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La produzione industriale delle regioni d’Italia, 1861-1913: una ricostruzione quantitativa

Author(s):Ciccarelli, Carlo
Fenoaltea, Stefano
Reviewer(s):Felice, Emanuele

Published by EH.Net (May 2015)

Carlo Ciccarelli and Stefano Fenoaltea, La produzione industriale delle regioni d’Italia, 1861-1913: una ricostruzione quantitativa. 1. Le industrie non manifatturiere. Roma: Banca d’Italia, 2009. xlviii + 499 pp., BNI: 2010-2273.
and
Carlo Ciccarelli and Stefano Fenoaltea, La produzione industriale delle regioni d’Italia, 1861-1913: una ricostruzione quantitativa, 2. Le industrie estrattivo-manifatturiere. Roma: Banca d’Italia, 2014. v + 677 pp., ISBN: 978-88-6507-676-7.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Emanuele Felice, Department of Economics and Economic History, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.

In the last ten years Carlo Ciccarelli and Stefano Fenoaltea have been carrying out a remarkable research program, with the goal of providing yearly series of the industrial production of Italy’s regions, running from the unification of the country (1861) until the eve of World War I, at a level of sectoral detail and historical accuracy probably unparalleled in the rest of the world. Thus far, this work has given birth to a number of articles in Italian and international journals (the Italian Rivista di Storia Economica, above all, but also Research in Economic History, Historical Social Research, and, as the basis for research articles developing on those series, Cliometrica, the Economic History Review, and Explorations in Economic History) and to two voluminous books published under the auspices of the Bank of Italy which are the subject of this review. The first volume, which appeared in 2009, contains the estimates made by the authors for all the non-manufacturing industries (construction, utilities, extractive industries); the second one, published in 2014, covers the extractive-manufacturing industries (metal making, engineering, nonmetallic mineral products, chemicals and rubber); a third book, including the rest of the manufacturing industries (foodstuffs, tobacco, textiles, clothing, leather, wood, paper and printing, and sundry manufacturing) is on the way.

Apart from a brief but illuminating introduction in the 2009 book, these two volumes — which are also freely downloadable at the Bank of Italy website: https://www.bancaditalia.it/pubblicazioni/altre-pubblicazioni-storiche/produzione-industriale-1861-1913/index.html — are essentially composed of figures (mostly) and of an exhaustive list of sources. They are precious, though, for at least two reasons. First, they constitute a rare example of academic rigor in the burdensome, and at times free-ridden, art of producing historical numbers: as mentioned, these are regional estimates that, in terms of accuracy and sectoral details, to my knowledge are unmatched for any other country. Second, less obviously, because Ciccarelli and Fenoaltea’s figures are charged with great importance not only for our understanding of the economic history of contemporary Italy, but also (maybe more surprisingly, to an international reader) for Italian public debates of our times.

As Alexander Gerschenkron famously put it, the new Italian state, after surviving its first decades as a backward country, lived through “a great industrial transformation”[1] that by the eve of the Great War had turned it into a sort of industrial power — although admittedly of a second-rank kind. It is well-known that the Italian takeoff in those years actually was a regional one, concentrated in the North-West of the country: Ciccarelli and Fenoaltea’s estimates are essential, in this respect, in order to monitor the pace and characteristics of this transformation, and to provide the basic facts upon which different hypotheses, which have been debated by scholars during (at least) the last half a century, can be tested: among these, the roles of protectionist tariffs, investment in human capital, natural resources, and universal banks. In addition, the work by Ciccarelli and Fenoaltea also gives crucial insights into the formation and evolution of the renown Italian North-South divide: their figures suggest that it was mild, although already present, around unification; that in the same period there was a high diversification both within the Mezzogiorno (South and islands) and the Center-North; indirectly, also that the North-South divide, although increasing as expected with the rise of the industrial triangle in the North-West, did so at a slower pace than in the following period (the one going from World War I to World War II).

Of course all the estimates have margins of error and thus they must be taken, as always, cum grano salis. Concerning Ciccarelli and Fenoaltea’s estimates, the potentially most serious problem in my view is that all their figures are at constant prices, as measured in 1911, i.e. at the end of the period. This may have an impact when comparing inter-regional differences half a century earlier, due to the well-known index-number problem (also called “Gerschenkron effect”).[2]  In this respect, there is room for research in the future. For instance, at a detailed level industrial prices for a new benchmark could be produced, if not for 1871, at least for 1891 (thanks to a previous work by Carlo Bardini and Stefano Fenoaltea himself)[3] — that is before the industrial take-off began — and then the 1911-price series could be accordingly rescaled.

