The name could stem from the Greek ”kuma”, wave, to be found in the early Medieval term “cumaculum”: small wave. However, another source suggests “commeatulus”, which means ship gathering or dune gathering, as the legend tells that the village was originally built on 13 islets. The story of Comacchio is related to the Delta’s morphological and hydrological development and to the up scaling evolution of the coast line. It is believed that Comacchio is a direct descendent of the Etruscan city of Spina, which was created following a fortified settlement (castrum) built along the river to protect the area from the Lombard influence. The first archaeological evidences about the village date back to the VII—VIII century AD. Thanks to its strategic position, Comacchio became one of the most important settlements of the Italian early Middle Ages and managed to fight the rising Serenissima on the control of Adriatic and Mediterranean trades.
In the VIII century, the journal “Capitolare di Liutprando” reports the evidence of a Comacchio’s community with enough autonomy to stipulate trade and customs contracts on its own name with the Lombard kingdom. These agreements allowed the transit of the local boats loaded with salt and “garum” (ancient fish sauce) over the river Po.
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Comacchio became a part of the Exarchate of Ravenna and later on of the Lombard Kingdom, as reported by the Capitolare di Liutprando. According to this source, in 715 AB there is evidence of the rules and fees to be paid for the salt trades by Comacchio’s residents inside the Kingdom. In this time, the municipality is ruled alternatively under Ravenna and Ferrara’s influence and will eventually become a part of the Duchy of Ferrara. Comacchio was an archbishop seat already at the beginning of the VIII century and the proofs of this fact are a headstone of 708 AB and a few important buildings such as the religious centre of Santa Maria in Aula Regia and the cathedral consecrated to San Cassiano, built in 708 AC.
Charlemagne, after having defeated and set away the Lombard, gave the lagoon city to the Church as a gift. The strategic importance of Comacchio in the salt production and trades caused the war against Venice in 866, which lasted for centuries. In 932, the Doge Piero II sent an army against Comacchio’s residents to punish them for an alleged insult. According to the words of the journalist Giovanni Diacono, who lived between the X and XI century, the violence of this attack was terrible not only towards the buildings but also towards the residents, and the few survivors were deported to Venice. From this moment onwards, there will be just a few ephemeral written references to the evolution of Comacchio into a wealthy commercial hub.
In 1325 Comacchio’s residents sent a petition act to the Este’s Duke, whom from that year started to rule and manage the profits of the valleys, while the salt production kept on being impeded by Venice.
The current shape of the city began to appear around 1630 following a Church initiative that wanted to take advantage from the sea outlet with trading ambitions. Almost every stone bridge, like the magnificent Trepponti, as well as other buildings like the lodge (in which wheat used to be stored) and the Cappuccini’s colonnade date back to this time.
Comacchio’s valleys have always represented the main source of income for the local economy and their management has always been at the centre of many historical events. When in 1797 Napoleon took over the village and the valleys, the residents revolted themselves until they obtained the signature of Rogito Giletti on July 12th 1797. Thanks to that document, the French Republic sold to the city all the valleys and still today that is the only written proof that stating the ownership of the valleys by the municipality. The management of the valleys proved to be troublesome: events of dried salt and great death toll of fishes forced the local authorities to seek help by the Apostolic Chamber, which in 1853 handed over its responsibilities to the Ministry of Finance. Because of the change of the Reno’s route and fishing decrease, the government sold the valleys to the municipality, which had to carry out several hydrographical rearrangements.
Getting close to its more recent history, a relevant moment for the Comacchio’s development and that of its valleys was the restoration of Romea’s route. The path was basically the same of that created by the Roman legionaries and followed by pilgrims later on. The aim was to facilitate the bilateral communications on the Adriatic coast to enhance the trades of both Ravenna’s and Venice’s harbours a well as that of the countryside close to the littoral, which grew over the Po’s valley close to Ferrara and Polesine following the decontamination works.
