Sand dune - Country Report, Italy

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This article on the sand dunes of Italy, is a revised country report from the 'Sand Dune Inventory of Europe' (Doody ed. 1991) [1]. The 1991 inventory was prepared under the umbrella of the European Union for Dune Conservation [EUDC]. The original inventory was presented to the European Coastal Conservation Conference, held in the Netherlands in November 1991. It attempted to provide a description of the sand dune vegetation, sites and conservation issues throughout Europe including Scandinavia, the Atlantic coast and in the Mediterranean.

An overview article on the distribution of European sand dunes provides links to the other European country reports. These represent chapters from updated individual country reports included in the revised, 2nd Edition of the 'Sand Dune Inventory of Europe' prepared for the International Sand Dune Conference “Changing Perspectives in Coastal Dune Management”, held from the 31st March - 3rd April 2008, in Liverpool, UK (Doody ed. 2008)[2].

Status: Sandro Pignatti, original text, with minor modifications; additional information Bird (The World’s coast: online)


Sand dunes are frequently found along the coasts and major islands of Italy, mostly associated with estuaries and lagoons. The largest dune system is on the NW shore of the Adriatic Sea between Grado and Rimini, a length of almost 200 km. There is no overall figure for the total area of dune, though most if not all of the larger sites are considerably reduced in size due to building, mostly for tourist development, sand extraction and other forms of exploitation. The information provided by the author has been supplemented by data from Michele Zilli, (Ministero Agricoltura e Foreste) and for the area around Rome from Massimo Leone (Fondi).

Distribution and type of dune

Many of the dunes probably originated during the thermal optimum after the last glaciation (5,000 years ago). They have since been broken by rivers and their subsequent development has been a product of natural erosive forces and use by man. Today dunes are present around the whole coastline but only in a few protected areas, like the National Park of Circeo, can natural development be seen. The sand is predominantly calcareous.

There are only minor dune areas behind beaches on the Ligurian Sea coast, but they occur locally on the fringes of deltaic lowlands at La Spezia, and on the Arno delta near Pisa. Similar features are seen on the fringes of coastal lowlands to the south, notably on the Tiber delta, which has fringing beaches, beach ridges and dunes. The coastal plain of Latina and Sabaudia is notable for its dune-capped coastal barrier and lagoons, with landward remnants of parallel Pleistocene barriers and dunes which are unusual in Europe (Bird 1990)[3]. The dunes are well vegetated, some with pine forests, and the barrier comes to an end at the cliffy promontory of Monte Circeo. Further south there are dunes locally behind sandy beaches in bays.

The western and northern coasts of the Gulf of Taranto are low-lying, with dunes bordering a beach-fringed coastal plain. On the Adriatic coast, the Gulf of Manfredonia is backed by a coastal plain with wide beaches backed by dunes, but the coast is generally steep as far as Pesaro. To the north the broad Plain of Lombardy has a low-lying coast past Rimini to Ravenna and the Po delta, fringed by beaches and dunes. The beach becomes a barrier enclosing coastal lagoons at Commacchio. To the north is the large Po delta, with some low dunes on sandy beaches. The beaches continue northward, becoming barrier islands in front of the Lagoon of Venice, with some low dunes, typically eroded on the seaward side. Similar dunes extend along the gently curved beach-fringed coastline between Venice and Trieste.

Sardinia additional information Bird (Personal Communication)

Curving sandy beaches border the larger coastal plains, and on parts of the coast become dune-capped barriers fronting coastal lagoons. The barriers are low and narrow, and large waves often overtop them. In the south the capital city, Cagliari, stands behind the peninsula of Capo S. Elia, east of which a curving 8 km long sandy barrier has low dunes. To the east the beach in Porto Pino faces SW and is backed by dunes 10 m high on a barrier enclosing the lagoon Stagnodeis Brebeis.

Similar dunes occur behind sandy beaches in bays on the east coast. North of Calleta di Osalia is the long beach and dune-capped barrier spit at Orosei, where the Rio Codreto flows into the sea. At Cape Comino the coast swings westward and quartzose sandy beaches are backed by white dunes, partly held by scrub. To the north St Lucia has dunes behind an irregular sandy beach on either side of the Rio Siniscola. Near La Caletta the deltaic plain has pines on low dunes behind the bordering beach.

On the north coast a wide bay, the Gulf of Asinara, is fringed by sandy beaches, which in some sectors are barriers fronting lagoon segments (some reclaimed). The coast is beach-fringed west of Maritza, the pale sandy beach backed by low dunes covered with pine woods. At Punta Negra a north-facing bay is lined by Spiaggia della Pelosa, a sandy beach with dunes and a cuspate spit.

