corresponded to the stretch of river that fell under the direct responsibility of the state. The survey divided that portion of the river into numbered geographical 'sections' to be used for purposes of reference and topographical measurements. (32)

It is hard to overstate the historical significance of these accomplishments. The new standards to calculate the height of embankments would remain un-contested for much of the twentieth century (including the aftermath of the tragic 1951 flood) and the geographical sections drawn by the commission are still used by river management agencies. The commission, however, was less successful in completing the third pillar of its programme: hydraulic measurements. Lombardini had claimed since the late 1830s that precise measurement of water levels and discharge was the only possible foundation for any solid knowledge of the river. The commissioners, including acting President Brioschi, were all in agreement with this epistemology, and had comprehensive knowledge of contemporary developments in fluvial hydrology and measurements. (33) From the outset, the commissioners decided to include a programme of measurements of water discharge at different states of the Po River. (34) This would allow advancing hydrological knowledge of the most important Italian river, while keeping up with the extensive fieldwork done in other nations over the past decades.

Convincing the authorities of the need for such measurements proved difficult. Once the law on embankments was passed, the Minister of Public Works expressed scepticism as to the continuation of the commission's research. (35) Responding to the minister, Brioschi remembered that, in spite of what the commission had accomplished up to that point, information on the river's hydraulic regime was still insufficient. 'Civil nations', he added polemically, 'did not execute any important hydraulic work over the last years without a preceding accurate study of the river's regime and in the first instance of its discharge'. (36) This friction originated from radically different attitudes. Brioschi sought to perfect an 'interpolation formula' to calculate discharge and, at the same time, he aimed to write a comprehensive monograph on the Po River's hydraulic regime. (37) Flood protection, to him, was the opportunity to advance a larger scientific endeavour. The government, on the other hand, tended to view the commission's purpose--and indirectly its own duties--as limited to the pressing needs of post-disaster interventions: the scientific promises of quantitative hydrology had no appeal for that purpose. (38) Brioschi ultimately overcame the minister's scepticism by insisting on the strict linkage between hydrological knowledge and effective protection measures. Objective quantification of discharge through measurement would help avoid new embankment failures and thus new potential sources of conflicts and disagreements.

While successful in his advocacy, Brioschi still had to overcome the many difficulties of outdoor river research. In 1878, thanks to renewed funding and institutional support, the commission was able to appoint more than thirty people to perform the experiments. The programme envisioned by the commission was unprecedented in scale and scope, but even thirty people could not cover the entire watershed. The choice of research locations was therefore crucial. After a field trip along the river, the commission chose two distinct sites (see Figure 3) and divided the six engineers and 24 army operators into two groups, one for each site. The first site, Pieve Ponte Morone, was at the confluence of the Ticino River, the emissary of Lake Maggiore that marked the beginning of state-managed embankments. The second site, Fossadalbero, was beyond the confluence of the last tributary before the delta. Due to their irregular shape, these two sites were still far from ideal for measurement purposes, but as Brioschi put in his report, 'it was not possible to find a better location'. (39)

Hydrometric experiments began the same year. River flow measurement entailed a complicated set of operations. At each site, operators would measure the river channel, perform triangulation and levelling and install several hydrometers at regular intervals. They would then read the hydrometers three times a day, noting at the same time meteorological conditions, and gauge discharge whenever possible. This required simultaneous interaction between several people in different locations, and between people, the landscape and the river flow itself. Technology, in the form of wading rods, reels and floats, but also boats and hydrometers, was essential to this interaction, and indeed choosing the instruments and testing them had occupied the commissions for months before the beginning of the experiments. Trust in and replicability of observations depended on their precision. Many issues hindered these operations: unfavourable meteorological conditions, lack of coordination among the operators and poor cooperation of local institutions were among the most frequent. In the end, however, the biggest challenge came from the river itself. Some wading rods and hydrometers broke or strong currents carried them out, while floating ice damaged others. Then in 1879 the river flooded once again. On 4 June the river opened a breach on the south bank, inundating some forty square kilometres between Mantua, Modena and Ferrara, and causing damage to local agriculture to the tune of three million lire. (40) The commissioners could not prepare for the flood, and thus there were no observers or instruments to measure its hydrological features. In the aftermath, moreover, some of the officers participating in measurements were reassigned to embankment repairs. The resulting reduction in available operators forced the commission to concentrate all efforts and personnel on only one site, abandoning the other. (41) This inevitably undermined the overall value of the results.

The 1878-1880 experiments were the first sustained attempt to measure the discharge of the Po River, and that alone made them exceptional. Yet they fell short of meeting the commissioners' expectations and Brioschi himself did not consider them sufficient to any meaningful interpolation about the river in its entirety. Ten years later, Brioschi was called to advise on the feasibility of a major irrigation scheme for the lower eastern Padana plain. That scheme had been envisioned as early as the 1860s to export the water-intensive agricultural techniques of Lombardy and Piedmont to Emilia-Romagna. Its realisation, however, presented serious difficulties. The gradient of the region to be irrigated was extremely low and irregular. Even more importantly, the tributaries on the eastern part of the watershed could not ensure a constant discharge: the Po River alone would therefore have to entirely support the irrigation scheme. For that reason, the government funded some ad hoc measurements of discharge at the point of the planned diversion, and put Brioschi in charge of undertaking them. While Brioschi seemed cautious about the feasibility of the scheme (which indeed was to be put aside for another forty years), he hoped to use these additional measurements to integrate the work he had initiated in 1878-80. (42) His ultimate goal was to garner enough information to compile a comprehensive monograph on the Po River hydraulic regime, in which all the mysteries of the river's regime would be finally solved via an interpolation formula. (43)

Brioschi died in 1897 without achieving his goal. The complete report of the 1878-1880 experiments, however, was published one year after his death. In that report, which he had significantly titled 'provisional', Brioschi explained in detail the methods and formulae he had used, and foresaw practical improvements to field operations to reduce the risk of permanent damage of equipment, or loss of data due to the unpredictable behaviour of the river. More than anything else, though, the experiments proved how difficult it was to translate the environmental complexity of water flows into simplified quantitative representations. The Brioschi commission, indeed, had tried to understand the river with only a few data from localised and occasional experiments. Yet too many upstream variables were involved in the river's hydraulic regime. As would soon become clear, more systematic observations were needed, and on a much larger scale than two experimental sites.


