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The great fossil cycle and the story of a family.

General Ideas


My great-great grandfather, Ferdinando Bardi (1822-?). The story of the branch of the Bardi family to which I belong is unextricably linked to the great world cycle of the fossil fuels.

There was a time, long ago, when the Bardi’s of Florence were both rich and noble. But that branch of the family disappeared with the end of the Renaissance and, for what I can say, my more recent ancestors were extremely poor during the early 19th century. But their life, just as the life of everyone in Italy and in the rest of the world, was to change with the great fossil revolution that had started in England in the 18th century and whose consequences were to spill over to Italy in the centuries that followed.

My great-greeat grandfather Ferdinando (born in 1822) lived in an age when coal was just starting to become common and when people would still use whale oil to light up their homes. He was a soldier in the infantry of the Grand-Duke of Tuscany and then of the King of Italy, when Tuscany merged into the newly formed Kingdom of Italy, in 1861. The family lore says that Ferdinando fought with Garibaldi in Southern Italy, but there is no trace of him in the records as a volunteer of Garibaldi’s army. He may have fought there with the regular army, though. In his portrait, we can see the medals that he gained. Today, I still have the ribbons, the medals were lost during the 2nd world war when they were given to “the country” to support the war effort.

Despite the medals, however, there is little doubt that Ferdinando was poor; his condition is described as “dire poverty” in some documents we still have. But things were changing and the conditions of the Bardi family would change, too. The coal revolution had made Northern Europe rich. England had built a World Empire using coal. France had its revolution and Napoleon, and the industrial age had started. Of course, Italy had no significant coal resources but, already in those times, coal started being imported from England and that changed many things. Tuscany was slowly building up a certain degree of prosperity based on a rapidly developing industry and on a flow of tourism from Northern Europe that, already at that time, had made of Florence a favorite destination.

That had consequences on the life of Florentines. Antonio Bardi (1862 – 1924), Ferdinando’s son and my great-grandfather, seems to have started his life as a street urchin in Florence. But that changed when he was befriended by a “gentleman in the service of the Emperor of Brazil.” It may have happened in 1877 and some of the newspapers of that time report the story of how this gentleman, whose name was “Pedro Americo,” paid for the studies of this boy in whom he had somehow noticed a special artistic talent. The papers of that time don’t seem to have considered the implications (obvious for us, today) involved in the story of a rich gentleman befriending a poor boy, but those were different times. In any case, Antonio started a career as a painter.

That such a career was possible for Antonio was due to tourism becoming more and more common in Florence. Tourism had not just brought there the Emperor of Brazil, but a continuous flow of foreign tourists interested in ancient paintings and works of art. Color photography didn’t exist at that time and this led to a brisk market of hand-made reproduction of ancient masterpieces. These reproductions were especially prized if they were made by Florentine artists, in some ways supposed to maintain the genetic inprint of their ancestors who had created the originals. So, the main art galleries of Florence would allow local artists to set up their easels in their rooms and they would later provide them works with a stamp on their canvases guaranteeing that it was “painted from the original”. It seems to have been a rather diffuse occupation and, already at that time, Florentines were adapting to the opportunities that the world changes were offering to them.

Some of the paintings of Antonio Bardi are still kept by his descendants and, for what I can say, he seems to have been a skilled painter with a special ability with portraits. But he never was very successful in this career;in his later life he moved to a job as a guardsman. Still, he had escaped the poverty that had affected his ancestors. Many other Florentines of that time were doing the same, although in different ways. From our viewpoint, Tuscany in the 19th century was a desperately poor place, but its economy was rapidly growing and that opened up opportunities that had never existed before.

My grandfather, Raffaello Bardi, was born in 1888. His instruction was limited to elementary school; but he could read and write and he never seems to have been really poor. He may have attended a professional school and, when he was drafted in the army, he was assigned to the soldiers’ uniforms. He had a hard time with the defeat of the Italian Army at Caporetto, in 1917, but he managed to get back home all in one piece. There, he married a seamstress, my grandmother Rita.

