Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The great fossil cycle and the story of a family.

My great-great grandfather, Ferdinando Bardi. The story of the branch of the Bardi family to which I belong is inextricably linked to the great world cycle of the fossil fuels. (this painting was made by Ferdinando's son, Antonio)

There was a time, long ago, when the Bardis of Florence were rich and powerful, but that branch of the family disappeared with the end of the Renaissance. The most remote ancestors of mine that I can track were living during the early 19th century and they were all poor, probably very poor. But their life, just as the life of everyone in Italy and in the rest of the world, was to change with the great fossil revolution that had started in England in the 18th century. The consequences were to spill over to Italy in the centuries that followed.

My great-great grandfather Ferdinando (born in 1822) lived in an age when coal was just starting to become common and people would still use whale oil to light up their homes. He was a soldier in the infantry of the Grand-Duke of Tuscany and then of the King of Italy, when Tuscany merged into the newly formed Kingdom of Italy, in 1861. The family lore says that Ferdinando fought with Garibaldi in Southern Italy, but there is no trace of him in the records as a volunteer of Garibaldi's army. He may have fought there with the regular army, though. In his portrait, we can see the medals that he gained. Today, I still have the ribbons, the medals were lost during the 2nd world war when they were given to "the country" to support the war effort.

Despite the medals, however, there is little doubt that Ferdinando was poor; his condition is described as "dire poverty" in some documents we still have. But things were changing and the conditions of the Bardi family would change, too. The coal revolution had made Northern Europe rich. England had built a World Empire using coal, France had its revolution and Napoleon, and the industrial age had started. Of course, Italy had no significant coal resources but, already in those times, coal started being imported from England and that changed many things. Tuscany was slowly building up a certain degree of prosperity based on a rapidly developing industry and on a flow of tourism from Northern Europe that, already at that time, had made of Florence a favorite destination.

That had consequences on the life of Florentines. Antonio Bardi (1862 - 1924), Ferdinando's son and my great-grandfather, seems to have started his life as a street urchin. But that changed when he was befriended by a "gentleman in the service of the Emperor of Brazil," then visiting Florence. It may have happened in 1877 and some of the newspapers of that time report the story of how this gentleman, whose name was "Pedro Americo," paid for the studies of this boy in whom he had somehow noticed a special artistic talent. The papers of that time don't seem to have considered the implications (obvious for us, today) involved in the story of a mature and rich gentleman befriending a poor boy, but those were different times. In any case, Antonio started a career as a painter.

That such a career was possible for Antonio was due to tourism becoming more and more common in Florence. Tourism had not just brought there the Emperor of Brazil, but a continuous flow of foreign tourists interested in ancient paintings and works of art. Color photography didn't exist at that time and this led to a brisk market of hand-made reproduction of ancient masterpieces. These reproductions were especially prized if they were made by Florentine artists, in some ways supposed to maintain the genetic imprint of the people who had created the originals. So, the main art galleries of Florence would allow local artists to set up their easels in their rooms and they would later provide them with a stamp on their canvases guaranteeing that it was "painted from the original". It seems to have been a rather diffuse occupation and, already at that time, Florentines were adapting to the opportunities that the world changes were offering to them.

Some of the paintings of Antonio Bardi are still kept by his descendants and, for what I can say, he seems to have been a skilled painter with a special ability with portraits. But he never was very successful in this career and, in his later life, he moved to a job as a guardsman. Still, he had escaped the poverty trap that had affected his ancestors. Many other Florentines of that time were doing the same, although in different ways. From our viewpoint, Tuscany in the 19th century was still a desperately poor place, but its economy was rapidly growing as a result of the ongoing coal age. That opened up opportunities that had never existed before.

My grandfather, Raffaello Bardi, was born in 1892. His instruction was limited, but he could read and write and perhaps he attended a professional school. When he was drafted for the Great War, he had a hard time with the defeat of the Italian Army at Caporetto, in 1917, but he managed to get back home, all in one piece. There, he married a seamstress, my grandmother Rita and he found a job in a Swiss company that had established a branch in Florence and that manufactured straw hats, exporting them all over the world.