The 'Brioschi' commission was caught between two epochs. It certainly represented the first attempt at state-funded, centralised production of hydrological knowledge to serve the practical purposes of engineering and management. Nevertheless, it also embodied the eighteenth-century quest for an objective knowledge of the natural world via experimental observations and generalising mathematical laws. These were different endeavours, requiring different methods, and aimed at a different audience. This difference was at the root of the conflicts between Brioschi and the Ministry of Public Works. The Ministry was reluctant to fund what seemed nothing more than a noble, but impractical, search for scientific truth. Brioschi was able to win the Ministry's trust only by insisting on the practical benefits of hydrometrics for flood protection. At the turn of the twentieth century, the advancement of hydrometrics would depend entirely on its practical advantages rather than on its scientific value, and on growing investment of the state in water science.

Despite the insistence of riverine communities demanding improvements in flood protection management, little was achieved in the last decades of the nineteenth century, aside from the programme of embankment raising and reinforcement approved in 1876. (44) In the wake of a reform of the Genio Civile in 1905, the authorities established an Ispettorato per il Po [Inspectorate for the Po River], which had to supervise all public works pertaining to the river. Measurements of discharge, however, were not among its tasks. (45) In the early twentieth century, two other institutional enterprises would promote river flow measurements. The first was the Carta Idrografica d'Italia [Hydrographic Map of Italy], a national survey initiated by the Ministry of Agriculture in the mid-1880s to glean information on agricultural and industrial water use. The survey included data on irrigation diversions, drainage works and waterwheel canals, with occasional reference to their discharge. The measurements performed under Brioschi's direction to study the feasibility of irrigation in the lower eastern plain were part of that survey. As Alice Ingold has convincingly argued, at the turn of the century the mines engineers took control of the survey, and used the attached editorial series to promote a new type of hydrographic study. Unlike the previous instalments of the series, the publications promoted by the mines engineers aimed to define a 'natural' hydrologic regime based upon the watershed concept, and included measurements of flow discharge. (46)

The measurements performed by the mines engineers were made in accordance with the model developed in 1878-1880: a combination of field observations and mathematical inferences aimed at uncovering once and for all the hydraulic regime of the river. (47) Until World War I, nevertheless, these new studies did not include the Po River nor any of its tributaries. (48) As shown by the avowed underachievement of the Brioschi commission, the river system was simply too big and too many upstream variables were involved in its hydraulic regime for it to be understandable via a handful of occasional measurements in the main channel. To advance a quantitative understanding of the Po watershed's hydrological regime larger efforts were necessary. Another institutional enterprise would attempt to deploy these efforts: a state commission on inland navigation. Navigation in the Padana plain was heavily developed in the Middle Ages and Early Modern periods. (49) In the nineteenth century, navigation was declining, even more so with the development of railroad transportation. In the last decades of the century, railroad infrastructure absorbed 75 per cent of state investment in public works, and its strategic role was the underlying rationale for nationalisation in 1905. (50) Nevertheless, inland navigation was successfully operating in other neighbouring countries, and the Padana plain already had a navigation infrastructure. Italy could not afford to rule out that transportation option, especially in a period of economic growth such as seen at the turn of the twentieth century.

In 1900, presenting similar arguments, engineer and deputy of the Parliament Leone Romanin-Jacur succeeded in establishing a State commission for the study of inland navigation in the Po Valley under his direction. (51) Romanin-Jacur had been active in legislative reforms on water management, including an epoch-making law on state funding for land reclamation and drainage in 1882, and was a true believer in the potential of navigation in the Padana plain. In his vision, the plain could become entirely navigable by modern vessels. Artificial canals and channelised rivers could interconnect the most important inland cities of the region, and make Turin, the former Alpine capital of Piedmont, a Mediterranean 'seaport', as boasted in one of the projects included in the commission's final report (Figure 4). Apparently, many municipal governments backed, if not directly promoted, these projects, seen as opportunities to improve the standing of their city in emerging industrial routes. Such overly ambitious visions clearly needed massive state investment, which to Jacur amounted to more than a hundred million Italian lire. (52) Yet money was not the only issue. While exposing these grandiose plans to the authorities, Romanin-Jacur pointed out another major obstacle: water flows.

Substantial and steady discharge was essential to guarantee year-round navigation on the scale envisioned by the commission. However, this potentially clashed with the economic interests of a number of other users. In a country lacking coal like Italy, hydropower was the principal alternative to imported fossil fuels. Cotton, wool, and silk producers in the Alpine valleys relied heavily on waterwheels, turbines, and in a few--but increasing--cases on small hydroelectric plants. (53) Furthermore, a large part of the valley's prosperous agriculture was historically dependent on large-scale irrigation. Rice, a notoriously water-intensive crop, had been introduced in Piedmont in the eighteenth century and was booming in the nineteenth century. In Lombardy, then, irrigation underpinned the advanced farming complex based on the marcita system: ceaselessly watered fields that produced up to five different harvests a year, including fresh grass during the winter to feed milk-producing livestock. (54) With the completion of new diversions such as the Cavour Canal and the Villoresi Canal in the 1860s and 1890s, the surface devoted to water-intensive agriculture had expanded tremendously, and so had water consumption.

From the above, it should be clear that inland navigation could only be developed in a multipurpose water management scenario. Romanin-Jacur was well aware of that, and indeed argued that to develop navigation without harming existing and future water uses it was imperative to have a better knowledge of the river's hydraulic regime. Once again, the 'objective' language of measurement and quantification was invoked as the most secure strategy to do that. By quantifying water flows, it would be possible to calculate overall supply and thus to know how much water had to be reserved for navigation and how much could be still diverted to other users. To that purpose, concluded Romanin-Jacur, it was necessary to resume the commission on the hydraulic regime of the Po River established after the 1872 floods. The work of the Brioschi commission, he argued, was invaluable but incomplete in regard to measurements of discharge. Brioschi himself had admitted this, emphasising the enduring difficulties modelling and foreseeing the river's behaviour. According to Jacur, it was necessary to proceed along Brioschi's path, but extend the scope of hydrological investigation beyond the main river channel and include its tributaries. This would allow the upstream variables that influenced downstream discharge and that were missing from Brioschi's experiments to be taken into account. This way, he believed, it would be possible to obtain some significant results on the river system in its entirety. (55)

Not everyone shared the same enthusiasm for inland navigation as Romanin-Jacur, and some engineers criticised the commission's advocacy of navigation against railroads. (56) The government, however, apparently considered the materials gathered by the commission enough to pursue the investigation and, a few months after the publication of the report, a ministerial decree established a new commission on inland navigation nationwide, appointing Romanin-Jacur president of the technical committee. (57) This time, Romanin-Jacur could count on funding and institutional support to undertake studies on a larger scale than ever before. Although this funding was not explicitly provided to research the river's hydraulic regime, quantification of discharge could determine the feasibility of basin-wide navigation in a multipurpose scenario. The commission, thus, spent some time and resources in surveying and measuring every portion of the Po River and its tributaries that they considered as potentially navigable (see Figure 5). Romanin-Jacur explicitly ordered a series of coordinated hydrometric experiments in 1904 and 1905. (58) Other non-systematic operations, however, were also carried out elsewhere. The field research included mapping, levelling and triangulation, installation of new hydrometers and measurement of discharge in predetermined river sections. In addition, field operators also measured depth and width of long portions of riverbeds by means of specially equipped boats.

