In the nineteenth century, Rome was troubled by its river. The Tiber had produced the Great Stink of 1855 and had flooded the Eternal City in 1870. What should the dynamic leaders of a newly unified Italy do with the fetid river that ran through its capital? Giuseppe Garibaldi had a radical solution. He wanted to remove the Tiber from the city completely.
Tiber rolls majestic to the main
Paris has the Seine, London has the Thames and Rome has the Tiber.
It is hard to imagine any of these ancient cities without their rivers. The Tiber is particularly resonant, weaving its way through Rome’s geography, history and literature. The Roman poet Ovid described the river in a memorable verse from his Metamorphoses.
Those graceful groves that shade the plain,
Where Tiber rolls majestic to the main,
And flattens, as he runs, the fair campagne.
David Gilmour notes the importance of the River Tiber in his excellent book The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, its Regions and their Peoples.
The most hallowed river in Italy is Virgil’s gentle Tiber, the second-longest in the country, whose relationship with Rome is as famous as that of the Seine flowing through Paris or the Thames progressing through London.
As well as featuring in poetry stretching back to Ovid, Rome’s river is evoked in key passages in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Antony And Cleopatra. How was it possible, then, that Rome came close to losing the Tiber?
To examine on site the conditions of the River Tiber
Fast forward to the 1870s, and the Tiber was no longer seen as being majestic. There were times when it barely seemed to roll. Instead, it was a stagnant, stinking nuisance. Something had to be done.
And this is where Giuseppe Garibaldi stepped in with his ambitious, daring and possibly mad plan to divert the river away from Rome. According to Gilmour:
as late as 1875, in the last quixotic venture of his life, Giuseppe Garibaldi tried to have the river diverted to prevent it from flooding the capital.
This arresting passage was enough to make me want to research those plans a little more.
Why was this plan even on the agenda?
Gilmour goes on to point out that, although famous, the Tiber was not always a blessing for the Romans. He suggests that perhaps the Romans:
over-estimated the value of its river. Until the late nineteenth century the Tiber was anything but gentle and so prone to flooding that no other city had been built on it in antiquity.
Rome suffered from a Great Stink in 1855. This was three years before London’s own Great Stink. In London, the River Thames had become, in the words of Charles Dickens, ‘a deadly sewer … in the place of a fine, fresh river’. Conditions got so bad in the summer of 1858 that the windows of the Palace of Westminster were sealed with heavy, lime chloride-drenched drapes. It was enough to prompt action from national and civic leaders. Not so in Rome.
The authorities were finally spurred to action by a flood that broke on Christmas Day in 1870. The rising levels of the Tiber had wrought extensive damage, cost many lives and destroyed millions of lire of property. Following extreme flooding in December 1870, the Ministry of Public Works appointed a Commission to deal with the issue. The Commission’s remit was wide-ranging:
Esaminare sul luogo le condizioni del fiume Tevere e dei suoi principali affluenti
To examine on site the conditions of the River Tiber and its main tributaries
Citizens of Italy’s new capital looked enviously to London, where, by 1870, new embankments of the River Thames were being finished. Joseph Bazalgette’s monumental engineering project not only controlled the river but also neatly contained main sewers and mass transit – the District Line of the London Underground and the Embankment roads were built into the project.
London had been notorious for its fetid, stinking and choleric river in the earlier half of the nineteenth century. The Austrians, who had reigned in the mighty Danube and protected the imperial capital of Vienna, matched this achievement. Surely the newly unified, resurgent and dynamic Italy could now do the same for its capital city?
Draining the Viper’s Nest
Was Garibaldi’s audacious plan simply to protect Rome from flooding?
According to Gilmour, there was more at stake than periodic inundations. The plans to divert the Tiber were ‘motivated by the desire to prevent not only floods but also malaria.’
Garibaldi was also not one of Rome’s biggest fans. The city was, in the Liberator’s view, a swampy hell with the ever present threat of malaria. Politically, it was a ‘viper’s nest’, the home of the reactionary Catholic Church and some of the greatest opponents of Italian unification.
Garibaldi was not alone in his criticism of Rome. John Ruskin described the city as a ‘windowless urinal’. James Joyce was even more evocative when he noted that:
Rome reminds me of a young man who lives by exhibiting to travellers his grandmother’s corpse.
The nineteenth century was a golden era for the engineer and great projects. Various individuals came forward with plans to canalize or divert the Tiber. Garibaldi favoured a project developed by Paolo Molini and Alessandro Castellani. He saw it as a necessary sign of scientific progress and a great engineering feat to rival the great canals at Suez and Panama.
His passion for the plans was revealed to the Italian public in an article he wrote for the newspaper L’Opinione on 30 November 1872:
I certainly don’t take credit for the initiative to channelize the Tiber. I support the proposals of the scientists Castellani and Molini, who recommend continuation of the plan to bypass Rome, which will result in benefits for the citizens there.
Under the plans, the Tiber would have been diverted away from Rome and would have to a new harbour at Fiumicino, close to Ancient Rome’s historic port city of Ostia.
With the draining of the Tiber, Rome would be free of flood and malarial fever. The surrounding marshes could be drained and farmland irrigated. The diverted river would be navigable, with docks boosting the local economy.
It was uncertain as to what would happen to the Tiber’s river bed in Rome. Some suggested a regulated and steady flow of water could be released into the channel. Others thought that it could provide space for a grand promenade. Garibaldi himself imagined a Parisian-style boulevard that would be a wonder of the modern world. 
Draw them to Tiber banks
In the end, political rivalries and cost concerns combined to first delay and finally thwart the plans.
Had the plans gone ahead, would Romans have lived to regret the loss of their river?
In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare is strangely, if unintentionally, revealing of the possible reaction of a people divorced from their river.
Draw them to Tiber banks, and weep your tears
Into the channel, till the lowest stream
Do kiss the most exalted shores of all.
And, as Ian Thomson, writing in the Telegraph, notes:
At least the Tiber is still there, its Ponte Garibaldi embankments stinking like great pissoirs in the sun. 
Notes and sources