There were reasons for that company to exist and to be located in Florence. One was that the manufacturing of straw hats was a traditional activity in Tuscany, having been started already during the 18th century. Another was that the Italian economy in the 20th century had gone through a rapid growth. Many Italian regions were playing the role that today is played by Eastern European countries or South-Asian ones. They were being colonized by North European companies as sources of cheap labor. Tuscany had a well developed hydroelectric energy system and could offer a skilled workforce. Swiss, German, and British companies were flocking there to establish profitable branches for their businesses.

That was the opportunity that my grandfather exploited. He was only a modest employee in the company where he worked, but he could afford a lifestyle that his ancestors couldn't even have dreamed of. In 1922, he bought a nice home for his family in the suburbs; very much in the style of the "American Dream" (although without a car in the garage). It had a garden, three bedrooms, a modern bathroom, and it could comfortably lodge my grandparents, their four children, and the additional son they had adopted: a nephew who had been orphaned when his parents had died because of the Spanish flu, in 1919.  Raffaello could also afford to take his family on a vacation at the seaside for about one month every summer. He could send his sons to college, although not his daughters; women were still not supposed to study in those times.

There came the Fascist government, the great crash of 1929, and the 2nd world war. Hard times for everyone but this branch of the Bardi family suffered no casualties nor great disasters. Raffaello's home also survived the allied bombing raids, even though a few steel splinters hit the outer walls. With the end of the war, the Italian economy experienced a period of growth so rapid that it was termed the "economic miracle". It was no miracle but the consequence of crude oil being cheap and easily available. The Italian industry boomed, and with it tourism.

During this period, the Italian labor was not anymore so cheap as it had been in earlier times. The activity of manufacturing straw hats was taken over by Chinese firms and the Swiss company in which my grandfather had worked closed down. Still, there was a brisk business in importing Chinese-made hats in Florence, adding to them some hand-made decoration and selling the result as "Florentine hats."  One of my aunts, Renza, continued to manage a cottage industry that did exactly that. My other aunt, Anna, tried to follow the footprints of her grandfather, Antonio, and to work as a painter, but she was not very successful. Tourism was booming, but people were not anymore interested in hand-made reproductions of ancient masterpieces.

For my father, Giuliano, and my uncle, Antonio, both graduated in architecture, the booming Italian economy offered good opportunities. The period from the 1950s to the early 1970s was probably the richest period enjoyed by Italy in modern times and the moment of highest prosperity for the members of the Bardi family in Florence. All my relatives of that generation were rather well-off as employees or professionals. Their families were mostly organized according to the breadwinner/housewife model: even a single salary was sufficient for a comfortable life (my mother was an exception, like my father she had graduated in architecture and worked as a high-school teacher). Most of them could afford to own their homes and, in most cases, also a vacation home in the mountains or on the seaside (also here, my family was somewhat an exception, preferring a single home on the hills). They also owned at least one car, often two when their wives learned how to drive. On the average, the education level had progressed: even the women often attended college. Few of the people of that generation could speak any language but Italian and very few had traveled outside Italy, even though some of my uncles had fought in North Africa.

Then, there came the crisis of the 1970s. In Italy, it was normally defined as the "congiuntura economica" a term that indicated that it was just something temporary, a hiccup that was soon to be forgotten as growth were to restart. It never did. It was the start of the great oil crisis that had started with the peaking of the US oil production. The consequences were reverberating all over the world. It was in this condition that my generation came of age.

Our generation was perhaps the most schooled one in the history of Italy. Many of us had acceded to high university education; we traveled abroad, we all studied English, even though we were not necessarily proficient in it. But, when we tried to sell our skills in the labor market, it was a tough time. We were clearly overskilled for the kind of jobs that were available in Italy and many of us had to use again the strategy of our ancestors of old, emigrating toward foreign countries. It was the start of what we call today the "brain drain".

