“The Mineral Marrow from the Hardest Bones of the Mountains”: Why Italians Don’t Mine

I have never wondered why Italians don’t do more in the way of mining for valuable metals. It’s not the sort of question anyone in this day and age would think to ask, but it reminds us that there was a time when mining wasn’t the sort of industry it is today, wherein investors can count on certain countries to happily exchange their copper for a hit of foreign investment and a song. Still, from a 1942 volume on mining called The Pirotechnia Of Vannoccio Biringuccio comes this really beautiful meditation on Italian sloth and anti-entrepeneurship:

VERY intelligent and practical investigator of minerals says that copper ore is found in various regions of the world and that among others Italy is very rich in it. But very little is mined there, perhaps because of a cowardly Italian avarice which has the power to make us lazy and indolent in carrying out those lofty and fine designs which should reasonably make us proceed swiftly, or perhaps because we are not prone to attempt extraordinary profit but only undertake those enterprises in which we are certain of a return on our investment. The reason for this might also be found in the meager possibility of success, which, since these things are not easily attempted because they are enormous undertakings of doubtful outcome, cools the spirit of men and in place of enthusiasm introduces the fear of loss, the fear of having to sacrifice not only time but also the work and money invested; then they think of the difficulty of discovery, of the impossibility of full ownership, and of the necessity of excavating the mineral marrow from the hardest bones of the mountains with the brawn and efforts of men. To this is added the fear common to many that in attempting such things they may be called fools by certain ignorant and dissolute persons, and it seems better to them to be praised for becoming rich through usury and by many other infamous and illicit methods than to lay themselves open to the danger of censure from such as these. But there are those who deserve still greater censure, particularly princes and all rich and powerful persons, and theirs is an even more useless error than that of those who refrain for the above reasons. If the occasion and means present themselves for both attempting and continuing such a profitable and laudable affair as mining ores and if they hesitate solely because of cowardice or because they give ear to the bayings of ignorant hounds, or if because of their own willfulness they wish to remain prisoners of a detestable and ugly avarice, then this is their own loss.

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