In 1910, following the commission's report, parliament passed new legislation to regulate the development of inland navigation in the context of multipurpose water management. (59) This was a significant achievement for Romanin-Jacur, and a statement of the state's intention to boost inland navigation. Furthermore, the amount of money and resources the state invested in research in 1904-1910 dwarfed any past attempt, and allowed the commission to produce new data on the Po River and its tributaries, on a scale that Brioschi and his teams could never have covered. The hydrological results of the navigation commission, however, were far from final. The state had invested more money and resources in measurement than ever, but with the same mission as in 1878-80: understanding the river's regime once and for all. Measurements had covered an extended surface, including some of the principal tributaries of the Po River (see Figure 5). Yet, they had not included the sub-basins of tributaries. This still left many questions about upstream variables unresolved. Even though there were measures of discharge for the lower tributaries, their headwater regime was scarcely known, which rendered the data collected thus far impossible to use to predict regularities. This become evident when yet another flood ravaged the plain. Only then did engineers and the state administration acknowledge that the ever-changing nature of the river system required nothing short of constant monitoring of the entire watershed, by means of a permanent state agency.


Environmental historians have highlighted the significance of natural knowledge for resource management by early modern state formations. (60) Increasing pressure on resources and the need to 'synchronise' biophysical processes to the rhythm of urban-industrial societies magnified the importance of scientific knowledge of the nonhuman world. Nation-states emerged as central actors in organising this 'new' knowledge, which in turn contributed to their consolidation. (61) Hydrology was part of this picture, and played an important role in redefining the relationships between local constituencies and nineteenth-century centralising European states. (62) Hydrological knowledge was also key to forms of 'hydro-imperialism' in European colonies, which in turn exerted significant influence on metropolitan developments in water science and management. (63) Quantitative hydrological knowledge of the Po river system would also have some significant implications on state administration and rule. But such knowledge and its power effects were hard to achieve.

Despite the ambition of two generations of hydraulic experts, and the considerable amount of money the state had spent in research, around 1910 the Po River hydrological regime remained largely unpredictable. The relationship between the different parts of the watershed had been clear at least since the work of Lombardini. Yet the role of precipitation patterns in the various mountain regions, the influence of each of the many sub-tributaries on the Po River's discharge and sediment load, the contribution of glaciers and the sub-alpine lakes in regulating discharge and flood regime, plus many other factors, remained unclear. It was thus difficult to establish precise causal links and these multiple upstream variables rendered useless even the most extensive downstream measurements such as those performed by the inland navigation commission.

As anticipated, this became particularly evident after yet another flood. Between 28 and 29 October 1907, the Po River overflowed embankments at several points between Pavia, Lodi and Piacenza, on both the south and the north banks. (64) The water flooded an area of some forty square kilometres, including low-lying neighbourhoods in Piacenza and many cultivated fields. The disaster was not as extensive as in 1872, yet the flood crest had reached a new, alarming peak, continuing the trend of rising flood levels noticed during the nineteenth century. Embankments, then, had proved once again insufficient against the unpredictable river discharge and flood crests. Due to lack of reliable upstream hydrological data, explanations of causes and dynamics remained largely confined to the realm of hypothesis and speculation. To be sure, in 1907 there were more hydrometers than in 1872 or in 1879, and a number of municipalities, sections of the Civil Engineering Corps and learned societies now performed observations of water levels in rivers and lakes, and of weather conditions and rainfall. Yet data were not standardised, they were not constant in time and their geographical distribution was insufficient to verify or contest any of the theories that hydrologists had been debating for almost a century.

The 1907 flood occurred in the midst of the activity of the commission on inland navigation, and apparently gave Leone Romanin-Jacur the argument he needed to promote a new comprehensive hydrological investigation. In 1910, indeed, right after the conclusion of the research on navigation, the Minister of Public Works established a commission 'on the hydraulic regime of the Po River', presided over by Romanin-Jacur. Jacur insisted that, despite the research he had led in the past decade, the hydrological regime of the Po River still presented 'several unknown factors to solve'. There was, in particular, 'very scarce information on the highest course of the Po as well as on many and important tributaries'. This reduced the effectiveness of flood protection measures, which should have addressed the regime of mountain basins as much as the lower course of the river. Flood protection, however, was not the sole rationale. 'A methodical and systematic study of our river and of the entire vast region that is interested by its regime', argued Jacur, would also benefit the national economy at large, by facilitating the development of navigation, drainage and reclamation, irrigation canals, reservoirs and energy production. (65) In that purpose, the commission itself was not enough: it was necessary to establish an institution devoted full-time to hydrological investigations.

Institutions devoted to the production of quantitative hydrological knowledge existed in several European countries. In France, watershed-based services operated from the mid-1800s under the supervision of the Ministry of Public Works. (66) In Austria, from at least the mid-eighteenth century, localised hydrographic services existed for flood protection purposes, out of which in 1893 had emerged a Central Hydrographic Bureau. (67) In late nineteenth-century Germany and Switzerland, hydrographic offices were operating in many important river basins, and to a limited extent, in some of the main UK watersheds, like the Thames. (68) After the Reclamation Act of 1902, the United States Geological Service, which had been responsible for major hydrographic surveys in the nineteenth century, incorporated a special branch devoted to water data collection and hydrography nationwide. (69) The creation of a hydrographic institution was not a complete novelty for Italy either. In 1907, the national government had established the Magistrato alle Acque [Water Magistrate], a new office that would be responsible for the Italian portion of the Adige River. (70) The new Magistrate incorporated a hydrographic service to increase the understanding of the Adige River hydraulic system by means of systematic observations. (71) Romanin-Jacur had been instrumental in that innovation, and designed a similar service for the Po River, dubbed Ufficio Idrografico del Po [Po River Hydrographic Bureau]. The main goal of the Bureau was like that of the Italian hydraulic commissions of the past decades. Its method and programme, however, were radically different: constant water monitoring on the scale of the watershed.

The first appointed director, civil engineer Pacini, explained that the new bureau 'should limit its activity to the measure of water that precipitates, should continue by following it in its passages over and under the earth, and should cease once it has reached the sea or has reached the atmosphere'. (72) Despite the rhetorical insistence on limits, this was not a limited activity by any means. To perform it, the Bureau needed to cover even the most remote portions of the watershed, including upstream mountain locations, with a permanent network of stations and observers, who would perform day-by-day measurements of precipitation and water levels, as well as gauges of water discharge, sediment deposit and water temperature. This required a considerable infrastructure, including rain gauges and hydrometers, rods and reels, boats and telegraphs. Furthermore, it entailed the integration of previously separate functions--such as meteorological and hydrometric observations--into one office.