I moved to the US for a while. I could have stayed there, but I found a decent position with the University of Florence and I came back. Maybe I did well, maybe not, it is hard to say. Some people of my age followed the same path. Some moved to foreign countries and stayed there, others came back to Italy. Some worked as employees, set up their own companies, opened up shops, they tried what they could with various degrees of success. One thing was sure: our life was way more difficult than it had been for our fathers and grandfathers. Of course, we were not as poor as our ancestors had been in the early 19th century, but supporting a family on a single salary had become nearly unthinkable. None of us could have afforded to own a home, hadn't we inherited the homes of our parents. Fortunately, families were now much smaller and we didn't have to divide these properties among too many heirs.

There came the end of the 20th century and of the 2nd millennium as well. Another generation came of age and they faced difficult times again. They were badly overskilled, as we had been, perhaps even more internationalized than we were; perfect candidates for the brain drain trend. My son followed my example, moving to a foreign country to work; maybe he'll come back as I did, maybe not. It will have to be seen. My daughter still has to find a decent job. The oil crisis faded, then returned. The global peak of oil production ("peak oil") was closer and closer. The Italian economy went up and down but, on the average, down. It was a system that could grow only with low oil prices and the period of high prices that started in the early 2000s was a hard blow for Italy, causing the start of a de-industrialization trend that's still ongoing.

Only agriculture and tourism are still doing well in Italy. That's especially true for Florence, a town that went through a long-term cycle that transformed it from a sleepy provincial town into a sort of giant food court. Tourists are still flocking to Florence in ever-increasing numbers, but they don't seem to be so much interested in art anymore; their focus today seems to be food. It is for this reason that, today, almost everyone I know who is under 30 is either unemployed or working in restaurants, bars, or hotels.

People in Italy keep adapting to changing times as they have always done, everywhere in the world. It is hard to say what the future will bring to us, but one thing is certain: the great cycle of the fossil fuels is waning. The hard times are coming back.


  1. Most of all, I believe that your essay subtly shows the one truth of the world, that individuals and species adapt to changes in conditions.

    The fact that your family started in Florence and you still live there show that the consecutive scions of a family can enjoy lampredotto under wildly divergent conditions. They have adapted to the economic (and for us H. Sapiens that means environmental) conditions.

    My sons, and their children, will live in a world where the trajectory of the economy will have a negative M. But, their lives will be defined, like all their forebears by the work that they do and the children that they raise and the small joys and tender mercies that a world can offer them.

    I for one hope that they don't feel that the possession of a car, suburban house, and gadding about the planet wasting jet fuel, is the apotheosis of a life's aspiration.

    My mother's family cames from the Sud-Tirol, tiny little place named Cloz. When I go there, they seem to be doing quite well and are pretty happy. They are poor, as hillbillies of any type seem to be, but I truthfully didn't feel any net decrease in happiness. This similarity of happiness also came with a significantly lower level of "stuff" in their lives.

    The overuse and abuse of the carbon fuels during the last two centuries gave us a profligate lifestyle. It will take at least fifty years to get to a point where we realize that we don't miss all the shit that going on an extended oil binge gave us.

    As an exercise, I would strongly recommend that, on the next sunny, pleasant day (which will come much more quickly than here in Portland) wander down by streetcar and walking to the Mercado de Porcellino, grab yourself a porchetta sandwich, a glass of Castello Banfi Centine (cheap and tasty) and watch the Arno go by

    All of these things will be there when oil is gone. All of these things were there when when great-Non Ferdinando was there and I would venture a guess that even being dirt poor, he managed to scrape together a couple of scudi to enjoy.

    1. Probably, my great-great grand father never tasted a porchetta sandwich, it is more of a tradition of Rome and of the nearby area. But surely he tasted the kind of food described here:

  2. Thanks, Ugo. I would have enjoyed history in high school if it were written like this.

  3. My wife, an immigrant from her native Honduras, has been with me in wealth and poverty and all the rest of those life conditions mentioned in the Rite of Marriage. She has always maintained that "Being poor is no excuse for eating poor."

