Published by EH.Net (October 2014)

Guido Alfani, Calamities and the Economy in Renaissance Italy: The Grand Tour of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  Translated by Christine Calvert.  New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013.  xii + 257 pp. $110 (hardcover). ISBN: 978-1-137-28976-6.

Reviewed for EH.Net by William Caferro, Department of History, Vanderbilt University.

The economic history of sixteenth century Italy has not received its scholarly due. Guido Alfani seeks in his new book to ameliorate the unfortunate historiographical status quo through careful examination of the “calamities” of the era. He situates his study in terms of two conflicting interpretations: that of Carlo M. Cipolla, who emphasized the catastrophic effects of the Italian Wars on the peninsula, and Fernand Braudel, who stressed the resiliency of Italy and new economic opportunities presented by crisis. Alfani debates the merits of the two famous theses. He ultimately stresses the primacy of population and demographic trends, for which he has constructed a considerable database.

The author’s approach is laudably broad and integrated. He examines in turn each “calamity,” giving, as his subtitle suggests, “a grand tour” of the “apocalyptic horseman” of the era. Alfani’s celestial cavalry consists of war, famine and plague. Alfani devotes separate chapters to each (chapters one to three), carefully assessing their effects on Italy. Although he deals with them individually, Alfani emphasizes the fact that they did not occur in isolation and can only be properly understood in terms of each other. The statement corresponds to recent scholarship on the fourteenth century and is a welcome corrective to the largely rhetorical stances of Cipolla and Braudel, which have remained unchallenged owing only to a lack of research. Alfani follows his discussion of the horsemen with an assessment of “winners and losers” (chapter four) on the peninsula. The chapter emphasizes the redistributive effects of the calamities: how some regions and cities emerged in good shape, while others were more badly damaged. Alfani ends with a final chapter devoted to population trends, in which he deploys his archival material to reassess prevailing views as well as his own earlier arguments. A brief conclusion restates his main points and looks out briefly on the seventeenth century.

The strength of the book is the author’s overall assessment of the various crises that struck Italy and his treatment of the peninsula as a whole. This is no small feat given the regional nature of studies of pre-modern Italy, which tend to focus on a single city or state. Unlike other works, Alfani carefully distinguishes between rural and urban areas, the mountains and the low lying places and the north and the south. The distinctions are critical to understanding the overall economic circumstance of Italy. Alfani adds an interesting micro study of the town of Nonantola, an “average” sized community a few kilometers from Modena. He uses it as a case study for both the devastating effects of population loss and the ability of towns to recover rapidly.

Alfani’s well-considered assertions are largely speculative in nature. They are aimed at making scholars think more about their imbedded assumptions. A basic problem with the book, however, is following its argument. The volume is a translation from Italian and it does not appear that the translator has done justice to the work. The writing is imprecise, redundant and, indeed, often hard to understand. There are sentences (e.g., “The health authorities of the Peninsula in the seventeenth century reached levels of absolute excellence…” p. 175), which fall flat to the ears of English speakers. Words like “plague,” “war,” “republic,” “empire” and “peninsula” are curiously capitalized. Chapter one, on war, restates the theses of the current scholarship on the fourteenth century, without attribution of those scholars, whose work Alfani neglects to cite. In so doing, the author unwittingly proves the wide gap separating those who study the sixteenth century from their earlier counterparts — a gap that Alfani specifically seeks to bridge with his book.

Nevertheless, the chapters on famine (chapter two) and plague (chapter three) offer the reader a great deal to think about. It is in the chapter on famine that Alfani first integrates into his analysis his data on population, culled primarily, though not exclusively, from baptismal records. He provides new statistical evidence of the effects of famine on population. He shows, among other things, that it struck forcefully in the plains, in the Po valley, but largely spared mountainous regions such as the Apennines. The discrepancy touched off migratory patterns, which Alfani explores at some length. These patterns are further explored in the next chapter on plague, which contains the most rigorous treatment of the overall historiography.

The fourth chapter stresses the redistributive effects of the sixteenth century crises against what Alfani sees as the tendency of scholars to focus only on their “destructive” nature (p. 135). Here Alfani takes Cipolla to task for his narrow view. He steers clear, however, from overall conclusions. These are stated more directly in the fifth chapter, which looks closely at population trends. Alfani here stresses the role of population in measuring the state of the Italian economy. In the process, he pointedly downplays the actions of “economic actors” and institutions, which Cipolla had accused of failing to respond adequately to the crises.

The chapters contain many wonderful details, innovative juxtapositions and comparisons. Alfani is particularly sensitive to regional differences and the paradoxes that sometimes existed therein. The Milanese were leaders in “modern” agriculture technique, but their northern counterparts in the Canavese region remained archaic in their practice (p. 155). For all his critique of Cipolla and Braudel, Alfani ultimately finds elements of truth in the conflicting interpretations. His book is really a call for a new more nuanced methodology for study of sixteenth century Italy that places demography at its center.

William Caferro is author of “Warfare and Economy in Renaissance Italy, 1350-1450,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History (2008)

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