This programme rested upon two key elements that were missing from past measurement attempts: temporal continuity and spatial distribution. Temporal continuity would ensure serial data about the changing states of the river, including the extremes of droughts and floods. Spatial distribution across the entire watershed would elucidate, and quantify, the hydrological connections between the different sections of the river system, including smaller upstream tributaries, glaciers and snow reservoirs. In addition, unlike past initiatives, this programme did not limit measurements to water levels and flow discharge, but combined these gauges with measurements of atmospheric precipitations. This spatial and temporal configuration would guarantee reliable and effective representations of the river flow, thereby rendering the bureau profoundly different from both Brioschi's riverine experiments and the large-scale measurement performed by the commission on inland navigation. Whereas the previous hydrological commissions were trying in vain to obtain a definitive image of the river, the Bureau based its action--and its success--on the assumption that the only possible knowledge of the river was as fluid as its object.

The director focused his early efforts on networking the existing monitoring stations, and divided the Po River basin into eight sections. Each section corresponded to a subsystem of the watershed, which adhered to specific hydrological and environmental conditions and thus allowed for aggregation of data from localised stations. The stations, then, had to follow a standardised protocol of gauges and observations and send in the data to the central office in Parma on a regular basis. (73) Efforts at standardisation were common to many similar scientific enterprises based on networks of observers, such as meteorology. Standards were key to enabling comparison and combination of data from distant locations to 'combat the tyranny of distance' and create spatially coherent knowledge. (74) In the case of the Po River, this was also key to overcoming the hydrological complexity of the river system, by gleaning information on its many upstream variables and hydro-climatic regions. The cooperation of local observers was necessary to achieve the spatial distribution and temporal continuity of data collection that was the cornerstone of the Bureau's programme. According to Pacini, though, this cooperation was hard to achieve: the forms sent by local stations were often incomplete, and the data inconsistent and unreliable. Engineer Mario Giandotti, who replaced Pacini in 1913, also complained repeatedly about the discontinuity, inaccuracy and despicable reluctance of the observers 'to grasp the importance of their modest task for Science and the Nation'. (75)

Technology was no less important than disciplined observers in ensuring reliable data. Devices like reels and gauges were literally sites where human-environment interaction that underpinned knowledge production could happen, and water flows be quantified. Efforts to perfect existing devices and design new ones thus characterised the activity of the new director Giandotti from his inception. Effective and solid devices would better endure the constant challenges of extreme measurement locations, while reducing the margin of error of human observers. Quantity and distribution could then make up for localised inaccuracies and technical problems. Under Giandotti's direction, the network grew steadily. By the end of 1913, the working stations had increased from 264 to 426, and in 1917, there were 602 networked measurement units, including stations solely devoted to gauge water discharge. (76) Beginning in 1913, the Bureau initiated the publication of the Bollettino mensile (monthly bulletin), a report of basin-wide quantitative data and charts on precipitation, rivers levels, temperature, sediment load and discharge; and initiated systematic experimental research on groundwater and hydrological influence of forestation and Alpine glaciers.

By 1917, Giandotti could boast the establishment of an effective system of 'flood forecasting', based on real-time communication about water levels across the watershed. (77) In 1917, in effect, another flood had indeed ravaged the lower eastern Po Valley. The worst damage this time was concentred in the middle section of the river, where the river flow broke the embankments at several points (see Figure 2). The damage could not compare with the widespread destruction of the 1872 and 1879 floods, but the flood crests were higher than in 1907. (78) This time, however, there was a working infrastructure to monitor and record the flood event as it unfolded throughout the basin. In the following years, Giandotti was able to produce a detailed hydrological study on the 1917 flood. Drawing on quantitative data from the entire watershed, he assessed the role played by snow accumulation during the winter, the significance and localisation of rainfall before the flood and the propagation of high waters through the Po River and its tributaries (Figure 7). (79) Although Giandotti was not able to provide a long-term explanation of rising flood crests, nothing similar to his study would have been possible just ten years before.

The 1917 flood was yet another demonstration of the importance of keeping the river system under constant scrutiny, and was indeed the focus of the last and final publication of the commission on the hydraulic regime of the Po River, issued in 1921. However, flood protection was not the only argument in favour of the Hydrographic Bureau: its contribution to governing the growth of the strategic energy sector would prove at least as important. Between the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth, hydroelectricity had experienced its first wave of expansion in the Po Valley. It was, for the most part, limited to small-scale plants with a very limited generation capacity and low range transmission. One of the most significant obstacles to its further growth was the question of water ownership and concessions. Legislation, in particular, did not clearly establish who had priority over exploitation of water flows and the procedures to assign the right to use were long and complicated. In 1916, however, in the midst of World War I, an emergency decree cut the Gordian knot of decades-long debates on water ownership, establishing state authority over most watercourses and speeding up concessions of water derivation for hydroelectricity production. (80)

The decree was the outcome of an exceptional context. It nonetheless sanctioned on a permanent basis the strategic function of watercourses for energy production nationwide, and posited the state as arbiter of its development. In this new scenario, hydrography assumed a new importance. A constantly updated knowledge of water flows was indeed key to assessing the amount of energy harvestable from watercourses, and to keep track of and manage state concessions to private producers. The 'objectivity' of quantitative representation would then be a reliable and uncontested basis to take decision and solve potential and existing conflicts, thus empowering state claims over water development. This was precisely the kind of knowledge that the Bureau's monitoring system was finally able to provide, and as a corollary of the new legislation on hydroelectricity the authorities established a National Hydrographic Service under the Ministry of Public Works. (81) The national service would create hydrographic services like those for the Adige and the Po River across the entire national territory, and would incorporate the Po River Hydrographic Bureau as its most strategic territorial articulation. Hydrography was now an affair of state.


