You probably know the story of the man who invented the game of chess. It is said that he presented the game to the king and that he asked in exchange a grain of rice on the first square of the board, two on the second, four on the third and so on, for all the 64 squares. The story says that the king agreed to the deal, only to find out, later on, that the amount of rice he was supposed to provide was gigantic, larger than the amount existing in the whole world.
The story doesn’t say what happened at that point, but we may suppose that the king was not happy and that the inventor of the game received a reward much different than what he had asked for. So, we learn that growth is a trap and that doesn’t apply just to grains of rice on a chessboard. It is always difficult to understand the consequences of exponential growth and everyone can fall in the trap; even whole civilizations. Today, we are still trying to go after the mythical "growth" that many think will magically solve all problems. Yet, many of us have this terrible feeling that it will be all useless and not just that. The feeling is that economic growth is taking us straight into the abyss.
So, is there a way to get free? We don’t know what our destiny will be, but there have been examples of civilizations who managed a long term equilibrium. One is Japan of Edo times, another one is Tuscany after the Renaissance. There was a fateful moment in Tuscan history when people understood that the solution to the terrible times they were experiencing was not growth but adaptation. It came gradually, but we can identify the turning point with the rule of Grand Duke Ferdinando 1st, who put Tuscany on a path that in a personal interpretation of mine I can describe as, "plant trees, disband the army and work together". A path that led to a few centuries of peace (or at least without major wars) and to a moderate prosperity.
Tuscany: escaping the growth trap
Tuscany is a region of central Italy stuck between the mountains and the Mediterranean Sea. It is a land of gentle hills and plains; of grain fields and of cypress trees, of country homes and of walled cities. It has been like that from the time of the Etruscans, the first dwellers of the area and from whom the old name of Tuscia comes.
Even though small and relatively isolated, Tuscany came to play an important role in the world’s history with the Renaissance; an age of poets, painters, sculptors, bankers, and explorers. For a while, the main city of Tuscany, Florence, was the center of the Western World; the place of the financial power, the center of commerce, the place where artists, literates, and professionals would go to learn their trade.
But the golden age of the Renaissance didn’t last for long. Its peak times were maybe one or two centuries long. Then, with the 16th century, decline started. Plagues, famines, economic crisis, military invasions, gradually led Tuscany to become one of the poorest countries of Europe. Yet, population never collapsed and something survived of the old spirit of freedom and intellectual independence. In the early 17th century, Tuscany became a refuge for the Jews fleeing from persecution in Spain. Tuscany kept her universities and academies and, in 1786, it was the first European state to officially abolish torture and the death penalty. So, the Tuscan collapse was not total – it was managed; it was "soft" and not so disastrous as it could have been. How was it done? It is a long story that deserves to be told.
Growth and collapse in Tuscany
Emerging out of the terrible times of the Great Plague, in 14th century, Tuscany’s agriculture was able to create the resources needed to restart population growth and to embark in that age of economic growth and of great artistic accomplishments that we call "Renaissance." But nothing can grow forever: a growing population meant that more and more land was needed to feed it, and that could be obtained only by clearing forests. That, in turn opened the way to erosion. And erosion destroys the fertile soil that supports agriculture.
Still today, you can see how bad the erosion problem was during those times by looking at the city of Pisa. Today, it is an inland city but, during the Middle Ages, it had been a thriving harbor. It is reported that, already in the 15th century, Pisa’s harbor had been silting because of sediments carried by the Arno River. In the 17th century, silting became so serious that the harbor had to be abandoned. The sediments that destroyed the harbor of Pisa were the rich soil that had once supported Tuscan agriculture and, with it, the Tuscan population.
With the decline of agriculture, the Tuscan economic system started imploding; commerce and industry could not survive without food. Famines became common. The proud citizens of Florence, the city that had been called the “New Athens," started going hungry. According to a chronicler, in 1590 Florentines were reduced to eat a kind of bread that “in older times would have been given to dogs, and perhaps dogs would have refused it."
The Tuscan cities declined also in terms of military strength and the once free cities of Tuscany fell one by one to foreign invaders. The republic of Florence fell to the Spanish Imperial Armies in 1530. The republic of Siena fell to the combined armies of Spain and of the Florentine Medici in 1555. Afterwards, Tuscany became a province of the Spanish Empire, although still maintaining some degree of independence.
Plant trees, disband the army, work together
From the beginning, the Grand Dukes who ruled first Florence and then the whole Tuscany were turning their attention inward, to the management of the Tuscan territory. Already in 1559, at the time of Cosimo 1st of the Medici family, Tuscany had started a policy of protection of agriculture with a severe law that forbade cutting trees in the Appennino mountains, even on pain of death! That policy was continued by later rulers and Grand-Duke Ferdinando 1st was probably the turning point in abandoning all dreams of growth and expansion.
