When we think about fog, we all have similar references in our minds: London, the English countryside, San Francisco in the evening, some parts of North America. These are all famous misty landscapes, now rooted in our aesthetic imagery, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise, there are more foggy regions in the world, equally beautiful and charming. After all, the mist is a natural phenomenon: water vapours suspended in the air. Among these areas, there is one I am particularly loyal to, one I cherish, Pianura Padana (Po Valley in English). A vast, flat area in the North of Italy, wrapped inside the Piedmont, Lombardia, Veneto and Emilia Romagna regions. This four-hundred mile subregion is home to the longest Italian river, the Po River, runs from the Adriatic Sea to the West Alps and hosts remarkable landscapes, gothic cathedrals (think of the breath-taking Milan Duomo), little medieval villages, XIX century courtyards, rice fields and evidence of post-war industrialization.
Far from the romantic representation of the postcard-Italy, the Po Valley is the real hidden gem of the peninsula. I understand it is not easy to grasp prima facie, as people generally choose the bright Amalfi Coast, the sunny Sicily, or the gorgeous Tuscany for their holidays, but the Po Valley is a place that can provide its tourists unexpected little treasures. If you are attracted by Bruma and Caligine (two words for fog, just like Nebbia), these grey lands are for you. In winter, small villages appear out of the blue over the horizon line, popping up out of a wall of mist. Gothic churches rule quiet towns, standing hieratic and elegant, while small, grey and sketched men and women on bicycles cross the misty lands. During Christmas 2019, I spent a few days driving around the Pianura Padana, searching for the real spirit of the land. I eventually found it out in the city of Cremona, on a Thursday afternoon, walking in the main street, a medieval cluster of houses, filled with delicatessen shops, incredible churches and luthiers. Definitely a place to go for the lover of music and medieval art.
The mist has the wonderful power of filling up, with an impalpable milky grey substance, enormous empty spaces. It is a mystical adventure to witness its rise: from the humid land a gentle watery air rises, engulfing everything in it. On the evening of fall, usually starting from the end of September, this calming force just embraces fields of land, silencing the sound of everyday life. Just like a Turner painting, the fog creates a game of shadows, lights, colours and forms where the spectator is part of the painting, inside a monochromatic view.
Walking in it was one pleasant activity I can recall when I was young. It is like being gently wrapped up in the crisp air, where the cheeks are fresh and the smell of clean breeze engulfs you. Walks in the winter mornings in the Po Valley countryside are a genuine purifying practice. Cities like Mantua, Ferrara, Rovigo, Alessandria are famous for their long, cold and misty winters.
Although the experience of the mist is indeed pleasant, this natural phenomenon has been often used to represent a confused state of mind and the senses. It is not a case that many Italian writers, directors and photographers were influenced by such inspiring wonder. Michelangelo Antonioni perhaps is the director that mostly worshipped it, using it as a symbol for inner turmoils. In the beautiful Il Grido – a surprisingly contemporary movie, even though it was filmed 70 years ago, the protagonist strays around villages covered in mist, losing himself in a flat land. Similarly, the female protagonist of Il Deserto Rosso – a superb Monica Vitti – lives in the foggy Ravenna, tormented by depression and anxiety.
Rimini-born Federico Fellini uses the mist as something that changes our way of seeing the world, muffling shapes, for characters confused and lost. Amarcord, 8 1/2 and La Città Delle Donne are perfect examples of this. The list should also include many others, such as La Prima Notte di Quiete by Valerio Zurlini, where the fog hides a forbidden love story; Carlo Mazzacurati and Pupi Avati movies often show such landscapes.
Similarly, the literature of the Po Valley shows the fog in its best tone. Giovanni Testori’s I Segreti di Milano is a human comedy series set in Milan and nearby villages drenched in hazy landscapes. Luchino Visconti adaptation of a Testori novel is the renowned Rocco e I Suoi Fratelli, set in a gloomy, murky Milan. The great Gianni Celati wrote short stories and diaries set in such a natural phenomenon, Narratori Delle Pianure (Storytellers from the plains) is the book to mention here, together with the description of the Po river in several of his books. Although these artists portrayed fog beautifully, perhaps who really understood the beauty of the Nebbia was the photographer Luigi Ghirri, who portrayed foggy landscapes where blurry figures and blurry houses are surrounded by hazy air and milky grey light.
There is a music genre that more than others goes hand in hand with the mist, it is jazz music. And so, I prepared a soundtrack for your walks in the mist, with Italian jazz musicians and little known composers. These gorgeous landscapes won’t be everyones’ cup of tea, but – I promise – if you give them a chance you will be rewarded with an inner journey into the realm of kindness and gentleness. So get your coat out of the wardrobe and be ready to lose yourself in this white limbo.