Real wages in the Kingdom of Sicily, 1540-1830

August 9, 2022 | Blog
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by Tancredi Buscemi (University of Perugia)

This blog is based on a paper presented at the 2022 Economic History Society Annual Conference in the New Researcher Session: NRIF (Wages and Labour Markets).


The persistence of regional inequalities in Italy has been a long-lived topic of interest, covered by a growing historical and economic literature. However, the quantitative reconstruction of regional economic trajectories mainly begins in 1861, the year in which the Italian state was formed. Yet, little is known about the period prior to 1861 because of the political fragmentation of the country. Italian literature on living standards is mainly concerned with explaining the economic decline of Italy. Although, this is done only from a perspective concerning centre-north Italy. Using the Kingdom of Sicily, which was the wealthiest region in southern Italy, my paper reassesses the Italian regional economy in the very long run, addressing the longstanding debate on the Italian economic downturn from another point of view. Moreover, my paper considers the Italian regional divide before 1861, endeavouring to identify its timing. Finally, this study enhances the evidence on living standards in the Mediterranean region.


To do so, I have constructed a new wage series based on a large body of archival evidence. Data are retrieved from the balance sheets of religious institutions and building sites’ payrolls, consisting of 21,357 observations, covering roughly three centuries: 1540-1830. The evidence produced challenges the anecdotal evidence on southern Italy as a homogenous backward area and poses several questions about Italian living standards before 1861.


Figure 1.   Building labourers’ real wages, 1540-1830

Sources: For Sicily until 1830, see the author’s conference paper; for centre-north and Naples from 1500-1830, Allen, ‘Great divergence’; for Milan, Naples, and Sicily from 1861-1901, Federico et al., ‘Italian regional divide’.
Notes: Sicily’s series is constructed by weighting the population of the areas examined. Real wages are smoothed with the Kernel-weighted local polynomial smoothing.


As illustrated in figure 1, there was a surprising gap between the centre-north and Sicily for the entire period, with a declining trend during the eighteenth century. Nevertheless, Sicily maintained steadier subsistence levels than did other Italian areas. Moreover, the recovery and the diverging trend happened during the unification period. Indeed, as the Federico et al. (2019) estimate reveals, Milan overcomes Sicily, in terms of wages, at the end of the nineteenth century, displaying the divide inside the unification period; see FNV series in figure 1.


The international comparison of Sicily in a south-western European mirror yields further interesting results to frame Sicily in the pre-industrial period; see figure 2. In Seville and Madrid, the two economic cores of Spain in the early modern period, welfare ratios look very similar to the Sicilian one, except for the boom in the late seventeenth century. This comparison suggests an integration that drives the fluctuation. There was a similar timing of the downturn in Spain and Sicily. Still, the downward trend of Sicily stops at a different wage level. Among the main cities of southern Europe, Sicilian urban living standards show high levels, reinforcing how the urban realities of the island were similar to those in the most significant urban centres of the Mediterranean.


Figure 2.   Building labourers’ real wages in South-western Europe with the cheapest cereal basket, 1540-1830

Sources: For Sicily, see the author’s conference paper; for Valencia, Seville, and Madrid, Losa and Zarauz, ‘Spanish subsistence wages’; for Lisbon and Porto, Palma and Reis, ‘Portuguese economic growth’.
Notes: Sicily’s series is constructed by weighting the population of the areas examined. Real wages are smoothed with the Kernel-weighted local polynomial smoothing.


Nevertheless, my research shows how urban wages are subjected to several city-specific fluctuations. For example, in Sicily, the upward trend of urban wages was made by the combination of low demography dynamics and high labour productivity resulting from the spread of Sicilian baroque during the seventeenth century; see figure 3. On the other hand, during the eighteenth century, the population upswing broke the equilibrium defining a downturn in real wages.


Figure 3.   Sicilian building labourers’ real wages and population, 1540-1830

Sources: For wages, see the author’s conference paper; for population, Aymard, ‘Sviluppo demografico’ and Malanima, ‘Italian Urban population’.
Note: The decades for which population data are not available are interpolated.


From the evidence produced, I draw three main conclusions. First, my new evidence presents Sicily as a dynamic pre-industrial economy, especially in urban areas. Second, the downturn of Sicilian wages confirms the thesis of Malanima (2006) of an Italian decline due to a high pace of population growth. Third, this paper addresses, for the first time, the issue of the Italian regional divergence in living standards before 1861. The evidence suggests no divide in living standards before the unification between Sicily and centre-north Italy. Sicily’s high welfare ratios resulted from a geographical advantage: self-sufficiency in basic foodstuffs. These observations call for a deeper understanding of the Italian economic regional pattern, which is currently largely unexplored, on account of pre-unification fragmentation.


Figure 4.   Overview of Palermo during the baroque period

Source: Processione di Santa Rosalia, Palacio de las Duenas, Seville, 1703; artist unknown.



To contact the author:



Allen, R. C., ‘The great divergence in European wages and prices from the Middle Ages to the First World War’, Explorations in Economic History, 38 (2001), pp. 411-47.

Aymard, M., ‘In Sicilia: sviluppo demografico e sue differenziazioni geografiche, 1500-1800’, Quaderni storici (1971), pp. 417-46.

Federico, G., Nuvolari, A., and Vasta, M., ‘The origins of the Italian regional divide: evidence from real wages, 1861-1913’, Journal of Economic History, 79 (2019), pp. 63-98.

Losa, E. L. and Zarauz, S. P., ‘Spanish subsistence wages and the Little Divergence in Europe, 1500-1800’, European Review of Economic History, 25 (2021), pp. 59-84.

Malanima, P., ‘Italian urban population 1300-1861’, Database (2005).

Malanima, P., ‘An age of decline: product and income in eighteenth-nineteenth century Italy’, Rivista di Storia Economica, 22 (2006), pp. 91-134.

Palma, N. and Reis, J., ‘From convergence to divergence: Portuguese economic growth, 1527-1850’, Journal of Economic History, 79 (2019), pp. 477-506.