The first time Robert Langdon, the main character in Dan Brown’s Inferno, gazed at the Apennines was from a train going from Florence to Venice. Langdon saw the vineyards and farms gradually become less frequent and the landscape of plains be replaced by the Apennines.
The Apennine Mountains, also called the Apennines, are a series of mountain ranges bordered by narrow coastlands that form the physical backbone of peninsular Italy. They start from Cadibona Pass in the northwest, close to the Maritime Alps, and form a great arc, which extends as far as the Egadi Islands to the west of Sicily.
The total length was measured at approximately 1500 kilometers (930 mi) in 2000 by the Ministry of the Environment of Italy following the recommendations of the Apennines Park of Europe Project, which has been defining the Apennines System to include the mountains of North Sicily. Their width ranges from 30 km(19 mi) to 250 km (155 mi). The system forms an arc enclosing the east side of the Ligurian and Tyrrhenian Seas.
The highest peak of the Apennines is Mount Corno, at 2912 metres (9554 feet), in the mountain group of Gran Sasso (Great Rock), in the Abruzzo region. The summit is covered by snow most of the year, and on the north slope of Corno Grande is the small Calderone glacier, the only one in the Apennines and the southernmost in Europe.
The name is probably derived from the Celtic pen, meaning “mountain, summit.” It originally belonged to the northern portion of the chain, from the Maritime Alps to Ancona.
Polybius is thought to have been the first writer to apply it to the entire chain, making no distinction between the Apennines and the Maritime Alps, and extending the former name as far as Marseilles. Classical authors do not differentiate between the various parts of the chain, using the name as a general term for the whole area.
Modern geographers, on the other hand, divide the range into three parts: northern, central, and southern.
The Apennines orogeny developed through several tectonic phases, mostly during the Cenozoic Era (about 65 million years ago), and came to a climax in the Miocene and Pliocene epochs (about 23 to 2.6 million years ago).
The Apennines consists of a thrust-belt structure with three basic trending motions: toward the Adriatic Sea (the northern and central ranges), the Ionian Sea (Calabrian Apennines), and Africa (Sicilian Range).
During Plio-Pleistocene times (about 5,300,000 to 11,700 years ago), ingression and regression of the sea caused the formation of large marine and continental sedimentary belts (sands, clays, and conglomerates) along the slopes of the new chain.
In the past million years, numerous large faults have developed along the western side of the Apennines, which may be connected to the crustal thinning that began about 10 million years ago and resulted in the formation of a new sea, the Tyrrhenian.
Most of these faults have also facilitated strong volcanic activity. Some of these Volcanoes, like Mount Amiata, Mount Cimino, the Alban Hills near Rome, and the Ponza Islands, are extinct, while Mount Vesuvius, the Eolie Islands, and Mount Etna are all still active.
The Apennines are divided into three sectors: northern (Appennino settentrionale), central (Appennino centrale), and southern (Appennino meridionale).
The Northern Apennines consist of three sub-chains: the Ligurian (Appennino ligure), Tuscan (Appennino toscano), and Umbrian Apennines (Appennino umbro).
The Central Apennines, also called the High Apennines, are divided into the Umbrian-Marchean (Appennino umbro-marchigiano) in the north and the Abruzzi Apennines (Appennino abruzzese) in the south.
The Southern Apennines consist of five sub-chains: Samnite Apennines (Appennino sannita), Campanian Apennines (Appennino campano), Lucanian Apennines (Appennino lucano), Calabrian Apennines (Appennino calabro), and finally, the Sicilian Range (Appennino siculo).
Northern Apennines (Ligurian Apennines, Tuscan Apennines, and Umbrian Apennines)
The Northern Apennines are generally distinguished (though there is no real solution of continuity) from the Maritime Alps at the Bocchetta dell’ Altare, some 5 miles west of Savona on the high road to Turin.
The Ligurian Apennines extend as far as the pass of La Cisa in the upper valley of the Magra above Spezia. At first they follow the curve of the Gulf of Genoa, and then run east-south-east parallel to the coast. On the north and north-east lie the broad plains of Piedmont and Lombardy, traversed by the Po, whose chief tributaries from the Ligurian Apennines consist the Scrivia (Olumbria), Trebbia (Trebia) and Taro (Tarus).
The Tanaro (Tanarus), though largely fed by tributaries from the Ligurian Apennines, rises in the Maritime Alps, while the rivers on the south and south-west of the range are short and insignificant.
The south side of the range rises steeply from the sea, leaving practically no coastal strip. Its slopes are sheltered and therefore fertile and highly cultivated, and the coastal towns form the favourite winter resorts of the Italian Riviera.
