Famine in Southern Italy Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the mid-1760’s, food shortages, intensified by insufficient harvests, feudalistic practices, and flawed food distribution systems, resulted in famine conditions, which prompted rural populations to migrate to urban areas. Because charities and governments failed to provide sufficient relief, some famine victims rioted. Several hundred thousand people died either from starvation or from diseases exacerbated by unsanitary conditions.

Summary of Event

In 1759, the southern Italian peninsula experienced low food supplies but survived due to aid from Sicily and the Middle East. Many people living in Naples, Tuscany, and the Papal States began experiencing famine several years later, when poor harvests resulted in demand overwhelming supplies, and food storage centers (annona) inefficiently gathered and distributed foodstuffs. [kw]Famine in Southern Italy (1763-1767) [kw]Italy, Famine in Southern (1763-1767) [kw]Southern Italy, Famine in (1763-1767) Famine;Italy [g]Italy;1763-1767: Famine in Southern Italy[1670] [c]Natural disasters;1763-1767: Famine in Southern Italy[1670] [c]Agriculture;1763-1767: Famine in Southern Italy[1670] [c]Environment;1763-1767: Famine in Southern Italy[1670] [c]Economics;1763-1767: Famine in Southern Italy[1670] Tanucci, Bernardo Ferdinand IV Hamilton, William Genovesi, Antonio Beccaria, Cesare Verri, Pietro Verri, Alessandro

Agricultural conditions and methods in the southern Italian kingdoms and principalities were inferior to and differed from northern practices. Much of the south practiced feudalism: Feudalism;Italy The elites—the nobility and ecclesiastical leaders—owned the majority of land, which peasants farmed. That system discouraged the use of improved implements and varied plants, which could have increased yields and replenished exhausted fields. For the most part, southern landowners, both secular and religious, were apathetic about bettering farming techniques, a course many agriculturists in Europe and northern Italy were pursuing. Wealthy landowners often lived in cities and rarely involved themselves in agricultural matters. Foreign demands controlled much of the southern Italian agricultural trade: Peasants were forced to grow olives, grapes, and inedible fiber crops, rather than grain, to sell to international markets and manufacturers in exchange for luxury goods not available in southern Italy.

Extreme winter and spring weather over a period of several years proved detrimental to most harvests in the mid-1760’s. Prices rose drastically, and many people could not afford to buy such basic nutritional items as bread. By 1763, southern Italy was experiencing a famine. The famine most severely impacted already impoverished people. The wealthy could purchase available food.

Ferdinand IV, the third son of Spain’s Charles III, had become king of Naples in 1759, at the age of eight. The government was effectively in the control of Ferdinand’s regent, Bernardo Tanucci, who had previously dealt with food shortages by seeking external aid and relying on long-established internal charities. Tanucci stated in April, 1764, that European governments lacked sufficient food reserves to feed hungry Neapolitans, noting that a weak economy had strained all of Europe. Piedmont sent some emergency aid but not enough to sustain the entire kingdom. Few Mediterranean relief shipments arrived at Naples’s port.

The famine in the Kingdom of Naples was especially severe in Campania and Capitanata provinces. Because the city of Naples historically had distributed food through its annona and charities, many rural people swarmed that city seeking relief. The government failed to provide sufficient food, however, and most charities were unable to respond adequately to people’s needs. Selfish behavior worsened relief work. The wealthy and powerful felt entitled to receive aid first and hoarded food. Some local annona administrators corruptly mismanaged their supplies. In contrast, St. Paul of the Cross asked monks to give half their rations to hungry people.

Although some famine victims responded to the food shortages with open aggression, few people rioted in Naples. Most people believed God had caused the famine to punish sinners. They did not perceive the government and charitable institutions as being responsible for causing, intensifying, or prolonging the famine. Despite relatively peaceful conditions in Naples, however, agitated people did revolt in other cities, including Crotone, Altamura, and Rossone. In some rural communities, lawlessness prevailed, and villagers assaulted their feudal lords, occasionally destroying castles.

People from the state around Rome began migrating into that city in 1764, seeking nourishment and assistance. The Roman troops managed the resulting crowds, preventing irate mobs from engaging in hostilities. Gathering relief food supplies in centralized locations, the Roman annona and Florentine abbondanza provided victims with more consistent sources of foodstuffs and financial aid than their counterparts in Naples. French relief arrived by ship at the ports of Livorno and Civitavecchia.

