Monday, April 29, 2019

The Great Fossil Cycle and the Story of a Family

Last week, I published a post on how the economic decline of Italy led me to move to a smaller house, abandoning the mansion that my parents had built during better times. Complementing that post, I thought I could repropose a post I had published in 2017, reproduced here with some minor modifications. You can find more data about the story of the Bardi family on the "Chimeras" blog.



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 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 commonplace 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, 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. Italy had no significant coal resources but coal could be 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 Florence as a favorite destination.

That had consequences on the life of Florentines. Antonio Bardi (1862 - 1924), Ferdinando's son and my great-grandfather, was little more than a street urchin 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. My aunt Renza, grand-daughter of Antonio, was still doing the same job -- making copies of paintings from the originals -- in the 1930s.

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: Florence was not Paris, it was a backwater of Europe and there were little chances for artists to become rich and famous there. As he got old, Antonio developed health problems with his eyes and he couldn't paint anymore, so 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 Rita, a Florentine seamstress, 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 Swiss company to exist and to be located in Florence. One was the tradition of making straw hats in Tuscany: it had started already during the 18th century. Another was that the Italian economy in the 20th century was rapidly growing. 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. It was no mansion, but a step forward in comparison to the small apartments where the Bardi family had been living before. It had a garden, three bedrooms, a modern bathroom, and it could 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 vacations 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, the youngest of the family, 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, with my mother being 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: some of the wives 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 all 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.

10 comments:

  1. Fascinating history, many thanks for sharing it.

    I read this recently, don't know if you saw it but it made me think of you:

    https://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2019/04/the-delphic-oracle-was-their-davos-a-four-part-interview-with-michael-hudson-about-his-forthcoming-book-the-collapse-of-antiquity-part-1.html

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    1. Very interesting and also useful for my new book! Thanks a lot

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  2. Very entertaining. And very relevant. Thanks for sharing. Hagens calls the Tom Murphy chart of total carbon energy vs when we will use it " a stroboscopic carbon pulse" This image is from 2011 so oil is now closer to the plateau at the top. https://dothemath.ucsd.edu/2011/10/the-energy-trap/ https://dothemath.ucsd.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/peak-ff-oil.png

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  3. For another interesting story (fiction) well told and played, check out "The Count of Tuscany" by Dream Theater. https://youtu.be/vjoKyj51o_I

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  4. Very interesting. Thanks for sharing.

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  5. Fascinating history, Ugo. Kind of you to share it with us. While we may not get back to the eas(ier) life of the roaring 60s (for Greece that would be the 80s) coming from easy oil, I do think that our societies will adapt to the energy availability of renewables and prosper from it. It will be a cleaner, more equal, and more meaningful life but it assumes that we can fight off unfettered neoliberalism and survive the battle...

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  6. Ugo
    Do you still have that wonderful image - 19thC painting - of the guys pulling the barge of imported coal along the canal? Cheaper than horses!
    There is a quote in EP Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class, from mid 19th C Birmingham of men being paid to wheelbarrow builders' sand 9 miles - cheaper than carting.
    best
    Phil

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    1. Yes, it is here. https://cassandralegacy.blogspot.com/2013/03/the-dark-side-of-coal.html. I think I'll repropose this post as part of the series on the Italian fossil cycle

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  7. rather reminds me (obliquely) of an exhibition of suits of 15th c armour on display in London, of various nations

    The British armour is practical, useful, as is the Spanish and Dutch, The German is reminiscent of a panzer tank, but the italian suit is one of grace and style and beauty. Like wearing a Ferrari

    Same when you look around the main streets of Rome and Venice, (and Florence) every woman looks so proud and beautiful, at any age

    then there's the shoe shops that no woman can pass by without wanting them. (my English feet wont fir in Italian shoes. I daresay I wouldn't have fitted the armour either

    And there's the Italian ice cream shop in London I can never bring myself to pass by. I have to taste his latest creations---he loves to talk about what he does best, if he's not too busy

    So whatever it is you guys have there, hold onto it as long as you can

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    1. Yes, in a way, Italians have a streak of creativity. But also a dark streak of evil. An Italian has been the first to think of carpet bombing against civilians and to promote the idea widely (Giulio Douhet). Evil as evil can be, it must also be said that probably someone else would have developed the idea anyway. And that's just an example. (I am planning a post on Giulio Dohuet, one more example of the banality of evil)

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Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017)