    Up to a point. My Dutch grandfather told me that when he was a child in Groningen, his favorite days were Easter and Christmas. Those were the only days he did not go to bed hungry. Nevertheless, little Holland was an imperial power back then.

    We can always seek beauty.

  4. On the subject: Life over most of history has been as described in "HARD TIMES", the next-to-last song composed by Stephen Collins Foster, a cousin of an ancestor of mine.

    1. Thank you! I really like the Mavis Staples version the best, though James Taylor is also fine.

  5. I agree with Venkataran, this is how history should be told!

    A local comment... agriculture and tourism in Italy share three interesting aspects.

    First, they are both related to aura - a constructed image, only partly based on something real: wine, food, places;

    second, they are both related to real estate - farming land, hotels, palazzi to be sold to rich foreigners... And real estate in Tuscany is still largely in the hands of the old aristocratic families.

    Third, while Venice and Rome may overtake Florence in sheer numbers of tourists, Tuscany is the heart of the tourism-and-agriculture system, financed by a very special banking system.

    No coincidence, I believe, that they sent Renzi and his court to Rome.

    1. Florence is presently an economic powerhouse fueled by tourism. Because of the wealth that tourism generates, it is no wonder that Florentine politicians have a certain prominence in Italy, even though that's not necessarily a good thing, as the recent events have shown. Unfortunately, tourism is subjected to depletion, although indirectly. The current prosperity is all based on fragile assumptions that could be easily swept away by the changing world situation. And, eventually, will be.

  6. Ugo
    Thank you for telling it like it is. I am a bit older and saw the transition from coal in England and Scotland. I remember they had to persuade Mrs Thatcher it was not possible to construct a motorway under the English Channel. The lady had visions!

    That song has been haunting me for weeks now. Must be some kind of meme in the air! (lop-sided smile).


  7. Oil greatly increase the carrying capacity of our planet. Peak oil will bring centuries of decreasing human population and a lot of suffering. J. H. Kunstler write: The way down will much more bumpy than the way up. (Seneca effect?)

  8. Ugo:

    I read this article this morning.

    1. Ugo,
      Thanks for your beautifully written family history.

      I too read the wolfstreet article, and it raised a question about wealth in Italy that nobody has satisfactorily responded to.

      According to the statistics of net wealth, Italians are nearly three times as wealthy as US citizens!

      214 median net wealth:
      Italy: $142,296
      US: $53,352
      Average wealth in the USA: $344,692. Amazing what a handful of Gates' and Bezos' will do to the average in an oligarchy! Is Italy a much more egalitarian society than the US?

      How does the fact of substantial personal net wealth align with the image of Italy as the basket case of Europe?

    2. Hmmm.... interesting point. It seems that the data are very different if you look at them in terms of MEDIAN and of MEAN. In the case of the mean wealth, Italy is way below the US, as it should be. But the median tells a different story. It must have to do with the way wealth is distributed; right now Italy is somewhat more egalitarian than the US, but I don't know if that's the reason. Should take a look at the source to understand it.

    3. There is an explanation here: Have to read it

    4. Yes, the explanation is contained in the study you link to. The root cause is the higher level of financialization and personal debt burden that characterizes the US economy over the past few decades.

      Average wealth is a meaningless statistic to describe the welfare of a population. When compared to median wealth, the disparity serves to unmask the inequality of a society wherein a handful of individuals own as much as the lower 50%.

  9. I liked this small essay on family history very much, and i also think, that the linkage of oil price to deindustrialization in italy has something to it. But there is also hope. Nowadays, wealth is generated in part by brains. By brains, we get more and more value and use out of every unit of exergy dissipated. And the basics of happiness can be maintained with a lower level of energy use: a place to live, decent food and clothes, a work that is not backbreaking, healthy and joyous relations to friends and family and art and science to please the mind.