On the west coast dunes back some bay-head beaches, as at Porto Ferro. In the Bay of Alghero there are sandy beaches backed by beach ridges and some low dunes. Bombarda Beach is backed by pines on sandy ridges, and at Fertilia a coastal barrier with a pinewood. South of Santa Caterina di Pittinuri is the long sandy beach of Arenas, facing NW and backed by dunes carrying a pine forest. At Mari Ermi there is a long beach of quartzose sand backed by low grassy dunes. The quartzose sand has come from around the granitic Isola di Mal di Ventre, several kilometres offshore. A sandy beach on the coast of the Golfo di Oristano borders an outer barrier, and there is an inner barrier enclosing lagoons. On the east coast of the Golfo di Oristano, the plain of Arborea is bordered by a wide low sandy barrier with mimosa scrub and pine plantations. A large dune is spilling inland behind the Golfo di Porto Pistis. In addition to these dunes there are several sectors of the Sardinian coast with dissected remnants of Pleistocene dune calcarenite, often adhering to cliffs. These represent calcareous dunes that were much more extensive along the coast in Pleistocene times.


A Mediterranean vegetation is present on dunes around the west coast and on the islands. The flatter coastlines around Venice and Romagna has a central European character.


The first community on the open sand, exposed to strong winds and salt spray, is dominated by Cakile maritima and other pioneers.


Embryo dunes are colonised by Elymus farctus, and includes Eryngium maritimum. As the dunes grow in height, up to a maximum of 5-7 metres, a community dominated by Ammophila arenaria with Medicago marina becomes prominent.

Dune grassland

Dune grassland is restricted to northern Italy, particularly around Venice which has a central European climate. Scabiosa argentiea var. alba is prominent and the community is rich in Brometalia spp. On the Mediterranean coast these species are replaced by dwarf shrubs such as Crucianella maritima.

Dune heath

Most dunes are colonised by Juniperus macrocarpa, rarely by maquis shrubs such as Pistacia lentiscus, Phillyrea angustifolia and Daphne gnidium. Near Venice these may include Juniperus communis.


The climax vegetation is dominated by evergreen oak forest with Quercus ilex, which can occur as a pure stand or with deciduous elements. In the mouths of some rivers, Fraxinus and Populus species are widespread. Several species of pine occur in plantations and in some dune systems, these can be extensive. Pinus pinea is most frequently encountered as a planted species, as are P. halepensis and P. pinaster. However, the last two are sometimes found growing as native plants, though in relatively restricted geographical areas.

Important sites

This list and accompanying map are derived from the three sources mentioned above. Location of dunes on the map represents an attempt to give an indication of their wider distribution. It is clear that for many of these areas such as those south of Venice, little dune habitat remains, see Cencini et al. (1988)[4].

Figure: Map of sand dune distribution and important sites in Italy. Copyright: J Pat Doody
Figure: List of important sand dunes sites in Italy. NR, Nature Reserve; NP, National Park; ZR, Zoological Reserve; SF, State Forest; SL, Scenic Landscape. • Additional information provided by Michele Zilli, Minstero Agricoltura e Foreste; (area) includes adjacent habitats (Palladino, 1990)[5].


The once extensive dune systems in Italy have been used for tourist developments. The building of hotels and summer houses, extraction of sand for these and other related work has caused irreversible destruction of these dune areas. Detailed descriptions of the nature of the losses for a selected number of sites are given in Cencini et al. (1988). For at least one site, “I Maconi” in Sicily, major development for agriculture has had a similar devastating effect on the dune flora and fauna.

Pine forests are mostly artificially planted and have as elsewhere in Europe, changed the appearance and vegetation of the dunes. Although these forests are very sensitive to pollution and fire-prone they are conserved for their high scenic value. Coastal defence works (including concrete dams) and urbanisation are also causing further degradation of the environment. The impact on the dune habitat is serious and many areas are badly affected.

Original contacts

Prof. S. Pignatti, Dipartimento di Biologia Vegetale, Università di Roma, Città Universitaria, 00185-ROMO, ITALY.


  1. Doody, J.P., ed., 1991. Sand Dune Inventory of Europe. Peterborough, Joint Nature Conservation Committee/European Union for Coastal Conservation.
  2. Doody, J.P., ed. 2008. Sand Dune Inventory of Europe, 2nd Edition. National Coastal Consultants and EUCC - The Coastal Union, in association with the IGU Coastal Commission.
  3. Bird, E.C.F., 1990. Classification of European dune coasts. Catena Supplement, 18, 15-24.
  4. Cencini, C., Marchi, M., Torresani, S. & Varani, L., 1988. The impact of tourism on Italian deltaic coastlands: four case studies. Ocean & Shoreline Management, 11, 353-374.
  5. Palladino, S., 1990. Lista delle areo naturali protette in Italia. C.N.R

Other published information sources

Pedrotti, F., ed., 1971. Censimento dei biotopi di rilevante interesse vegetazionale meritevoli di conservazione in Italia. Camerino.

See also

The main author of this article is Doody, Pat
Please note that others may also have edited the contents of this article.

Citation: Doody, Pat (2019): Sand dune - Country Report, Italy. Available from,_Italy [accessed on 18-07-2024]