Emilia-Romagna - Background information

Natural history
People and culture


Abridged from the History section in Northern Italy: Emilia-Romagna including Bologna

The ‘region’ of Emilia-Romagna is a political newborn, created only in the 1970s when all of Italy was divided into regions in a long-overdue move towards decentralisation. Some of Italy’s regions have an obvious historical or geographical identity – Tuscany, the Veneto or Sicily for example. This one doesn’t. Until relatively recently, the ‘Emilian’ part was considered part of Lombardy, while the Romagna followed a different destiny, first as part of the Byzantine Exarchate of Ravenna after the break-up of the Roman Empire, and then in the Papal State. The ‘border’ between Emilia and Romagna is generally considered to be the River Santerno, which flows by Imola.

ad1000 to 1250

In this complex, feudal north Italy, the new house of da Canossa (created ad952) was not the only great power in the region. Another was the Obertenghi, a family of Lombard origins. They ran much of northwest Italy in the 10th century and held substantial lands in Germany, too. Branches of the Obertenghi eventually grew into the houses of Este, Malaspina and Pallavicini, three of the most powerful families of medieval Emilia-Romagna. Meanwhile, the rule of Otto and his successors, in the new Holy Roman Empire centred in Germany, restored order after the decay of the Carolingian Empire, and cities and culture throughout Italy started to revive. After AD1000 the revival gained speed, inaugurating three centuries of nearly constant economic expansion. The booming cities organised themselves into free comuni; their efforts to increase their freedom from imperial or papal control provide most of the plot of Italian medieval history.

1250 to 1350

The cities had won the first round, against Barbarossa; against his grandson Frederick II they had another hard fight, full of dramatic reverses of fortune. By now, all Italy was divided into two factions, the pro-imperial Ghibellines and the Guelphs, supporters of the free cities and their ally, the pope. Of course, one of the rights most important to the comuni was the right to battle each other, and in the shifting course of events ‘Guelph’ and ‘Ghibelline’ were often merely labels of convenience in purely local struggles.

After 1248, the Guelphs were victorious almost everywhere in north Italy, and the cities were generally free from imperial interference. But the factional fights within them continued, and nearly every city found the only solution was rule by a single boss, a signore, whose family often continued in power as a dynasty.

1350 to 1550

Castello di Torrechiara Emilia-Romagna Italy by Dlaurro, Shutterstock
The Castello di Torrechiara is the most photogenic of all the duchy’s castles © Dlaurro, Shutterstock

The plague returned throughout the region in 1361, in Bologna, Ferrara and Forli in 1362, in Bologna and the Romagna in 1374 and again in 1382 and 1383. Much of Italy had a similar fate, and the plagues marked the first interruption of the medieval economic expansion. The cities recovered, and in the 15th century, Ferrara, and to a lesser extent Rimini and Bologna, became important centres of Renaissance art.

After 1494, the delicate equilibrium of the small and wealthy Italian states was wrecked once and for all by the intervention of ambitious nation states France and Spain. The popes did as much as the foreign powers to keep the pot boiling in the decades of confusing and bitter war that followed. There was a string of calamitous popes – Alexander VI, Julius II, Leo X, Clement VII and Paul III – all intelligent men and patrons of learning and the arts, but their egomania, devotion to their families’ interests and constant intrigues with foreign powers resulted in the end of Italian liberty and the subjection of nearly all of the nation to the eventual victor Charles V, who was both King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor. For its part, the papacy won undisputed direct control of the lands of the Papal State, including the Romagna and Bologna, for the first time.