  10. "Giant food courts" seem to be the thing now-a-days. Last I heard, Melbourne (where I currently am, and which is very fashion-oriented place) has the most restaurants per capita in the world. Constantly eating out at restaurants is very much the "it" thing here, and for a lot of people really seems to be what their lives are based on and revolve around. Chefs are given celebrity status, the design of restaurants and cafes is a major industry on its own, and never mind the whole food-as-art notion that is currently in vogue. That all reminds me of a passage by the Roman historian Livy who I think was talking about said food-as-art as a symptom of degraded cultural priorities. Apparently these "beginnings of foreign luxury" were brought to Rome by returning armies from Asia. As he then put it:

    "The cook whom the ancients regarded and treated as the lowest menial was rising in value, and what had been a servile office came to be looked upon as a fine art."

    If I'm not mistaken, this "giant food court", food-as-art, food as a fine art, etc., is another aspect of the apotheosis of industrial civilization.


    1. I read that Livy (59 - 17 BCE) was writing about the earlier end of the Republic. But ... 'the idea that luxury leads to the downfall of empires is older ... Herodotus attributes the view to Cyrus the Great ...'

      Melbourne might be, as I think you imply, the latest, if fashionable, example of 'imperial over-reach'. I agree we might ask whether Melbourne or Florence or London have 'Roman centuries' left to them as industrialisation peaks and declines. Stuff happens quickly these days.

      Personally, I am coming to the view that 'middle class' globally, but especially in select places, might have reached 'Peak Buying Power', though how the Chinese middle class deals with its oligarchs could get interesting in the next while. I find it hard to guess how much their being a very old civilisation might help. Italy also has an interesting past (smile).

      I guess we should be looking hard at 'class' as the defining issue - USA and Anglophones take note - given the 'energy / economy' hand we are dealt just now.

  11. Your story about the medals resonated with me. My father served in the British army from 1939 to 1946. No one in our immediate family was killed or injured in “the War”. Neverthless war — and their hatred of it — defined their world view.

    After they passed away we found some medals that my father had earned. We never even knew that they existed. I guess that he had no pride in them.

    It is the hatred of war that lay behind the formation of the European Union — “never again”. Ironically the very success of the EU in keeping the peace may be one reason that young people are less supportive of it — they have never experienced war. Let’s hope that they don’t have to learn the same lesson the hard way.

    1. I had often wondered about what my ancestor had done to deserve those medals; worried that maybe he had killed someone - the reason why people get medals. But not long ago I found a document about those medals; awarded for "long and honorable service" in the infantry. That doesn't mean that my great-great grandfather didn't kill anyone, but at least not that we know!

    2. My father’s medals were all campaign medals. They were not to do with his personal actions. He was in telecommunications, which meant that he provided telephone service between the front line and headquarters in the rear. As far as I know he was not in direct combat and did not carry a rifle. However, we know very little because he did not want to talk about it. The only general that he seemed to respect was Rommel (my father served in the north Africa campaigns.)

      He was engaged to my mother for most of the war but they would not marry until he was out of uniform.

  12. Great personal account of how the vicissitudes of societal change (spurred by industrialization and the exploitation of resources) affect people on the family level. My own father was from Southern Italy and moved with his family to Rome after the war, only to ultimately end up later emigrating to the States, where he married an American. (As family legend goes, he didn't have shoes until about age 9, ironically becoming un calzolario.) I was fortunate as the first literate male in my family, and graduated college, growing up in the waning heyday of America's Golden Age. Seems like the tide is indeed going out, again, though people here have spent so many generations living large they don't recognize it as such (let alone tracing its source to the high energy dependence of their infrastructure and resource depletion). I feel blessed to have somewhat of a different perspective from my heritage, and at least am able to pass on to my kids the fact that, hey, it wasn't always like this, and it may not be like this ever again.

    1. Good for you, Mr Prochilo. You have been aware of the changes and of how transient the bright and shining moment of cheap energy and rapid economic growth have been. I have known people with experience and family history like yours who blithely believe that, as it was recently, is now and ever shall be, world without end, Amen.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)