Pontine Marshes - History - 19th Century

19th Century

Near the end of the 19th century, a Prussian officer, Major Fedor Maria von Donat (1847–1919), had an idea; he would build a channel that followed the base of the mountains, cutting through a sand dune at Terracina. This would collect the water flowing from the mountain before it reached the lowest levels where it stagnated. The water collected in the canal system would then be pumped into the Mediterranean. The electricity needed to power the canal system would be collected through dams in the mountains with hydroelectric power plants. The German patent office patented the project under the number 17,120. He expected to dry out the marshes within a five-year time span.

Major von Donat published his idea in Rome and Berlin, and succeeded in gaining the attention of Emil Rathenau, the general manager of AEG in Berlin. Rathenau saw market potential for electric investments, so he and some industrialists in Berlin as well as private financiers created the "Pontine Syndicate Ltd." in 1900. Seventy million gold marks were set aside for the project. One of the conditions was that the Italians would have to match the funds on the project.

In 1898, Fedor von Donat resigned from his position as battalion commander and moved to Rome with his family. There he lobbied the government for his project, as well as four large landowners, connections in financial circles and the Vatican. He leased 240 acres (0.97 km2) of marsh near Terracina and established a model farm, "Tenuta Ponte Maggiore". With the help of waterwheels of ancient Egyptian type, revolved by three oxen, he was able to prove that the moorland had a high percentage of organics in its soil, of over 70 points; this proved that three harvests per year were possible. He protected his eighty workers from malaria with a daily dose of quinine. He invited Roman journalists to a press conference on his property. In 1902, large German newspapers, as well as foreign papers, carried long articles about the project. They often carried a sense of national pride about the development project. Donat argued above all for the extermination of malaria in the countryside surrounding the capital. Malaria prevented the expansion of Rome to the south, the settling of which could provide a new province for Italy without a colonial war. The urbanization of the marshes could prevent 200,000 Italians from emigration. Around the year 1900, one could count fewer than 1,000 inhabitants for a coastal region larger than 700 km². By a law passed in 1899, the proprietors were bound to arrange for the safe outlet of the water from the mountains, keep the existing canals open, and reclaim the district exposed to inundation, for a period of twenty-four years. The sum of 280,000 was granted toward the expense by the government.

Donat's plan failed. This time it was not the technical inadequacy as with the predecessors but political deliberations that stood in the way of the project. The liberal government hesitated and gave the North preference, where in the valley of the Po large marshes also needed to be reclaimed. A violent resistance of the four large property owners in the Pontine Marshes was the reaction to the necessary expropriation and leasing to the German syndicate of a large part of their marsh country. The co-financer, the Banca Commerciale in Milan, delayed starting the task. Donat, whose lobbying had operated on his own funds, exhausted his wife's fortune of 75,000 gold marks by 1903. Unsuccessful, he returned to Germany. The Pontine Syndicate was dissolved on September 4, 1914. With it, a premature but bold attempt at a transnational investment to gain more land ended.

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