In 1840, Elia Lombardini had categorically excluded the possibility of ever achieving basin-wide hydrological measurements. Eighty years later, facts disproved his claim. Between 1912 and 1921, the Hydrographic Bureau had built an infrastructure capable of achieving what two generations of hydraulic engineers and hydrologists had failed to do: reducing the complexity of the Po River system to reliable charts and trusted numbers. This had happened thanks to a substantial change in methods and goals: instead of localised and occasional downstream measurements, there was constant basin-wide monitoring. Science and technology studies have pointed out that quantitative knowledge and its claims of objectivity should be seen as the historical outcome of failures, negotiations and conflicts. As discussed in the introduction, scholars working at the intersection of environmental history and science and technology studies have rightly argued for incorporating this insight into our understanding of environmental knowledge. Geographers of science, on the other hand, have insisted on the importance of situating spatially the production and diffusion of scientific knowledge. The active role played by biophysical forces and features and geographical conditions in the process should also be openly acknowledged. (82) The history of Po River hydrography proves that this role is central. The Po River system shaped the scientific enterprise of flow measurement in many ways. First and more obviously, it did so by flooding repeatedly. From the 1872 floods that led to the Brioschi commission to the 1907 flood that supported Jacur's demand for a new hydrological investigation, the overflowing river acted as a catalyst for the establishment of state-funded studies and hydrological commissions. Furthermore, the river system defied subsequent attempts to make its hydrology legible, by means of the strength and unpredictability of its flow, and of the complex geography of its watershed and upstream variables. Embankment failures were the constant reminder of this resistance to legibility. These obstacles were decisive in the shift from inconclusive localised measurements to the practice of constant monitoring via a network of local observers, technological devices and communication infrastructure.

Watershed monitoring delivered what hydrography had promised since the days of Lombardini: a quantitative, 'objective' knowledge of the flow that would serve multiple purposes. This final success led to the establishment of a monitoring service as a permanent branch of state administration. Discursive strategies that underscored the multiple advantages of river discharge measurements and quantification were deployed from the mid-nineteenth century. The ability to adjust motives and rationales was key to advancing the measurement agenda despite its failures and shortcomings. Whereas the argument of flood protection recurred constantly, so did agriculture: as mentioned, the attempts to build a diversion canal from the Po River to irrigate farmland in the south-east Padana plain allowed Brioschi to continue flow measurement after the conclusion of the 1878-1880 experiments. Later, the grandiose navigation schemes promoted by Leone Romanin-Jacur were the rationale for unprecedented large-scale research in the Po River hydrography. The contribution of hydraulic measurements to the regulation of a strategic sector such as hydroelectricity would then lead to the establishment of a National Hydrographic Service and the confirmation of the Po River Hydrographic Bureau as a permanent state office. In the end, all of these rationales were important. Yet none would have sufficed alone. Rather than its ability to meet one of these many needs, the advent of state hydrography depended on its versatility: it provided the state administration with a constantly updated databank of water knowledge that could be used for all sorts of management purposes, while serving as uncontested basis to assert the authority of the state over resource development.

State hydrography became an essential component of water management, and enabled massive water exploitation and engineering after World War I. The 'flood forecasting' service boasted by Giandotti in 1917 did not play any role in preventing another disaster, as embankments failed again in 1926. Still, when the government created a national commission on flood security in northern Italy, the Bureau's director Giandotti was called to take part, and would influence the ensuing policy recommendations. (83) From 1925, then, the National Hydrographic Service produced detailed registers of watercourse discharge and energy potential, which the authorities used to keep track of--and decide on--water concessions for hydroelectric use. A significant part of these registers concerned the Po watershed, which was the largest reservoir of hydroelectric power in the country, and was directly compiled by the Po River Hydrographic Bureau. (84) In the 1930s, finally, new hydrographic data permitted the Bureau director Mario Giandotti to conceive a new, and ultimately successful, plan for the Canale Emiliano-Romagnolo. The monumental irrigation diversion of the Po River required a precise knowledge of average year-round water discharge. Whereas all previous attempts had failed, the hydrological data accumulated by the Bureau over two decades allowed the project to be refashioned, and ultimately enabled the construction of the canal after World War II. As these examples show, there was no neat distinction between the knowledge produced by the Bureau and water management projects. On the contrary, that knowledge was instrumental in a vast reconfiguration of water uses and circulation in the twentieth-century Padana valley and beyond.

By the time the Po River Hydrographic Bureau was established, many other similar services were operating in North America and Europe. They were probably contingent upon specific environmental obstacles opposed by local basins. Their political function and their role in enabling material environmental change was certainly different, and dependent on specific historical circumstances and rationales. From available sources, however, it appears that the process analysed here for the Po River basin had many equivalents. The occurrence of floods seems to have been decisive in pushing forward the establishment of hydrographic services in France, Austria and Germany. (85) In the US, conversely, a permanent water branch of the United States Geological Service was established as a consequence of the Reclamation Act in 1902. (86) After the 1927 Mississippi flood, however, the production of experimental hydrological knowledge became an essential component of the reorganisation of the Army Corp of Engineers with the establishment of a special river laboratory. (87) In the UK, then, the occurrence of a major drought in 1934 pushed the government to undertake a National Inland Water Survey modelled on American and European hydrographic services. According to British engineer Brysson Cunningham, who presented the Survey to the Royal Geographical Society in March 1935, the drought was 'only one aspect of the matter':

A few years ago excessive floods might, with equal justification,
have provided
the necessary stimulus. A survey is required in fact from many more
points of
view than those of a department of public health. It is essential for
the no less
important needs of industry and commerce, the possible development of
motive power, the requirements of irrigation, fisheries,
and navigation,
the drainage of low-lying lands, and the prevention of floods so as
to safeguard
life and property and many other matters. (88)

These motives echo many of the arguments of two generation of Italian hydrologists. I suspect the ability of hydrography to respond effectively to these diverse needs was decisive to the establishment and success of many other hydrographic services worldwide. From the perspective offered by the Italian case, it is clear that the flexibility and practical use of hydrography, and thus its success and incorporation as a branch of state administration, depended on its ability to chart and quantify. Glaciers and snow, rocks and sand, meanders and waterfalls that regulated the evolving hydrology of the river system could become numbers in tables and lines in charts. The complex geography of the watershed, which embraced a vast and diverse region ranging from the Alps to the Adriatic Sea, collapsed in a centre of calculation. Environmental complexity did not disappear, as the tragic history of flooding in the twentieth century would make abundantly clear. Charting the flow, however, allowed the geographical and environmental diversity underlying water circulation to be understood and managed with greater ease, thus empowering human plans and actions to an unprecedented extent. If we want to fully understand these plans and actions, their historical causes and their unintended consequences, we need to pay equal attention to the making of the knowledge regimes that enabled them.


Thanks to Craig Colten for insightful comments on earlier drafts of this paper and to the anonymous reviewers for helping me strengthen my argument. Thanks to Enrico Plate and Marco Caligari for their invaluable research assistance and to the staff of the Archivi Storici del Politecnico di Milano for granting access to the Fondo Brioschi. I gratefully acknowledge that the research leading to these results has received funding from the People Programme (Marie Curie Actions) of the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under REA grant agreement No. 327403.