The Italian economy in the 20th century had gone through a rapid growth. The coal age was waning and the oil age was coming. Many Italian regions were playing the role that today is played by Eastern European countries or South-Asian ones. They were being colonized by North European companies as sources of cheap labor.  Tuscany had a well developed hydroelectric energy system and could offer a skilled workforce. Swiss, German, and British companies were flocking there to establish profitable branches for their businesses.

Tuscany had been renown for a long time for its straw hats, a technology that had been developed there already in the 18th century. During the early 20th century, this activity developed rapidly with the help of foreign capital. My grandfather Raffaello found a job with a Swiss company that manufactured hats in Tuscany and then exported them all over the world. He worked there until he retired in the 1960s.

Raffaello was only a modest employee in a company but he could afford a lifestyle that his ancestors couldn’t even have dreamed of. In 1922, he bought a nice home in the suburbs for his family; very much in the style of the “American Dream” (although without a car in the garage). It had a garden, three bedrooms, a modern bathroom, and it could comfortably lodge my grandparents, their four children, and the additional son they had adopted: a nephew who had been orphaned when his parents had died because of the Spanish flu, in 1919.  Raffaello could also afford to take his family in vacation to the seaside for about one month every summer. He also could send his sons to college, although not his daughters; women were still not supposed to study in those times.

There came the Fascist government, the great crash of 1929, and the 2nd world war. Hard times for everyone but this branch of the Bardi family suffered no casualties nor great disasters. Raffaello’s home also survived the allied bombing raids, even though a few steel splinters hit the outer walls. With the end of the war, the Italian economy experienced a period of growth so rapid that it was termed the “economic miracle”. It was no miracle but the consequence of crude oil being cheap and easily available. The Italian industry boomed, and with it tourism.

After the war, the activity of manufacturing of straw hats in Italy declined, being taken over nearly completely by Chinese firms. Still, there was a brisk business in importing Chinese-made hats in Florence, adding to them some hand-made decoration, and selling the result as “Florentine hats.” The Swiss company in which my grandfather had worked closed down in the 1970s, but my aunt, Renza, continued to manage a cottage industry of hat making. My other aunt, Anna, tried to follow the footprints of her grandfather, Antonio, and to work as a painter, but she was not very successful. Tourism was booming, but people were not anymore interested in hand-made reproductions of ancient masterpieces.

For my father, Giuliano, and my uncle, Antonio, both graduated in architecture, the booming Italian economy offered good opportunities. The period from the 1950s to the early 1970s was probably the richest period enjoyed by Italy in modern times. All my relatives of that generation were rather well-off as employees or professionals. They mostly worked on the breadwinner/housewife model, but even a single salary was sufficient for a comfortable life for the family (my mother was an exception, she worked as a teacher). Most of them could afford to own their homes and in most cases a vacation home in the mountains or on the seaside. Also here, my family was somewhat an exception, with my father preferring to build a large cottage in the countryside that served as the main residence but also had the character of a vacation home. They also owned at least one car, often two when their wives learned how to drive. On the average, the education level had progressed: even the women often attended college. Few of the people of that generation could speak any language but Italian and very few had traveled outside Italy, even though some of my uncles had fought in North Africa.

Then, there came the crisis of the 1970s. In Italy, it was normally defined as the “congiuntura economica” a term that indicated that it was just something temporary, a hiccup that was soon to be forgotten as growth were to restart. It never did. It was the start of the great oil crisis that had started with the peaking of the US oil production. The consequences were reverberating all over the world. It was in this condition that my generation came of age.

Our generation was perhaps the most well-educated one in the history of Italy. Many of us had acceeded to high university education; we traveled abroad, we all studied English, even though we were not necessarily proficient in it. But, when we tried to sell our skills in the labor market, it was a tough time. We were clearly over-skilled for the kind of jobs that were available and many of us had to use again the strategy of our ancestors of old, emigrating toward foreign countries. It was the start of what we call today the “brain drain”.

I did that, emigrating for a while to the US. I could have stayed there, but I found a decent position with the University of Florence and I came back. Maybe I did well, maybe not, it is hard to say. But it is what I did. Some people of my age followed the same path. Some moved to foreign countries and stayed there, others came back to Italy. They worked as employees, they set up their own companies, they opened up shops, they tried what they could with various degrees of success. One thing was sure: our life was way more difficult than it had been for our fathers and grandfathers. We were not so poor as our ancestors had been in the early 19th century, but supporting a family on a single salary was nearly unthinkable and none of us could have afforded to own a home, hadn’t we inherited the homes of our parents. Fortunately, families were now much smaller and we didn’t have to divide these properties among too many heirs.