Ferdinando ruled Tuscany from 1587 until his death in 1609. He was fond of saying that he ruled not by force but by "dignity only"; as his motto in Latin said: "maiestate tantum." He did a lot for agriculture, among other things enacting laws that reduced the tax burden on farmers. He went some steps further and he spoke of Tuscans as “worker bees" (“api operose") meaning that they had to work hard all together. Here is the symbol of the working bees in a bronze plate on Ferdinando’s monument in Florence.
Some warlike spirit remained in Tuscany during Ferdinando’s rule and that led to skirmishes with the Turkish Empire. But, on the whole, this age was the start of a period of careful management of the territory, of reducing military expenses, of seeking for social harmony and justice. We could define this policy as "plant trees, disband the army, work together", even though Ferdinando himself never used these terms.
The Dukes who followed Ferdinando 1st, continued this policy. Agriculture remained a focus of the policy of the government. The laws protecting trees were maintained and expanded and, in 1753, Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo created the “Georgofili" academy with the specific task of promoting agriculture. The academy still exists today and its motto is “For the sake of public prosperity."
The Tuscan government also progressively reduced military expenses. The navy had basically ceased to exist with the first years of the 18th century and the army created by the Medici family was progressively reduced in strength until it was formally disbanded in 1753 by Grand Duke Francesco Stefano. New kinds of armies were created in later times but, basically, Tuscany just couldn’t afford war. Often, her borders had to be opened to invaders; it caused less harm than fighting them. Tuscany underwent a good number of invasions but, on the whole, these wars never brought great destruction. After the fall of Siena, in 1555, Tuscany didn’t see one of her cities besieged and bombarded until 1944, almost four centuries later.
It took time but, eventually, these policies had their effects on reducing the severity of the decline and of bringing Tuscany back from collapse. From the 18th century onward, agriculture managed a comeback. Famines didn’t disappear but could be contained while commerce and industry restarted with a new network of riverways and roads.
Not everything was perfect during this period. One problem was that Tuscany never really succeeded in stabilizing population, which slowly grew from less than half a million in 15th century to more than a million in 18th century. As a consequence, there remained a strong pressure to find new land for agriculture. So, the rules that protected trees were relaxed more than once. It is reported that, in 1780, a group of woodcutters fell on their knees in front of Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo, pleading hunger. This resulted in a decree liberalizing tree cutting. But the mountains were reforested and the policies of protecting agriculture maintained.
With the 19th century, Tuscany merged with the newly created Italian state and the industrial revolution generated a new phase of rapid population growth and economic expansion. Nevertheless, today Tuscany remains one of the most forested regions of Italy, a legacy of the policy of the old Grand-Dukes.
But times have changed and the latest wave of building frenzy seems to be transforming some of the once fertile areas of Tuscany into areas that look like suburbs of Los Angeles. With a population four times larger than it was at the time of the famines and with climate change and the oil crisis looming, Tuscany is facing difficult times. But we have a tradition of caring for the land that has helped us in the past. It will help us also in the uncertain future.
Can Tuscany be seen as a model of “soft collapse" for other regions of the world? Perhaps; at least it gives us a recipe that worked from the time of Grand Dukes: "plant trees, disband the army, work together. It is not exactly what we are doing right now, but we may learn.
This is a revised version of a post published in 2006 on the blog "Transition Culture." It was one my first posts in English and, some years later, I think it is appropriate to repost it on "Cassandra’s legacy" with some modifications and corrections. I am grateful to Susan Kucera for leading me to return to this subject and for suggesting to me the analogy with the "grains on the chessboard" story.
Most of the data that I report about Tuscan agriculture in ancient times come from the book "ALPI" by Matteo Biffi Tolomei published for the first time in the early 1800s and re-published in 2004 with a post-faction by Fabio Clauser. (Libreria Editrice Fiorentina)
Data on the history of the Tuscan army at the time of the Grand Dukes are also not so easy to find, but a description can be found in "Corpi armati e ordine pubblico in Italia (XVI-XIX sec.)": Seminario di studi, Castello Visconti di San Vito, Somma Lombardo, 10-11 novembre 2000 Livio Antonielli, Claudio Donati Rubbettino Editore, 2003. For a history of the Tuscan Navy, see the relative article in Wikipedia.
Data on the population of Tuscany from Middle Ages to present times can be found in the paper (in Italian) by Marco Breschi and Paolo Malanima, "Demografia e Economia in Toscana"
A list of famines in Tuscany up to 1736 can be found in this document, by the Georgofili Academy. There aren’t many data available about the famine of 1898-99 that affected all Italy and that was, probably, the last recorded famine in the country. A description can be found in this document (in Italian)
The site of the Georgo fili academy.