From ............. THE TROUBLE WITH FRANCE

By - Alain Peyrefitte

CHAPTER 12.b ................ Decadence

pages 103 - 105

Italy: From Vitality to Collapse

Renaissance Italy was a place where art blossomed, but it was also a place of prosperity and vitality. The industrial market economy, genuinely capitalistic, really got under way there. It was in Venice, Genoa, Florence, Milan that the commenda - ancestor of our joint-stock companies appeared in the thirteenth century, to be followed soon afterward by the first compagnie, progenitors of the modern corporation.

By the fifteenth century the powerful Medici firm, with its group of theoretically independent compagnie, was in truth a holding company. In 1455, a Milanese living in Bruges sued the local Medici affiliate for delivering nine defective bales of wool bought from the Medici branch in London. The court advised the plaintiff to bring his suit in London because the two companies were separate. A court today would issue the same decision, notes the American historian R. de Roover, if an American tried to sue Standard Oil of New Jersey for shipment of defective merchandise sold by Standard Oil of New York on the grounds that the Rockefeller family controlled both firms. Like the Rockefellers, the Medicis had learned to spread their risks.

The Italians were not merely bankers and merchants; they were also entrepreneurs, innovators, technical pioneers. When Leonardo da Vinci sought employment at the court of Ludovico' il Moro in 1482, he offered his services as an engineer:

And he added, as though incidentally,

His was not an isolated case. It reflects a system of values shared by a whole people, one that made it a nation of technicians. Statistical tables have been devised of scientific discoveries and technological inventions by century and by country. They show that between the years 800 and 1600, Italy produced 25 to 40 percent of the West's scientific discoveries and technical innovations. Suddenly, beginning in 1600, this spring started to dry up. And since 1726, Italy's contribution has dropped to a mere 2 to 4 percent. Italy would soon appear in history as no more than a mosaic of poor countries, of dozing cities dreaming of their lost glories.

A Cut Flower

Traditional historians blame this sudden decadence on the "great discoveries." The trade routes, they say, deserted the Mediterranean for the Atlantic. But why were Portugal and Spain, which fronted on the Atlantic, prosperous at the same time as Italy, and why did they decline at the same time it did?

Look at a map of the world: Lisbon, La Coruna, Seville and Cadiz are closer to the Americas than London, Rotterdam and Hamburg. Genoa and Naples are nearer to Central and South America, to Africa and Asia, than the big North Sea ports, closer even to North America via the Azores route taken by most sailing ships. And what if the real causes did lie within the people of the Latin countries? We will not try to pinpoint them here. Let's just give ourselves something to chew on. Lombardy, Venice, Tuscany and Liguria had all been amazingly prosperous when they concentrated on trade, crafts, the textiles and weapons industries. That prosperity dwindled along with their societies' taste for such items.

The Italian aristocracy and middle class turned away from production; they squandered their fortunes on Europe's grandest festivals. Art remained, but it was a cut flower: its splendor would dazzle men's eyes for a while yet, but its sap had run dry. The great maritime and trade cities vegetated.

In the south, obscurantists fought science and free will as the devil's works. Italy sank into the past.

Industry nevertheless returned to the Po Valley in the nineteenth century. Italy's recent development has raised it again to an honorable rank in the world. But among the nine Common Market states, it brings up the rear, along with Ireland - showing under an average $3,000 in per capita income in 1975, compared to the leaders' average of over $6,000. It has yet to conjugate democracy and efficiency to become a modern society.

Austria and Poland

The Latin nations were not the only ones to suffer.

In the mid-seventeenth century, Austria glowed with the prestige conferred on it by its victories over the Turks, its imperial title, its struggles against the House of France. Yet, as for the Versailles monarchy, an observer can spy the worm in the apple. The yoke of theocratic order burdened the country. Each social class clung to its rights. The state was strictly hierarchical and innovation discouraged; the bureaucracy tightened its hold. The economy and the society remained archaic. The peasantry, representing 90 percent of the population, labored chiefly to maintain aristocratic courtiers in luxury and to supply the state's revenues. The cities were gradually paralyzed by administrative regulation. What ardor remained was concentrated in Vienna.

In 1866, an Austrian army was crushed by the Prussians. While the victory accelerated development in industrialized, free-trading Prussia, it shattered agricultural, ingrown Austria. Its 1918 defeat, which left Germany's basic strength intact, finally sank the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Poland, too, was amazingly advanced at the end of the fifteenth century. Cracow was the Florence of central Europe; at the Jagellon university, students from all over the Continent heard such illustrious lecturers as Copernicus. A quarter of the male population could read and write. Trade through Gdansk (Danzig) increased steadily. Then, in the early seventeenth century, decay set in. Poland was the only country where the peasant population increased in proportion to the whole. The cities emptied, and the country was systematically refeudalized. Obscurantism and superstition replaced humanism, curiosity, tolerance. At the Brinicki Palace there were two hundred horses but only seventy books. Poland was ripe for dismemberment and dependence.

A Moving Sidewalk

Austria and Poland share a trait with the Latin countries we have examined. Like them, like France, they remained "Catholic and Roman" after the great schism of Christianity in the sixteenth century.

The socio-cultural systems of Reformation and Counter-Reformation countries follow their differences to the logical extremes. Henceforth, the Christian family would have its rich relations and its poor ones. Before the economic revolution, history was geography.

The people - that is, the peasantry - squatted on the land. Their aim was to survive and therefore to encourage as little change as possible. Development converted history into change and, like it or not, countries had to keep pace.

They were like a group walking on a diabolical moving sidewalk that raced in reverse: the immobile were quickly swept backward, those walking slowly lost ground slowly, those striding ahead stayed where they were.

Only the runners advanced a little.

The countries that felt the full impact of the Counter-Reformation seemed unable to run or even to walk.

France could only walk slowly. Why?




From ............. THE TROUBLE WITH FRANCE

By - Alain Peyrefitte

Translator- William R.Byron

USA Publisher - Alfred A.Knopf, Inc., NYC 1981

Canadian Publisher - Random House 1981

French Publisher - Librairie Plon 1976