In December, 1764, English ambassador William Hamilton commented that the bitter winter weather was contributing to the suffering of famine victims. He saw approximately two thousand patients, wearing threadbare clothing, squeezed into an overwhelmed Naples hospital. Hamilton watched starving people begging because charities’ bread supplies were depleted. Epidemics, including typhus, struck large populations. Disease spread as people migrated from rural to urban areas. Poor nutrition and vitamin and protein deficiencies weakened immune systems. Deprived of grain, some people ate weeds. Famine victims obtained limited food dispersed at festivals, including the 1764 carnevale at Naples.

The southern Italian famine lasted through 1767 in some places and accounted for at least 300,000 deaths due to starvation or disease. Children and the elderly represented many of the losses. The Kingdom of Naples suffered the most. Casualties in the city of Naples alone totaled 40,000 people, and the kingdom lost an estimated 200,000 people. Rome, the Papal States, and Tuscany suffered fewer losses. Reduced production and loss of agricultural laborers during the famine years further devastated southern Italy’s economy. European nations sought alternative trading partners. Urban-rural conflicts divided much of the population and slowed efforts to restore the countryside. The famine upset social order and revealed deficiencies in government, altruistic organizations, and agricultural practices.


Some intellectuals had demanded governmental and social reforms prior to the famine. The catastrophe intensified reform efforts, because people realized the shortcomings of social institutions, both governmental and charitable, to relieve misery and their inability to deal adequately with famine conditions. Landowning nobles opposed reforms, and most government officials were unwilling to admit the extent to which their policies benefiting the privileged had enabled the famine to happen. Influenced by Enlightenment ideas, intellectuals, especially Antonio Genovesi and Cesare Beccaria, debated how to revise southern Italian policies, counter traditions that stagnated southern Italian provinces, and encourage different ways to perceive social concerns.

Pietro and Alessandro Verri published Il Café during the famine years, urging elites to reform agriculture and commerce. Publications targeting landowners explained how to achieve better agriculture by managing land, draining excess water, terracing slopes, and utilizing technology. Low literacy rates prevented many peasants from benefiting from such advice. Reformers targeted guilds for hindering agricultural trade. They also criticized charities, confraternities, and clerics who blocked land reforms and refused to act philanthropically to the poor. Although most reforms were unfulfilled, some annone and local schools and organizations improved.

The famine initiated discussion of free trade of food, especially grain. Governments controlled grain distribution, and laws forbade free trade. Although Italian leaders in the north accepted free trade, officials in Tuscany delayed permitting free trade until 1775, and leaders in Naples retained tariffs and controls to protect trade until the 1780’s, when some restrictions were ended. Seeking to alter unproductive landholding practices, reform-minded officials criticized feudalism and promoted land ownership among by commoners. Twenty years after the famine, the government of Naples secured jurisdiction over numerous rural villages. The famine contributed to Neapolitans’ distrust of their leaders. In 1799, when France conquered the kingdom and instituted the short-lived Parthenopean Republic in its place, many peasants supported the new republic against Ferdinand.

The famine was a catalyst for some reform attempts and challenging the governmental and societal status quo, but most governments were uninterested in immediately improving land and charity policies. Italian reform efforts during the famine influenced reformers in other countries, contributing to the increased scrutiny of feudalism in Scotland and elsewhere. After the famine, some agriculturists individually initiated reforms, seeking fertile land at previously ignored higher altitudes to plant corn and other edible crops. Official reforms did not occur until later in the century. Gradually, in famine-stricken areas, leaders approved land reforms, including some field enclosures, encouragement of crop rotation, and limitations on the feudal system. Agricultural changes and political reforms spared southern Italy the subsequent severe food shortages that affected Europe, particularly the 1840’s Irish famine that killed one million people.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Black, Christopher F. Early Modern Italy: A Social History. New York: Routledge, 2001. Based on primary Italian sources, this history includes contemporary details about the southern Italian famine and how it affected political and socioeconomic policies and attitudes regarding agriculture, land ownership, and food distribution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dyson, Tim, and Cormac Ó Gráda, eds. Famine Demography: Perspectives from the Past and Present. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Scholars present case studies of specific historical and modern famines, explaining common nutritional and health factors that affect victims and how starvation alters socioeconomic patterns.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Imbruglia, Girolamo, ed. Naples in the Eighteenth Century: The Birth and Death of a Nation State. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. This anthology discusses causes and results of the 1760’s famine in several essays, analyzing obstacles reformers encountered.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Newman, Lucile F., ed. Hunger in History: Food Shortage, Poverty, and Deprivation. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1990. Participants in Brown University’s World Hunger Program examine various reasons why famines occur and persist and their impact on communities, with a chapter focusing on eighteenth century European populations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sereni, Emilio. History of the Italian Agricultural Landscape. Translated with an introduction by R. Burr Litchfield. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997. An overview of how people practiced agriculture in various regions of Italy and why methods and production goals differed.

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Categories: History