Plague and Renaissance in Tuscany

April 28, 2020 | Blog
Home > Plague and Renaissance in Tuscany

by Paolo Malanima (Magna Græcia University of Catanzaro)

This blog forms part D in the EHS series: The Long View on Epidemics, Disease and Public Health:Research from Economic History).

The full paper from this blog post was published on the Economic History Review and is available here 

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The Triumph of Death. Source: Francesco Petrarca, Trionfi: Ms., 1081. Biblioteca Nazionale, Rome.

In 1346, astrologers announced that the conjunction of three planets foretold great and serious events (“grandi e gravi novitadi”).[3] This was quickly confirmed: early in January 1348, two Genoese galleys landed at the port of Pisa, a few kilometres from the city centre. These two galleys began their voyage in Caffa (Teodosia) on the Black Sea.  They had stopped in Messina earlier, and were en-route to Genoa. After landing at Pisa, the mariners went to the marketplace, where, subsequently, many of the locals became ill and quickly died. Panic gripped the city inhabitants (“fu sparto lo grande furore per tucta la cictà di Pisa”).[4]

From Pisa, the Black Death commenced its march on Europe. In a matter of months it was chronicled that nearly 80 per cent of Pisa’s inhabitants had died. By March, 1348,  the first cases of plague occurred in Florence and the plague affected other, close Tuscan cities, progressing at a speed of one kilometre per day.

At the time of the Black Death, Tuscany was one of the most populated areas of Europe, with approximately one million inhabitants.[1] In the fourteenth century, the population density of Tuscany was approximately three times that of Europe (excluding Russia), and roughly twice that  of England and Wales.

The first wave of the plague was followed by several other attacks: according to a seventeenth-century writer, between 1348 and 1527, there were at least 19 further outbreaks.[2] The Tuscan population reached its minimum around 1440, with barely 400,000 inhabitants. It began to slowly recover from the middle of the fifteenth century, reaching 900,000 inhabitants by 1600. The birthplace of the European Renaissance was one of the most devastated regions. The last assault by the plague occurred in 1629-30, after which the plague disappeared from Tuscany.

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Figure 2. Part A: Florence price index, 1310-1450; Part B: Daily real wage rates of masons, 1310-1450. Please note that  in A  the price index has a base of 1 for the period 1420-40; in B the nominal wage is divided by the price of the basket.
Source: P. Malanima, ‘Italy in the Renaissance: a Leading Economy in the European context, 1350-1550’, Economic History Review , 71 (2018), pp. 3-30.

What were the economic effects of these outbreaks of plague? The main effect was a sudden change in the ratio of factors of production. The plague destroyed humans, but not the capital stock (buildings, tools), natural capital (that is physical resources), or human capital (knowledge). Consequently, the capital stock per worker increased and, therefore, so did labour productivity. With few exceptions, the consequences of the Black Death were similar across Europe.[5]

In Tuscany, which suffered frequent and powerful outbreaks of the plague, the ratio between production factors changed the most, leading to a decline in output prices (Figure 2, A). The fall in prices was immediate following the Black Death. However, because of bad harvests and military events, an apparent reversal of the trend occurred at the end of the century. Similarly, the price of labour only increased above its base year from about 1450-70 (Figure 2, B). These changes were known to the Florentine government when it noted, in a decree of 1348, that, while “many citizens had suddenly become the poor, the poor had become rich”.[6]

The curve of Tuscan GDP per capita is shown in Figure 3. We note that the trend began to rise soon after the main outbreak of the plague, but started to decline soon after the population was recovering, after the middle of the century. It reached its maximum around 1410-60. At the time, per capita GDP in Tuscany was higher than elsewhere in Europe. In the first half of the fifteenth century, its annual level was about 2,500 present euros, compared to 2,000 euros in 1861 (the date of national unification).

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Figure 3. Real per capita GDP (Florentine Lire 1420-40). Notes: The lower curve refers to the yearly percentage changes from the trend of GDP per capita.
Source: as Figure 2.

Was there real growth in Tuscany after the Black Death? The blunt answer is: no. Following Simon Kuznet’s seminal work, we know that modern economic growth is characterised by simultaneous growth in population and product, with the latter growing relatively faster. Furthermore, modern growth implies the continuous growth of product per capita. However, as this case study demonstrates, product per capita rose because the population declined so dramatically, and Tuscan GDP per capita was highly volatile. Indeed, in some years the latter could fluctuate by 10 to 20 per cent, which would be highly unusual by present standards (although the current COVID outbreak might mean that there will be even greater fluctuations in standards of living and mortality). Another difference between modern growth and growth in the Ancien Régime concerns structural change. Modern growth implies a relative rise in the product of industries and services, and, consequently, a rise in urbanisation. In Renaissance Tuscany exactly the opposite occurred. In 1400, the urbanisation rate was half the level reached in about 1300. Approximately 450 years later, the pre-plague level was not yet attained. The rate achieved in 1300 was only surpassed at the start of the twentieth century.


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[1] M. Breschi, P. Malanima, Demografia ed economia in Toscana: il lungo periodo (secoli XIV-XIX), in M. Breschi, P. Malanima (eds.), Prezzi, redditi, popolazioni in Italia: 600 anni, Udine, Forum, 2002, pp. 109-42 (from this paper is taken the following demographic information).

[2] F. Rondinelli, Relazione del contagio stato in Firenze l’anno 1630 e 1633, Firenze, G.B. Landini, 1634.

[3] M. Villani, Cronica, in G. Villani, Cronica con le continuazioni di Matteo e Filippo, Torino, Einaudi, 1979, p. 295.

[4] R. Sardo, Cronaca di Pisa, O. Banti (ed.), Roma, Istituto Storico Italiano per il Medio Evo, 1963, p. 96.

[5] P. Malanima, The Economic Consequences of the Black Death, in E. Lo Cascio (ed.), L’impatto della “Peste Antonina”, Bari, Edipuglia, 2012, pp. 311-30.

[6] Quoted in S. Cohn, ‘After the Black Death: Labour Legislation and Attitudes towards Labour in late-medieval Western Europe’, Economic History Review, 60 (2007), p. 480.