Even at this stage, however, and within these caveats, these figures are powerful weapons to step into the arena of what is probably the most lively and widely-felt historical debate in Italy: the one about the regional imbalances — their origins, their evolution, and their causes. This issue has always raised remarkable attention, in both the academy and the wider public opinion, at times also with a strong international echo. It is probably less known to a non-Italian reader that, more recently, the economic history of the Italian regions during the so-called liberal age (1861-1913) has become the field of fierce public contention, with several articles appearing in national and local newspapers and even new-born local political forces trying to establish their identity from those events of the past. Probably as a consequence of the dire and long crisis that the national polity and economy, and thus the national identity, are living through, regionalism has flourished: not only in the North but also, as never before, in the South. And the economic and social conditions of the Italian territories around the time of unification and in the following decades have begun to be discussed even by the layman, as well as by popular pamphlets and through social networks. As expected, this has given rise to a lot of misunderstanding and misinterpretations; and even to a new narrative, grossly false but nonetheless widely popular in the South. One based on the illusory myth that the Southern Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was before unification the third industrial power in the world (!) or, at least, as rich as the Centre-North and fairly well-administrated; and then as a logical consequence, supported by other comptes fantastiques (as the one according to which the harsh military repression in some territories following unification would have caused in the South one million dead, rather than twenty thousand as all the historians hold), that the underdevelopment of the South was a result of unification and intentionally caused by the northern “colonizers,” to their profit. Surprisingly enough, recently this popular narrative has also taken hold in a part (still a minority, apparently) of the Italian academy — often applied economists with poor historical backgrounds.

But then comes the assiduous work by Ciccarelli and Fenoaltea, which in this context can be appreciated in all its rigor and strength. It indicates that, in the years immediately following unification, the industrial production of southern Italy as compared to the rest of the country may actually have improved: if the position of the former Bourbon Kingdom worsened in the extractive-manufacturing industries (from 93% to 87% of the Italian average, in per capita terms), probably as a result of the too rapid extension of the Sabaudian free-trade policy, it strongly increased in the non-manufacturing industry (from 81.5% to 97%); so that, as a whole, southern Italy passed from 83% to 89% of the Italian industrial production average (still in per capita terms). Thus, these data tell us that unification, with its free trade policy beneficial for the extractive sector and its unprecedented activism in construction and utilities, raised industrial output in the South, more than in the rest of the country (where in those years industry was actually rather stagnant). This turns out to be exactly the opposite of what is now becoming conventional wisdom among the (average) educated Southerner. It is results like these that highly scholarly works should strive for.

Notes:

1. “It is obvious that in the decades following its political unification Italy’s economy remained very backward ….  At the same time, it was equally undeniable that by 1914 a great industrial transformation had taken place in Italy,” p. 360 in Alexander Gerschenkron (1955), “Notes on the Rate of Industrial Growth in Italy, 1881–1913,” Journal of Economic History, 15 (4), 360-375.

2. After Alexander Gerschenkron (1947), “The Soviet Indices of Industrial Production,” Review of Economics and Statistics, 29 (4): 217-226.

3. Stefano Fenoaltea and Carlo Bardini (2000), “Il valore aggiunto dell’industria”, in G.M. Rey, editor, I conti economici dell’Italia, III: Una stima del valore aggiunto per gli anni 1891, 1938, 1951. Roma-Bari: Laterza, 115-238.

Emanuele Felice (ClaudioEmanuele.Felice@uab.cat) is Visiting Professor, Department of Economics and Economic History, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. He has published extensively on Italy’s long-run economic growth and regional divide (in Cliometrica, Economic History Review, European Review of Economic History, Explorations in Economic History, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Journal of Modern Italian Studies, and other journals) and is the author of “GDP and Convergence in Modern Times,” in C. Diebolt and M. Haupert, editors, Handbook of Cliometrics (Springer, forthcoming).   Among his books are Perché il Sud è rimasto indietro (il Mulino, 2013) and Ascesa e declino. Storia economica d’Italia (il Mulino, 2015).

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Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII