The lights are once more going out all over Europe. But the darkest hours in pandemics have often heralded glorious dawns. The horrors of the Great War and even deadlier flu gave way to the Roaring Twenties; the vast social changes wrought by the Black Death ignited the Renaissance.
Forgive any flippancy on my part, but as devastating as Covid has been, it will not rival the 50 million souls lost in the Spanish Flu pandemic – two-and-a-half times the casualties of the First World War.
Even less appropriate, arguably, are comparisons with the Black Death (1346 to 1353), which claimed as much as 60% of Europe’s population. But lessons can be learned from history’s worst plague. The ensuing fissure of the old order led to an economic, political and cultural explosion, the likes of which Europe has never seen since. And Florentine property developers did pretty well, too.
The drastic decline in the labour force of Italy pushed up wages for urban and rural workers, helped end feudalism and spurred more efficient means of agricultural and industrial production through most of Italy (although, interestingly, not in the south, where Norman kings doubled down on the peasantry, resulting in the clear divide bisecting the peninsula, which persists to this day).
The modernisation and booming of the economy in the north – a proto-Industrial Revolution – fuelled the wealth of a new merchant elite, such as the formerly textile-trading Medici, who eclipsed the traditional nobility and went on to bankroll the artistic eruption of the Renaissance.
In a further changing of the old guard, the Church suffered even higher death rates, leading to over-hasty recruitment of the priesthood – often woefully qualified for their new calling. Eventually, public disillusionment with corruption set in, leading to secularisation, in education particularly, and, in turn, greater social mobility.
Entrepreneurs with smart ideas and access to capital should prosper
Property boomed as a previously agrarian society urbanised within the walled confines of city states; property censuses and taxes inevitably followed, partly paying for further civic splendour (also lining the purses of the newly enriched).
Fast forward to our own beleaguered times. Banksy, Stormzy and Norman Foster don’t quite compare with Titian, Palestrina or Palladio, but redemption might not be that far off, arguably with some parallels.
First, economic. With a less than glowing record on his government’s Covid response, along with Brexit challenges and independence threats to address, Boris Johnson is going to have to throw money at the economy with the same largesse Pope Leo X exhibited when rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica.
Housing and infrastructure are particular objectives. (Boris needs to get it right this time if Renaissance distrust of the clergy is not to be replicated in loathing of politicians.)
As successors of Leo (a Medici scion done good) discovered, a heavy price was to be paid (step forward, Martin Luther). But, hey, won’t HS2 compare as favourably as a legacy with Raphael’s frescoes adorning the Vatican State Rooms?
The change in working patterns is another analogy. Working from home is a genie that will never quite be forced back into the bottle, forcing a reset in office demand and designs. Online trading has accelerated, further elevating Jeff Bezos as the latter day Cosimo de’ Medici – albeit leaving high streets across the land laid to waste.
The attempts to overcome the current pandemic are interwoven with what even I’m now becoming convinced is a contagion of truly biblical proportions: climate change. As with almost all the aspects of change brought about by the virus, efforts to cut carbon were coming anyway, just crystallised by Covid’s global impact.
Entrepreneurs with smart ideas, nimble feet, sharp elbows and access to capital should prosper. Free of the regulatory constraints of Brussels, Britain’s regulation-lite status could attract the most ambitious (even if the odd Borgia slips through the net).
We could see Britain and other parts of the world (but not necessarily the southern European cradle of the Renaissance) enjoying what could emerge as the ‘Roaring 2020s’ (at least until the debts eventually come home to roost).
This year is definitely likely to be bumpy, but with the vaccines starting to flow, I reckon next year we’re going to ‘Party like it’s 1999’. Or should I say 1499?
Alastair Stewart is an equities analyst and consultant