Center for History at Sciences Po (CHSP) Paris, France Email:

(1.) Agenzia Regionale Prevenzione e Ambiente della Regione Emilia-Romagna, Servizio Idro-Meteo-Clima. (Accessed 7 Dec. 2014).

(2.) See for the US United States Geological Service, 'Water Data for the Nation', http://waterdata. (Accessed 7 Dec. 2014). For a European example, see Bundesministerium fur Land- und Forstwirtschaft, Umwelt und Wasserwirtschaft, Hydrographie in Osterreich html (Accessed 7 Dec. 2014).

(3.) On 'synchronisation' see Philip V. Scarpino, Great River: An Environmental History of the Upper Mississippi, 1890-1950 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1985). See also Eva Jakobsson 'Industrialization of Rivers: A Water System Approach to Hydropower Development', Knowledge, Technology and Policy 14 (4) (2002): 41-56. For a prominent European case, see also Mark Cioc, The Rhine: An Eco-Biography, 1815-2000 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002). For a large-scale, regional overview of these multidimensional transformations, see Craig E. Colten, Southern Waters: The Limits to Abundance (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2014).

(4.) Richard White, The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995).

(5.) Donald Worster, Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985) discusses the role of hydrological knowledge in the massive hydraulic undertakings in the American West. Matthew D. Evenden, Fish versus Power: An Environmental History of the Fraser River (Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), discusses the development and demise of water surveys in the Frazer River. Martin Melosi provides numerous examples of the multiple contributions of hydrological knowledge to water management in urban settings and beyond in Precious Commodity: Providing Water for America's Cities. (Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011). On the problems of quantifying water (and its quality) for urban water supply purposes, see also Colten, Southern Waters, esp. pp. 163-210.

(6.) Alice Ingold, 'To Historicize or to Naturalize Nature: Hydraulic Communities and Administrative States in Nineteenth Century Europe', French Historical Studies 32 (2009): 385-417. Sara B. Pritchard, 'From Hydroimperialism to Hydrocapitalism: "French" Hydraulics in France, North Africa, and Beyond', Social Studies of Science 42 (2012): 591-615.

(7.) See Sara B. Pritchard, Confluence: The Nature of Technology and the Remaking of the Rhone (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011), pp. 1-27.

(8.) See Francois Molle, 'River-basin Planning and Management: The Social Life of a Concept', Geoforum 40 (2009): 484-94. On the notion of hydrological cycle see Jamie Linton, 'Is the Hydrologic Cycle Sustainable? A Historical-Geographical Critique of a Modern Concept'. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 98 (3) (20 08): 63 0-49.

(9.) Exceptions exist, of course. See, for instance, Martin Reuss, 'The Art of Scientific Precision: River Research in the United States Army Corps of Engineers to 1945', Technology and Culture 2 (1999): 292-323. See also the papers by Pritchard and Ingold quoted above (footnote 6), although both seem more concerned with the political effects of knowledge production than with the dynamics of the production itself.

(10.) See the contributions collected in Dolly Jergensen, Finn Arne Jergensen and Sara B. Pritchard (eds), New Natures: Joining Environmental History with Science and Technology Studies (Pittsburgh, Pa: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011), p. 10.

(11.) Sara B. Pritchard, 'Joining Environmental History with Science and Technology Studies: Promises, Challenges, and Contributions', in Ibid., p.10.

(12.) The only treatment of the modern environmental history of the Po River in English is in Peter A. Coates, A Story of Six Rivers: History, Culture and Ecology (London: Reaktion Books, 2013), pp. 119-159. This journal, however, has published an article on the early modern history of flooding in the Po Valley. See Emanuela Guidoboni, 'Human Factors, Extreme Events and Flood in the Lower Po Plain (Northern Italy) in the 16th Century' Environment and History 4 (3) (1998): 279-308.

(13.) On the culture and politics of measurement, standardisation and quantification, see M. Norton Wise (ed.), The Values of Precision (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press 1995); Theodore M. Porter, Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press 1998); and Bruno Latour, Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987). For an analytical overview of this literature, see Jan Golinski, Making Natural Knowledge: Constructivism and the History of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1998), pp. 173-182.

(14.) For a short biography of Lombardini, see G.Al. 'Lombardini Elia', in Enciclopedia Italiana (Roma: Treccani, 1934) now (Accessed 24 Nov. 2014).

(15.) Elia Lombardini, Intorno al sistema idraulico del Po a principali cangiamenti che ha subito ed alle piu importanti opere eseguite o proposte pel suo regolamento (Milano: Luigi di Giacomo Pirola, 1840).

(16.) Elia Lombardini, 'Importanza degli studi sulla statistica dei fiumi, e cenni intorno a quelli finora intrapresi', Il Politecnico: Giornale dell'ingegnere architetto civile e industriale XIX (1871): 49. The first version of that communication is from 1844.

(17.) See Asir K. Bitswas, History of Hydrology (Amsterdam and London: North Holland Publishing Company, 1970), esp. pp. 299-306.

(18.) See Cioc, The Rhine, pp. 51-52.

(19.) See Bachet, 'Note sur la propagation et l'annonce des crues', Annales des Ponts et Chaussees III (1934), Note n[degrees]34, 409-46; and E. Genissieu, 'Rapport sur l'etat de l'hydrologie dans les differents pays (France)', in Conseil International des Recherches, Unite Geodesique et geophysique internationale, Section Internationale d'hydrologie scientifique, Bulletin no. 8 (Venice, 1927), pp. 11-18.

(20.) Andrew Atkinson Humphreys and Henry L. Abbot, Report upon the Physics and Hydraulics of the Mississippi River: Upon the Protection of the Alluvial Region against Overflow; and upon the Deepening of the Mouths ... Submitted to the Bureau of Topographical Engineers, War Department, 1861 (J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1861).

(21.) Ibid., pp. 193-194.

(22.) Crosbie Smith and Jon Agar (eds), Making Space for Science: Territorial Themes in the Shaping of Knowledge (Basingstoke-New York: Macmillan, 1998). David N. Livingstone, Putting Science in Its Place: Geographies of Scientific Knowledge (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003). See also Richard C. Powell, 'Geographies of science: histories, localities, practices, futures', Progress in Human Geography 31 (2007): 309-29.

(23.) See Reuss, 'The Art of Scientific Precision': 293-295.

(24.) Lombardini, 'Importanza degli studi': 44.

(25.) Luigi Ciarmatori, 'Le grandi piene del 1872 e la Commissione Brioschi', in Ireneo Ferrari and Maurizio Pellegrini (eds), Un Po di carte: la dinamica fluviale del Po nell'Ottocento e le tavole della Commissione Brioschi (Diabasis: Reggio Emilia, 2007), pp. 15-18.

