The canal that takes its name from Count Camillo Benso di Cavour (1810-1861), Prime Minister of Piedmont and the creator of the modern Italian nation, is a remarkable feat of hydraulic engineering. It was designed to carry water from the River Po to irrigate the land to the north, particularly the Vercellese region, where cultivation was hampered by dry summers.
Irrigation channels were constructed in the area from the Middle Ages, but in the 1840s Francesco Rossi developed a scheme for a canal that would link the Po near Chivasso with its tributary, the River Ticino near Galliate, more than 80 km to the north-east. Under the patronage of Cavour, then president of the council of ministers of Piedmont, who owned large tracts of land in the Vercellese, the scheme was modified in the 1850s by Carlo Noe (Noah) and the canal was built with astonishing speed between 1863 and 1866, becoming one of the symbols of the new Italy. It succeeded in irrigating some 300,000 of agricultural land that was used principally for the cultivation of rice, and at some places also provided water power. Although the canal achieved its objectives, the company went bankrupt in 1868 and from 1874 it was managed by the state.
The canal begins at Chivasso on the River Po, receives more water from the Dora Baltea river, passes under the Sessia River at Greggio, and follows a course to the north of the city of Novaro before joining the River Ticino at Galliate, 85 km from Chivasso. The most spectacular engineering feature of the canal is the sluice house (chiavica) at Chivasso where water is extracted from the River Po. It is a monumental structure of brick and stone, 40 m long, with an arcade of 20 arches above the sluices, and carries the inscription ‘Canale Cavour’.
The canal is still an important part of the water management system of the region, and a riverside park, named after the bricel, the traditional vessel employed on the River Po navigation, was inaugurated in Chivasso in 2003.