The highest point (the Monte Bue) reaches 5,915 feet. The range is intersected by several railways: the line from Savona to Turin, that from Genoa to Ovada and Acqui, the main lines from Genoa to Novi, the junction for Turin and Milan, and the line from Spezia to Parma under the pass of La Cisa. All these traverse the ridge via long tunnels.
The Tuscan Apennines extend from the pass of La Cisa to the sources of the Tiber. The main chain continues to run in an east-south-east direction, but traverses the peninsula and the west coast while turning almost due south. From the northern slopes many rivers and streams run north and north-east into the Po, the Secchia and Panaro being among the most important, while farther east most of the rivers are tributaries of the Reno.
Other small streams, namely the Ronco and Montone, which flow into the sea together east of Ravenna, were also tributaries of the Po. The Savio and the Rubicon seem to be the only streams from this side of the Tuscan Apennines that ran directly into the sea in Roman times. From the south-west side of the main range the Arno and Serchio run into the Mediterranean.
This section of the Apennines is crossed by two railways, from Pistoia to Bologna and from Florence to Faenza, and by several good high roads, of which the direct road from Florence to Bologna over the Futa pass is of Roman origin. Moreover, certain places here are favourite summer resorts.
The highest point of the chain is Monte Cimone (7,103 feet).
The so-called Alpi Apuane (the Apuani were an ancient people of Liguria), a detached chain south-west of the valley of the Serchio, rise to a maximum height of 6,100 feet. They contain the famous marble quarries of Carrara.
The greater part of Tuscany, however, is taken up by lower hills, which form no part of the Apennines, being divided from the main chain by the valleys of the Arno, Chiana (Clanis) and Paglia (Pallia). They are rich in minerals and chemicals toward the west, which the Apennines proper do not produce.
The Umbrian Apennines extend from the sources of the Tiber to the pass of Scheggia near Cagli, where the ancient Via Flaminia crosses the range. The highest point is the Monte Nerone (5,010 feet). The chief river is the Tiber itself; the others, which include the Foglia, Metauro, and Esino, run north-east into the Adriatic, which is some 30 miles from the highest points of the chain.
This portion of the range is crossed near its southern termination by a railway from Foligno to Ancona, which may perhaps be conveniently regarded as its boundary.
The Central Apennines are the most extensive portion of the chain and stretch as far as the valley of the Sangro. To the north are the Monti Sibillini, the highest point of which is the Monte Vettore (8,128 feet). Farther south three parallel chains may be traced, the westernmost of which (the Monti Sabini) culminates to the south in the Monte Viglio (7,075 feet), the central chain in the Monte Terminillo (7,260 feet) and farther south in the Monte Velino (8160 feet), and the eastern in the Gran Sasso d’Italia (9,560 feet), the highest summit of the Apennines, and the Maiella group (Monte Amaro, 9170 feet).
Between the western and central ranges are the plain of Rieti, the valley of the Salto (Himella), and the Lago Fucino. Between the central and eastern ranges we find the valleys of Aquila and Sulmona.
The chief rivers on the west are the Nera (Nar), with its tributaries the Velino (Velinus) and Salto, and the Anio, both of which fall into the Tiber. On the east there is at first a succession of small rivers that flow into the Adriatic, from which the highest points of the chain are some 25 miles distant.
The Pescara (Aternus), which receives the Aterno from the north-west and the Gizio from the south-east, is more important; and so is the Sangro.
The Central Apennines are crossed by the railway from Rome to Castellammare Adriatico via Avezzano and Sulmona. The railway from Orte to Terni (and thence to Foligno) follows the Nera valley, while from Terni a line ascends to the plain of Rieti and from there crosses the central chain to Aquila, from where it follows the valley of the Aterno to Sulmona.
The volcanic mountains of the province of Rome are separated from the Apennines by the Tiber valley, and from the Monti Lepini, or Volscian mountains, by the valleys of the Sacco and Liri.
In the Southern Apennines, to the south of the Sangro valley, the three parallel chains are broken up into smaller groups; among them may be named the Matese, the highest point of which is the Monte Miletto (6,725 feet). The chief rivers on the south-west are the Liri or Garigliano with its tributary the Sacco (Trerus), the Volturno (Volturnus), Sebeto (Sabatus), Sarno (Sarnus), on the north the Trigno (Trinius), Biferno (Tifernus), and Fortore (Frento).
The promontory of Monte Gargano, on the east, is completely isolated, like the volcanic groups near Naples. The district is traversed from the north-west to the south-east by the railway from Sulmona to Benevento and on to Avellino, and from the south-west to the north-east by the railways from Caianello via Isernia to Campobasso and Termoli, from Caserta to Benevento and Foggia, and from Nocera and Avellino to Rocchetta S. Antonio, the junction for Foggia, Spinazzola (for Barletta, Bari, and Taranto) and Potenza.
