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Fiume Lento-Un viaggio lungo il Po
[The River]


I grew up by the river, just a few miles away from where Alessandro Sanna 
(with whom I share - fun fact- both hometown and birthday) painted the artwork for this book.
'The Big River', as people there in the lowlands call it, is the Po river, the biggest waterway in the country, flowing across northern Italy.

Most of the time it flows slowly, so much that it looks still, until you look carefully and will notice the smooth movement of its current creating whirlpools here and there. 
When it's in flood the river swells, invading the flood bed filled with rows of poplars. It gets stronger, breaks and carries away branches and mud. 
It is indeed the colour of bright, shiny mud, exactly like it appears on the cover of the English language edition.
It's a colour that comes from the sand of its bed which has been greedily digged during the years and from the foolish pollution coming from the nearby industrial areas.
The Po river was some sort of idyllic place in our parents' tales, with blue waters and white sandy beaches where children could play and bath. It was 'the seaside of the poor' until the Sixties.
Even if the landscape is not how it once was and the beaches are mostly desert, the river still is a strong, living presence for the people inhabiting the Po valley.  
It grows and pulls back continuously, and people gather on the river banks to watch it.

Whenever we go back to Italy I take my daughters to see the River, slowly flowing under the burning sun in summer days, and blending with the fog in winter. 
We eat in a small tavern just a mile away which is often flooded when the rain swells the river. It now is a lovely Slow Food restaurant, and was a humble tavern selling panini when I was a child,  from where people could keep watch the old pontoon bridge, now replaced by a reinforced-concrete one.

Now that my eldest daughter is old enough and has memories of the landscape, we are looking together at Alessandro Sanna's silent book 'Fiume Lento' (Slow river),  which has been slightly adapted for the English language market, published with the title 'The River'.
It's a not easy to classify it, it's not a children's book, nor a book just for grown ups. It's absolutely not just a picture book. 
It feels closer to Non-Fiction Art to me and it can be an inspiring read for all ages and a must-have book for anyone familiar with the scenery of the Po valley.
For them, this can truly be a silent book, activating their own unique memories of those places and sense of belonging.
Alessandro Sanna managed to grasp the essence of a part fo Italy which is so dense of cultural and historical references, inspiring to a contemplative silence where words have no place.
And that is why in the Italian edition there are actually no words apart from the titles. 
Sanna takes the reader on a journey along the river Po through the seasons, each of them featuring an event.
In the English-language edition a few lines have been added at the beginning of each chapter, somehow explaining the events and the atmosphere. This probably makes the book 'easier' for the international market, but are not really needed by anyone familiar with the places. I read in fact the edition in English first and was slightly confused, because I kept focusing on the words instead of just embracing the smooth flow of the art. There is no real story as such to look for here. 
Also, an heartfelt introduction by Italian film director Ermanno Olmi (see below) has been left out (I'd love to know the reason behind this choice). Olmi, who passed away last month, beautifully explains how art can get closer to music, developing a language of their own, which has no need for words.
The Italian edition published by Rizzoli has also a much bigger format, supporting and intensifying the beauty of Sanna's art.


In Autumn we watch the flood: people gather at dawn and sunset to check the level of the water and work. The banks need to be reinforced, the water is just there. There is a dog stuck on a poplar to be saved. The colour palette softens around browns, ochre and burgundy, the colours of the autumn leaves and mud.
Winter is purple and dark blue, the colours of the freezing nights in Northern Italy. A calf is about to be born in a farmhouse, a dad runs to pick his son up at school so that he can attend the event.

A country festival celebrates the arrival of  Spring and the awakening of nature: the colour palette embraces light blues and greens.
Sanna paints one village which could be any village along the river: a small church with a bell tower, the fun fair in the piazza, a bike ride along a dark street lined with poplars, the lantern lit on, and two lovers hiding among the trees to kiss for the first time. A wedding in the fields, the air filled with tiny clouds of poplars seeds flying everywhere like snow, and announcing the beginning of summer.



Summer days in the Po valley are torrid and sweltering, only broken by quick, aggressive storms. the colour palette evolves in a crescendo, including dark green, bright yellow, ochre, umber and finally warm browns, revealing a chromatic circularity that takes us back to the beginning.
These are the earth colours of the dry cracked sandy beaches and the bricks of medieval buildings in villages along the river.
A tiger has escaped the circus, there's the dream of wilderness invading the ordinary landscape, the river becomes an exotic place, a painter captures the roaring of the tiger before the ordinary dimension is re-established, in a calm end of summer night.


This is one of those books that you will end up reading multiple times, it is such a pleasure to the eye and is for people of any age. 
Alessandro Sanna showed how powerful wordless books can be. Visual art alone can activate the reader engaging him in the construction of meaning,  but also awaken our interior world involving all the five senses: we hear and smell the sounds and scents of nature, we feel the wind and the burning sun. Dreams and memories harmonise together in a symphony that is closer to music rather than narration.
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Fiume Lento, Un viaggio lungo il Po [2013]
Italian edition by Rizzoli Libri
The River [2014]
English-language edition by Enchanted Lion Books
Words and art by Alessandro Sanna
Reading age: N/A
Themes: Silent Book, Nature, Italy






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