(26.) Regno d'Italia, Camera dei Deputati, Relazione sull'Inchiesta amministrativa intorno alle cause che produssero la rotta dell'argine del Po avvenuta a Guarda Ferrarese nel 28 maggio 1872 presentata dal ministro del lavori pubblici (De Vincenzi) (Roma, 1873), pp. 37-38.

(27.) See Piero Bevilacqua and Manlio Rossi-Doria, 'Lineamenti per una storia delle bonifiche in Italia dal XVIII al XX secolo', in Piero Bevilacqua and Manlio Rossi-Doria (eds), Le bonifiche in Italia dal '700 ad oggi (Rome and Bari: Laterza, 1984), pp. 8-17. See also Stefania Barca, Enclosing Water: Nature and Political Economy in a Mediterranean Valley, 1796-1916 (Cambridge: The White Horse Press, 2010).

(28.) Lombardini, Intorno al sistema idraulico del Po, p. 67.

(29.) Elia Lombardini, Sulle piene e sulle inondazioni del Po nel 1872: notizie, considerazioni e proposte (Milano: Tip. e lit. degli ingegneri, 1873), pp. 13-14.

(30.) Ciarmatori, 'Le grandi piene del 1872', pp. 20-21. For an extensive examination of the biographical profile and public activity of Francesco Brioschi, see the essays collected in Carlo G. Laicata and Andrea Silvestri (eds), Francesco Brioschi e il suo tempo (1824-1897) vol. I (Franco Angeli: Milano, 1997).

(31.) Law 7 Jul. 1876 No. 3198.

(32.) (Accessed 22 May 2014.)

(33.) Constant points of reference were the work by Henry L. Abbot and Andrew A. Humphreys, and the numerous articles about the Garonne River by French engineer Andre Gustave Adolphe Baumgarten published in the Annales des Ponts et Chaussees in the 1840s and 1850s. See above.

(34.) Francesco Brioschi, 'Introduzione', in Commissione tecnico-scientifica per lo studio del bacino idraulico del Po, Idrometria del Po, 1878-79-80: Relazione provvisoria (Roma: Tipo-litografia del Genio civile, 1898), p. 11.

(35.) Ministero dei Lavori Pubblici [hereafter MLLPP], Direzione Generale delle Opere Idrauliche [hereafter DGOI], 'Esperimenti idrometrici nel Po e pubblicazione degli studi della Commissione', Rome, 24 Aug. 1876, Fondo Brioschi [hereafter FB], Archivi Storici del Politecnico di Milano, Milan, Italy [hereafter ASPMi], 53/10.

(36.) Francesco Brioschi, 'Commissione del Po. Risposta a nota 24 agosto 1876', Milan, 28 Aug. 1876, FB, ASPMi, 44/10.

(37.) Francesco Brioschi, 'A S.E. il Signor Ministro dei Lavori Pubblici', Milan, 6 Jan. 1887, FB, ASPMi, 49/05.

(38.) MLLPP, DGOI, 'Rialzamento degli argini del Po e influenti', Rome, 30 Sept. 1875, FB, ASPMi, 44/07.

(39.) Commissione tecnico-scientifica, Idrometria del Po, p. 20.

(40.) Ministero di Agricoltura Industria e Commercio [hereafter MAIC], Direzione Generale dell'Agricoltura [hereafter DGA]. Notizie intorno alle condizioni dell' agricoltura negli anni 1878-1879. Volume 1 (Roma: Stamperia reale, 1881), p. 139.

(41.) Commissione tecnico-scientifica, Idrometria del Po, pp. 12-13 and 19-20.

(42.) See Ettore Paladini to Francesco Brioschi, 'Idrometria del Po: Valenza 1885. Rapporto sommario delle operazioni d'Agosto e Settembre 1885', FB, ASPMi, 53/01. See also MAIC, DGA, Carta Idrografica d'Italia: relazioni della commissione ministeriale per l'Emilia (Roma: Botta, 1888).

(43.) Francesco Brioschi, 'A S.E. il Signor Ministro dei Lavori Pubblici', Milan, 6 Jan. 1887, FB, ASPMi, 49/05.

(44.) See for instance 'Petizione all'Onorevolissima Camera dei Deputati', 1884, FB, ASPMi, 48/02.

(45.) Regio Decreto 5 Jan. 1905 n.3.

(46.) Alice Ingold, 'Cartografare le acque come risorse "naturali" nell'Ottocento', Contemporanea: Rivista di Storia dell'800 e del '900 13 (2010): 3-26.

(47.) The first volume following this model was MAIC, DGA, Giuseppe Zoppi, L 'Aniene (Roma: Bertero, 1891).

(48.) The only Po tributary ever analysed by the Mines Engineers was the Tanaro River, in a monograph published in 1916 by Eugenio Perrone, the leader of this group: Tanaro (Roma: Cecchini, 1916). The series, otherwise, never included a comprehensive monograph on the Po River itself, only an incomplete study published by the late Eugenio Perrone after his forced retirement. See Eugenio Perrone, Po (prima parte), Varaita e Maira (Roma: Tipografa Ditta L. Cecchini, 1920).

(49.) Bruno Andreolli, 'Il Po tra alto e basso Medioevo: una civilta idraulica', in Carlo Ferrari and Lucio Gambi (eds), Un Po di terra. Guida all'ambiente della bassa pianura padana e alla sua storia, pp. 415-443 (Reggio Emilia: Diabasis, 2000).

(50.) Albert Schram, Railways and the Formation of the Italian State in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge and New York : Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 3.

(51.) MLLPP, Commissione per lo studio della navigazione interna nella valle del Po, Atti della Commissione per lo studio della navigazione interna nella valle del Po, vol.-1-9 (Roma: Tipografa della Camera dei Deputati, 1903).

(52.) Leone Romanin-Jacur, 'Relazione generale', in MLLPP, Commissione per lo studio della navigazione interna, Atti della Commissione vol.1, p. 106.

(53.) See for instance Ugo Tombesi, L'industria cotoniera italiana alla fine del secolo XIX (studio economico-sociale). (Pesaro: Federici, 1901).

(54.) See Franco Cazzola, Storia delle campagne padane dall'Ottocento a oggi (Milano: Bruno Mondadori, 1996), esp. pp. 49-52.

(55.) Romanin-Jacur, 'Relazione generale', pp. 75, 125,127-129.

(56.) See Achille Fazio, La navigazione interna nella valle del Po (Portici: Vesuviano, 1903).

(57.) Decreto Ministeriale con cui e istituita una commissione con l'incarico di proporre i provvedimenti atti a promuovere la navigazione interna nel Regno, Rome 14 Oct. 1903.

