Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

When the Mountain Serves the City: The Production of Cheese and Wool in Eighteenth-Century Bresciano (Italian Alps)

Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

When the Mountain Serves the City: The Production of Cheese and Wool in Eighteenth-Century Bresciano (Italian Alps)

Article excerpt


This article analyses the livestock holdings in the Alps, with a particular focus on the relationship between the city of Brescia and the neighbouring alpine valleys. Two economic activities are studied in more depth: cattle breeding for the production of cheese and sheep farming for the production of wool. In the first case, we observe that the cheese dealers of Brescia managed the production and marketed the final goods, since the cheese was largely exported. In the second case, the business was managed by local farmers who constituted a wealthy social class whose activities went beyond farming and include banking.

Keywords: eighteeenth century, sheep-breeding, woollen industry, cheese production, Bresciano


The raising of livestock represents a very important activity in early modern Lombardy which played its part in reinforcing an already intense network of economic relationships between the mountain areas and the surrounding plain. Various studies have been dedicated to the raising of cattle and the production of milk and cheeses in the western part of the region, mainly because of the exceptional nature of the agriculture in the low Milanese plain (Romani 1977: 65-121, 207-24; Fumi 2003: 153-88). Indeed, the agriculture in this area had been amongst the most advanced in Europe since the Middle Ages and, at the end of the eighteenth century, had aroused the admiration of the great agronomist Arthur Young who, referring to the countryside between Milan and Lodi, wrote 'to Lodi, through twenty miles of such amazing exertions in irrigation that we can have in England no idea of it' (Young 1927: 233).

On the other hand, much less is known about the eastern part of Lombardy, at that time subject to Venice, despite the fact that cattle raising had a certain economic importance. The area around Brescia--the Bresciano--constitutes a case study which is significant not only because this is a province that consists, to a large extent, of pre-Alpine and Alpine villages (55 per cent of the surface of the province, that is, more than 2,500 [km.sup.2], is in fact occupied by mountains, compared with 1 per cent of hillsides and only 29 per cent of plains), but also because the villages have provided a contribution of prime importance to the province's economic success. Brescia's own contribution to the commercial structure of its province, the consolidation of reserves for exchanges on a regional scale and the development of local manufacturing activities seems to have been relatively small (Mocarelli 2002: 104-45).

In the study of the Brescian mountain areas, much attention has been paid to the manufacturing activities, in particular the production of iron and paper. Within the peninsula, the Bresciano occupied a prominent position in these activities, exploiting two factors to the full, which would ensure the success of many alpine economies: firstly, the ample supply of sources of energy, such as wood and waterfalls, and raw materials, such as iron ore--which gave them a distinct advantage over others in an age when communications were far from easy; secondly, the fact that they were able to count on the plentiful supply of highly skilled workers, from master foundry workers to master paper makers (Pfister 2002: 153-157).

However, much less attention has been paid to animal husbandry, despite the fact that it was, particularly in the Valcamonica, of notable importance. The reason for this lack depends without doubt on the difficulties of research and the fragmentary and debatable nature of available data (such as the Anagrafi promulgated by Venice, starting in 1766). In those statistics in fact, data relevant to dairy cattle are missing completely, while data relevant to working animals and sheep ate of doubtful reliability. (1)

Nevertheless, it is possible to deduce some considerations on farming in the Bresciano, in particular on two activities which depend on it, yet differ widely from each other in organization and economic horizons: cattle raising for the production of cheese and sheep farming for the production of wool. …

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