Natural history

Abridged from the Natural history section in Northern Italy: Emilia-Romagna including Bologna

Nearly 12% of Emilia-Romagna’s territory is protected in 32 natural parks and reserves, including the two national parks that the region shares with Tuscany. The Parco Nazionale Foreste Casentinesi is one of the largest woodlands in Western Europe, covering some 368 square kilometres along the Romagna–Tuscany watershed. It encompasses the sources of the Tiber (on the Romagna side) and the Arno (on the Tuscan side), a thousand species of flora, Apennine wolves, badgers, fallow deer, boar, eagles, buzzards and tawny owls. In the heart of the forest are the towering silver firs of Campigna, planted by the Florentines for masts, and the primeval beech wood, the Riserva Naturale Integrale di Sasso Fratino, now a World Heritage Site and off limits to all but researchers since 1959.

The Parco Nazionale Tosco-Emiliano, created in 2001, encompasses the highest northern Apennines, dotted with crater lakes and rushing streams. Below the alpine prairies are fir, beech and yew forests, home to boar, roe deer, wolves and golden eagles. The Emilian side has a striking landmark in the 1,047m-tall Rocca di Bismantova, a lofty isolated cylindrical plateau at Castelnovo ne’ Monti.

One of the more unusual regional parks, the Vena del Gesso near Brisighella, surrounds Italy’s largest gypsum ridge, a silver 25km outcrop pocked with dolines, ravines, swallow holes and 200 caves. An extremely rare fern, Cheilanthes persica, grows in the gypsum crevices, and in spring the forests bloom with wood anemone, dogtooth violet, lungwort, larkspur and primrose. The caves are home to mouseeared, horseshoe and long-fingered bats and rare cave salamanders. Elsewhere, you might see crested porcupine, yellow-bellied toad, Sardinian warbler, Peregrine falcon or Eurasian eagle-owl.

Parco Regionale Delta del Po Emilia-Romagna Italy by Ruth Swan, Shutterstock
The wetlands of Parco Regionale Delta del Po is known for its pink flamingos © Ruth Swan, Shutterstock

The 54,000ha Parco Regionale Delta del Po, Emilia-Romagna’s largest park, is scattered along the coast south of the Po to the salt pans of Cervia. Its wetlands, famous for their pink flamingos (notably at the marshes of Comacchio and Bertuzzi), lie along one of Europe’s main migration routes and attract more than 250 species. Parasol pine woods dot the coast from Ravenna to Cervia; at Bosco della Mesola you can visit a patch of the forest that once covered the entire Po plain, and close to Ravenna, the Oasi di Punte Alberete is the last surviving example of the flooded forests that once covered the delta.

People and culture

Although to the outsider the differences might seem subtle, the peoples of Emilia (where the barbarian Lombards settled) and Romagna (where the Western Roman Empire had its last hurrah) have distinct identities, notably in their dialects and in their cuisine. They like to argue about exactly where the ‘border’ lies between the two around Imola.

Emilia-Romagna’s population of 4,448,841 (2017) includes a half-million foreign born, the second-highest percentage of any Italian region, who help to keep the population ticking over in spite of a low native birth rate. Romanians and Poles have large communities; the region’s 180,800 non-EU residents include large Argentine, Albanian, Swiss, Brazilian and Russian populations and, increasingly, new arrivals from Africa and China. These last two are busy in small-scale international trading; whenever it starts raining you’ll find a ‘Chinese bazaar’ nearby to sell you an umbrella. After the UK, Italy has the largest Sikh population in Europe, many of whom tend the cows in Emilia-Romagna’s dairies.


Everyone speaks Italian, but many also speak various dialects of Emiliân-rumagnōl, a branch of the Gallo-Italic languages of northern Italy, spoken not only in Emilia- Romagna but also in neighbouring parts of Lombardy, Umbria, Tuscany, Liguria, the Marche and San Marino. Characterised by many diacritical marks (it has a lot more vowel and consonant sounds than Italian) and nouns that don’t end in vowels, it is the main spoken language in 10.5% of households, and understood, alongside Italian, in 28%.

Emilian, which has never been standardised, has numerous recognised dialects, while Romagnol has had a dictionary since 1840 and an important literary tradition throughout the 20th century. Regional theatre groups and radio and television stations are doing their best to keep the language alive, and you may see it on menus.

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