(58.) MLLPP, Commissione per la navigazione interna, Atti del Comitato Esecutivo, Vol. III, 'Valle del Po: Sistemazione del Po in regolare alveo di magra--Canali laterali' (Roma: Tipografa della Camera dei Deputati 1909), pp. 157-159.

(59.) Law 2 Jan. 1910 No. 9.

(60.) James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), pp. 11-52; and, from a different perspective, Karl Appuhn, 'Inventing Nature: Forests, Forestry, and State Power in Renaissance Venice', The Journal of Modern History 72 (4) (2000): 861-89. For a review of literature that has developed along the lines of Adam Rome's influential concept of 'environmental-management state', see Paul S. Sutter, 'The World with Us: The State of American Environmental History', Journal of American History 100 (1) (2013): 94-119. See also Frank Zelko, 'The Politics of Nature', in Andrew C. Isenberg (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Environmental History, pp. 716-742 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

(61.) Referring to the Napoleonic age in Southern Italy, Stefania Barca has written that 'the most compelling task of the new State apparatus ... was collecting information and putting it on paper, in the form of maps and statistics'. Barca Enclosing Water, p. 41. Historians of science have repeatedly underscored the nexus between production of standardised knowledge and modern state building. See Wise, 'Introduction', in The Value of Precision, pp. 5-6 and Porter, Trust in Numbers, pp. 25-29.

(62.) Ingold, 'Hydraulic Communities and Administrative States': 386.

(63.) Pritchard, 'From Hydroimperialism to Hydrocapitalism': 593.

(64.) Mario Govi and Ornella Turitto, 'Casistica storica sui processi d'interazione delle correnti di piena del Po con arginature e con elementi morfotopografici del territorio adiacente', in Istituto Lombardo Accademia di Scienze e Lettere, Scienza e vita nel momento attuale V (1996/97): 133-134.

(65.) Leone Romanin-Jacur, 'Relazione del Presidente', In MLLPP, R. Commissione per gli studi sul regime idrografico del Po, Primapubblicazione all'ottobre 1910 al dicembre 1913 (Parma: Donati, 1914), pp. 18-19 and 31-32.

(66.) Genissieu, 'Rapport sur l'etat de l'hydrologie': 11-18.

(67.) Reinhold Godina and Gunter Bloschl, 'Aufgaben und methoden der hydrologischen regionalisierung', Wiener Mitteilungen Band 197, OWAV--Seminar im Lebensministerium (18-19 Mai 2006): 8, PDF

(68.) Brysson Cunningham, 'National Inland Water Survey', The Geographical Journal 85 (6) (1935): 537-44.

(69.) Robert Follansbee, A History of the Water Resources Branch, U.S. Geological Survey: Volume 1, From Predecessors Surveys to June 30, 1919. United States Government Printing Office: 1994 (first ed. 1939), p. 83.

(70.) See Atti Parlamentari, Camera dei Deputati, Legislatura XII, 1[degrees] sessione, Discussioni, Tornata del 10 aprile 1907, Discussione del disegno di legge relativo al Magistrato delle Acque.

(71.) Giovanni Magrini, Prima relazione annuale del direttore dell'Ufficio idrografico (Venezia: Premiate officine grafiche di C. Ferrari, 1909).

(72.) Pasini, 'Prima relazione', in R. Commissione per gli studi sul regime idrografico del Po,

Prima pubblicazione, p. 89.

(73.) Ibid., 93-94.

(74.) David Livingstone, Putting Science in its Place, p. 174. See also Porter, Trust in Numbers, pp. 21-22. On meteorology, see James Rodger Fleming, Historical Perspectives on Climate Change (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), esp. pp. 174-176. See also Stephen Mosley, '"A Network of Trust": Measuring and Monitoring Air Pollution in British Cities, 1912-1960', Environment & History 15 (2009): 273-302.

(75.) Mario Giandotti, 'Quarta relazione del direttore', in MLLPP, R.Commissione per lo studio del regime idraulico del Po, Seconda pubblicazione dal dicembre 1913 al giugno 1917, p. 6 (Parma: Donati, 1917).

(76.) Mario Giandotti, 'Terza relazione del direttore', in Ibid., p. 163.

(77.) Mario Giandotti, 'Quarta relazione del direttore', in Ibid., p. 173.

(78.) Edoardi Sassi, 'Relazione sommaria dell'Ispettore Superiore Comm. Edoardo Sassi sulla piena del Po del 1917', in Ibid., pp. 15-24.

(79.) Mario Giandotti, 'Relazione metereologica-idrometrica del direttore dell'ufficio idrografico del Po sulla piena eccezionale del maggio-giugno 1917', in Ibid., pp. 25-148.

(80.) Marina Giannetto, 'L'industria elettrica nella mobilitazione bellica', in Luigi De Rosa (ed.), Storia dell 'industria elettrica in Italia 2. Il potenziamento tecnico e finanziario, 1914-1925, pp. 105-199 (Roma-Bari: Laterza, 1992).

(81.) See Gaudenzio Fantoli, 'Relazione sul servizio idrografico in Italia e sulla necessita di un rinnovato ordinamento di esso', Rome 10 May 1917, in MLLPP, Servizio Idrografico Nazionale, Istituzione e funzionamento del servizio: norme, disposizioni e notizie sull'andamento del Servizio dal suo impianto al 31 dicembre 1919, pp. 7-22 (Roma: Tipografia del Senato, 1920). 82. Geographers Charles Withers and David Livingstone have expressed concerns about risks of environmental determinism in 'Thinking Geographically about Nineteenth Century Science', in Charles Withers and David Livingstone (eds), Geographies of Nineteenth-century Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), p. 4.

(83.) MLLPP, Presidenza del Consiglio Superiore, 'Commissione per lo studio delle difese dei fiumi dell'Alta Italia -Proposte di provvedimenti urgenti per le opere idrauliche di 2[degrees] categoria. A S.E. il Ministro dei Lavori Pubblici, Roma', 13 Jul. 1926, MLLPP, Direzione Generale Acque e Impianti Elettrici, Progetti Navigabilita Fiumi e Canali 1909-1939, ACS, 11/24.

(84.) MLLPP, Consiglio Superiore, Servizio Idrografico, Grandi utilizzazioni idrauliche per forza motrice (Roma: Provveditorato Generale dello Stato, 1925 to 1972).

(85.) Genissieu, 'Rapport sur l'etat de l'hydrologie': 11-18. Godina and Gunter Bloschl, 'Aufgaben und methoden der hydrologischen regionalisierung', 8. Cunningham, 'National Inland Water Survey': 541.

(86.) Follansbee, A History of the Water Resources Branch, pp. 83 ff.

(87.) Reuss, 'The Art of Scientific Precision': 292-323.

(88.) Cunningham, 'National Inland Water Survey': 531.
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