There came the end of the 20th century and of the 2nd millennium as well. Another generation came of age and they faced difficult times again. My son followed my example, moving to a foreign country to work; maybe he’ll came back as I did, maybe not. It will have to be seen. The oil crisis faded, then returned. The global peak of oil production (“peak oil”) was closer and closer. The Italian economy went up and down but, on the average, down. It was a system that could grow only with low oil prices and the period of high prices that started in the early 2000s was a hard blow for Italy, causing the start of a de-industrialization trend that’s still ongoing.

Only agriculture and tourism are still doing well in Italy. That’s especially true for Florence, a town that went through a long term cycle that transformed it from sleepy provincial town into a sort of giant food court. Tourists are still flocking to Florence, in ever-increasing numbers. They don’t seem to be so much interested in art anymore, but rather in food. It is for this reason that, today, almost everyone I know who is under 30 is working in restaurants, bars, or hotels, the main economic opportunities available to them.

People in Italy keep adapting to changing times as they have always done, everywhere in the world. It is hard to say what the future will bring to us, but one thing is certain: the great cycle of the fossil fuels is waning. The hard times are coming back.

Cassandra’s legacy by Ugo Bardi

7 Comments on "The great fossil cycle and the story of a family."

  1. penury on Sun, 26th Mar 2017 12:23 pm 

    Interesting family history, concisely illustrating a history of the U.S. and Europe at the same time. But the important point to take away to me is ‘The hard times are coming back.”

  2. BobInget on Sun, 26th Mar 2017 12:54 pm 

    The truth remains; ‘Hard Times’ are already here .
    Forget disgruntled, low information, Trump Voters..

    Remember, 27 Million displace war, climate and political refugees.

  3. Lucifer on Sun, 26th Mar 2017 12:56 pm 

    “The hard times are coming back” That is a bit of an understatement.

  4. Keith McClary on Sun, 26th Mar 2017 12:57 pm 

    This link might work better:

  5. Lucifer on Sun, 26th Mar 2017 1:06 pm 

    Bob, the hard times are not here yet, especially for the developed nations. Wait a few more years and you and everybody else will know the true meaning of hard times.

  6. Apneaman on Sun, 26th Mar 2017 7:49 pm 

    “It is hard to say what the future will bring to us..”

    No Ugo, it’s not. Not if one understands some planetary physics, biologly and the history of life on this planet.

    Here’s another story about families and human bullshitting (self & others).

    Essay: I’m worried having a baby will make climate change worse

    “Oldspeak: You know how I can be fairly certain we’re proper fucked? Because, people are at this last stage in the show, still having this conversation. And this is no average joe having this conversation either, it’s a climate scientist!!! Who presumably knows that having a child ultimately adds about well over 10 thousand tons of carbon dioxide to the carbon legacy of an average parent – about 5.7 times the lifetime emissions for which, on average, a person is responsible. And she is having a child anyway. Not only that, but presumes, fueled by hopium no doubt, that the child will some how, “fix the problems set in motion by its parents and grandparents.” 0_O As if this is even fucking possible at this point. As if having a baby that will live out its natural life is likely to happen. As if this, Earth’s 6th mass extinction, is fixable on human time scales. Oye. I need a shot of what she’s having. “

    Essay: I’m worried having a baby will make climate change worse

    No matter how fucked up it gets or how many are dying or how obvious it is that time is up for the planet of the apes (just renting) the humans will keep trying to rationalise their “choice” to reproduce, which is not really a choice given the drive to reproduce is as old as life itself and the humans ability to rationalise anything and everything is about 100,000 years old. All life will attempt to reproduce no matter what, but only the humans need rationalise it – cause deep down they know, but lose out to a much older and more powerful evolutionary force – fucking. That’s what it’s all about when you knock off the sugar coating.

  7. Sissyfuss on Sun, 26th Mar 2017 11:56 pm 

    Louis Cypher, will we still be able to barbecue when you’re in charge of the world?

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