Comacchio joined the mainland at the beginning of 1800 and was connected to Ferrara only by boat and postal coaches for about a century, until the first train line between Ferrara, Comacchio and Porto Garibaldi was built in 1901. Later on, in 1911, it would be extended to Porto Garibaldi and featured two locomotives of 160 hp, two of 190 hp and one of 90 hp with 14 wooden wagons for passengers. Unsurprisingly, when foreign visitors during the XVIII century came to visit Italy mostly avoided to making a stop by Comacchio. In the second half of the 1800, a trip from Faenza to Comacchio’s valleys, according to the writer Giuseppe Pasolini Zanelli, required at least two and a half days using different transportation means.
Nowadays, Comacchio is a pleasant village near to the Po and the coast, well known for its valleys rich of fishes, its lidos and its eventful history.
It brings with it a history of ancient origins, which began over 2500 years ago. A long maritime tradition and a real pearl of gastronomy. Discover the capital of Bird Watching and welcome to the Po Delta Park.
In modern years, the valleys became privatised just as woods and lands up to a point where the old medieval right to commonly take advantage of the territory’s resources was abolished. Similarly to a villa’s ownership, the valleys became a place where aristocrats and land owners went to spent some free time and hunting. However, in the very same places where the lords took a break from the city life, the residents struggled to get by and were forced to poach. Thanks to their ability in handling the spear gun, the poachers were extremely skilled in their art. The practice of using the spear gun helped the poor by providing them food to eat on a daily basis and also to make a small earning by selling it to the fish shops, where one could buy smuggled fish arrived progressively overnight after having avoided the merciless seizures of the guardians. The smuggling was yet very well organised and it is not rare to find in the police documents references to “beer containers” filled with smuggled fish bags and hidden in between the straw.
The poachers, also called fiocinini, never acted alone: they were always acting as group and created a sort of underground society where every fish had to be fished together and shared among the least fortunate. Their small and poor houses with big chimneys were built with two entrances: one to the main road and the other to the channel. This structural detail allowed the fugitives to reach their places on their boats by entering from the valley’s side and getting out from the city one so that they couldn’t be tracked. The smugglers could also count on the complicity of local peasants living outside Comacchio, by whom the fiocinini found a shelter for themselves, their boats and their stolen fish. When the guards would reach the farms often by following undisputable tracks of eels lost during the getaway, they used to frisk houses and barns and find men, boats, tools and baskets of fishes. Between the two world wars, the conditions of the fiocinini’s families worsened up to a controversial point where the prison guardians, moved by pity, set the inmates free by night so that they could fish in the valley and bring the food to their families before being escorted back to the prison. This practice went along for some time, until some police officers started to suspect something and eventually restored the order.
Bands of fiocinini were continuously violating the law, and in 1854 the Ministry of Finance Galli issued a decree in order to suppress the poaching that was causing significant damages to the Chamber of Commerce. The actions included: ban of producing and possessing spear guns and fish nets at home; ban of possessing boats; rules related to the trade and internal/external circulation of fish; tickets for fish gifts.
The eel fishing
The fishermen of Comacchio’s valleys had to really upgrade their skills to elaborate the delicate and flawless procedure to catch the eels.
Over the years, they studied every single detail of the eels’ lives: their habits, the morphology of their territories, their needs and the requirements to fish them. It was a thorough analysis of their behaviour and even their psychology, which makes their historical fishing activity even more fascinating.
This whole study was summarized by the conception of the weir, a very old tool that is still efficient and fundamental to fish at the valley. It allows catching the eels by separating them from the mullets and other fishes while they migrate to the sea following their reproductive instinct. Practically speaking, it is an item shaped by a series of communicating basins whose functioning relies on the principle that all valley fishes, at some point of the year, feel the instinct to immigrate to the sea and then come back to the valley.
The weir makes them converge into a two-step forced incoming and outgoing lines: in the first barrier, with a wider mesh, all the fishes get entangled but not the eel as it is slimmer. However, once it passes through it, the eel gets blocked by another barrier, with tighter meshes.
At this point, the valley residents enter in action and with their nets called “ovogas“ they collect the eels and drop them inside special oval-formed containers called “bolaghe”. A part of the fishing game was originally reserved for wholesale and another one would be marinated, a typical activity handed over for a long time.