Concentration of wealth and population dynamics in the early modern period (Ivrea, 15th-17th Centuries)

Guido Alfani, Università Bocconi

Interest in variation in inequality (of income and of wealth) in the past has mainly originated from the hypothesis of Kuznets (1955), according to which a clear pattern between per capita income and inequality can be discerned. Recently it has been suggested, for the case of The Netherlands, the existence of a “Super-Kuznets Curve” spanning many centuries, actually connecting “modern” and “pre-modern” growth which as a whole would be associated with a long-term phase of rising inequality, followed by a downward phase only in the 20th century (Van Zanden 1995). The Netherlands however during Early Modern Age were probably the fastest growing economy of Europe. On the contrary, Italy is commonly thought to start declining since 16th Century. We could thus wonder in which way long-term economic decline influences wealth concentration. The paper presents a first case study, developed in the context of a broader research project financed by Bocconi University, which aims at studying in a comparative perspective concentration and distribution of wealth in Northern Italy since about 1400 up until the beginning of the Industrialization. The case is that of the small city of Ivrea in Northwestern Italy, for which an exceptional documentation survived. I put together a unique database of information about distribution of real estate and other components of wealth spanning 15th-17th Centuries. For 17th Century indexes and measures of concentration were reconstructed on a yearly basis, which allowed me to study in detail the effects on wealth distribution of the terrible epidemic of plague of 1630. Ivrea declines both from the demographic and economic point of view during Early Modern Age, so it is an excellent starting point to develop the issue of the relationship between decline and concentration of wealth in pre-industrial societies.

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Presented in Session 39: Regional Population Dynamics in the History of Europe (15th - 19th Century)