Roman roads followed the same lines as the railways: the Via Appia ran from Capua to Benevento, from where the older road went to Venosa and Taranto and so to Brindisi, while the Via Traiana ran nearly to Foggia and from there to Bari.
The Valley of the Ofanto (Aufidus), which runs into the Adriatic close to Barletta, marks the northern termination of the first range of the Lucanian Apennines (now Basilicata), which runs from east to west, while south of the valleys of the Sele (on the west) and Basiento (on the east), the second range begins to run due north and south as far as the Plain of Sibari (Sybaris). The highest point is the Monte Pollino (7,325 feet).
The chief rivers are the Sele (Silarus), joined by the Negro (Tanager) and Calore (Calor) on the west, and the Bradano (Bradanus), Basiento (Casuentus), Agri (Aciris), Sinni (Siris) on the east, which flow into the gulf of Taranto. To the south of the last-named river are only unimportant streams flowing into the sea east and west, inasmuch as the width of the peninsula diminishes to some 40 miles in that area.
The railway running south from Sicignano to Lagonegro, ascending the valley of the Negro, is planned to extend to Cosenza, along the line followed by the ancient Via Popilia, which beyond Cosenza reached the west coast at Terina and from there followed it to Reggio. The Via Herculia, a branch of the Via Traiana, ran from Aequum Tuticum to the ancient Nerulum.
At the narrowest point the plain of Sibari, through which the rivers Coscile (Sybaris) and Crati (Crathis) flow to the sea, occurs on the east coast, extending halfway across the peninsula. Here the limestone Apennines proper cease and the granite mountains of Calabria begin.
The first group extends as far as the isthmus formed by the gulfs of S. Eufemia and Squillace; it is known as the Sila, and the highest point reached is 6,330 feet.
The forests that covered it in ancient times supplied the Greeks and Sicilians with timber for shipbuilding. The railway from S. Eufemia to Catanzaro and Catanzaro Marina crosses the isthmus, and an ancient road may have run from Squillace to Monteleone.
The second group extends to the south end of the Italian peninsula, culminating in the Aspromonte (6,420 feet) to the east of Reggio di Calabria. In both groups the rivers are quite insignificant.
In general the rivers of the Apennines have short courses. The two principal rivers are the Tiber (455 Kms long), which follows a southerly course before flowing through Rome into the Tyrrhenian Sea, and the The Arno River(241 Km long), which flows westerly through Florence into the Ligurian Sea.
In spite of the limited length of the rivers, the action of running water is the chief agent of erosion responsible for molding the contemporary Apennine landscape. The character of the physical geography depends on the varying nature of the rocks in each region and their resistance to water action.
The climate of the highest section of the Apennines is continental but made more pleasant on account of Mediterranean influences. Snowfalls are frequent, with cold winters and hot summers. Average rainfall—at between 40 and 80 inches (1,000 and 2,000 millimetres) per year—is higher on the Tyrrhenian slopes than on the eastern, or Adriatic, side of the Apennines.
Plant and animal life
The flora of the Apennines is Mediterranean and varies with both latitude and altitude. In the north, woodlands with oak, beech, chestnut, and pine predominate. To the south, ilexes, bays, lentisks, myrtles, and oleander abound.
Prevailing crops are represented by the olive trees. Citrus fruits are well developed in Campania, Calabria, and Sicily, and grapes are in abundance in Tuscany, Lazio, Campania, and Puglia. In the highland areas, pasturing remains the main form of land utilization.
In addition to typical Mediterranean fauna, there are many indigenous Apennine species, including some insects, the brown “marsicano” bear, the wolf, and the wild boar, all of which are now preserved in two natural reserves (Abruzzo National Park and Sila Park) and several regional parks.
Since prehistoric times, the Apennines have been the home of Italic peoples. These beautiful and rugged mountains are renown for their numerous railroad tunnels and highway passes, their quaint villages built on the hills to escape floods, malaria, warlike tribes, and some of the most famous Roman roads like the Appian, Cassian, Flaminian, and Salarian ways.
There are also a considerable number of nice mineral springs, some of which are thermal (such as Bagni di Lucca, Monte Catini, Monsummano, Porretta, Telese), while others are cool (such as Nocera, Sangemini, Cinciano, etc.), the water of which is both drunk on the spot and sold as table water elsewhere.
This post was originally published in October 6, 2014, and has been updated and enriched on May 17, 2017