Remember that sketch from Monty Python’s Life of Brian – “What did the Romans ever do for us?” The response was a long list, including roads, sanitation, education, medicine, peace, wine and irrigation. Well, yesterday we visited a fine legacy of a Roman irrigation project at the Cascata della Marmore (Marmore Waterfall) near Terni. At 165 metres, it is the highest man-made waterfall in Europe. Set in a lush, green park of forests and gorges, it is a breathtakingly beautiful sight.
In 217BC, the Romans dug a canal to divert the water from the swampy, stagnant River Velino over the Marmore cliff and into the River Nera which runs below it. The channels have been modified several times over the years in order to better direct the flow of water; the last significant alterations were in the 1930s.
For over 50 years the powerful waters have been redirected to fuel the largest hydroelectric plant in Italy. This means that the majority of the water is only released over the falls at certain times during the day, so it is important to check the timetable before a visit. At this time of year the water is released for just an hour, twice a day. Surprisingly, there were no crowds on a very sunny and warm morning. It could not have been more perfect.
The Marmore Falls were a feature of the Grand Tour, which was at its height in the 17th to 19th centuries. Young English noblemen and intellectuals would complete their education with extended European travel and Italy, with its historical and artistic treasures, was a prime destination. The rainbow that can often be seen at the Falls was considered to be one of the great marvels of the Italian leg of the Grand Tour.
The site inspired many artists and poets, including (moving seamlessly from Life of Brian to Life of Byron) Lord Byron. His 19th century poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage contains several stanzas relating to his visit to the Marmore Falls. Since he described it much more eloquently than I can, the quotations below are his.
There are 2 main vantage points: the upper and lower belvederes. Only the lower belvedere provides a view of all 3 drops of the Falls, so we stationed ourselves there to await the rush of water. A siren wailed to warn spectators of the impending torrent, and the sound of water filled our expectant ears.
“The roar of waters from the headlong height..”
“The fall of waters, rapid as the light..”
At times the spray almost obscured the highest drop.
“And mounts in spray the skies, and thence again returns in an unceasing shower..”
“The hell of waters! Where they howl and hiss and boil in endless torture.”
When we had marvelled at the sight for some time, we took one of several trails leading up and around the waterfall in order to see a different perspective. We passed a small pond, green and still, with the sound of frogs croaking competing with the steady roar of the water. As we got closer, the spray soaked our clothing and the noise increased.
Higher and higher we climbed, until we were 40 meters from the ground. The droplets of water sparkled in the sunlight, and suddenly we saw the rainbow below us!
Someone once described the water as looking like bridal veils; you can see why below.
Back down then, to see the waters slow and fade again to a trickle, an equally beautiful sight.
“A matchless cataract, horribly beautiful..” Lord Byron