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Finance PhD student Alyssa Rusonik’s paper on Renaissance Economic Recovery Receives Award

Alyssa Rusonik is a PhD student at the Finance department of HEC Paris. In just the second year of her PhD, she has received an award for the best article from a doctoral student at the annual conference of the Canadian Network for Economic History. Her new paper investigates one of the greatest economic mysteries of the Renaissance.

 

About the Prize:

The Frank D. Lewis Memorial Prize in Economic History was created to honor the legacy of a remarkable economic historian, admired for both his scholarship and his generosity, especially with students. The prize is awarded to what the organizers deem the best paper by (a) student author(s) presented at the Canadian Network for Economic History conference. Learn more about Frank Lewis's career and the award here.

You study palace construction in early-modern Rome. Why did you choose this topic?

Rome, in the 14th-15th centuries, is in ruins. Contemporaries describe a “cadaver.” “A great stable for sheep.” Artists depict a grieving widow, clad in black, pleading with passersby. Then comes an economic revolution: an era of palace building dawns in Rome. A city suffering from dereliction transforms into a flourishing metropolis.
 
So, why Rome? Why the Renaissance? I wanted to understand how this recovery – an economic boom of miraculous proportion – could happen. It felt like a real mystery. What could be more exciting than trying to solve a centuries-old puzzle? 

In this paper, I argue that much of this remarkable trend can be attributed to a change of inheritance laws – a hypothesis which has been echoed in the conjectures of several historians’ works but which has never been empirically tested. (I am grateful to Kenneth Bartlett for making me aware of this reform, and to Aloysius Siow, and to Thomas and Elizabeth Cohen – among many others – for their wisdom.)

What connections did you find between this reform, and the construction of palaces? 

I establish that the legal change does have a positive causal effect on palace-construction in Rome. I also examine the underlying mechanism and find evidence suggesting that, as a result of the reform, Rome becomes a city with a more certain future, and hence with opportunities for profitable long-term investment.

This is very much an empirical work: I use several sources – including maps and archivists’ accounts, complemented by a manual data-collection effort – to compile a novel dataset to test my hypotheses in a statistically-rigorous way. It's a great joy to bring the tools of finance and economics to historical questions. 

How can understanding this historical phenomenon help us better understand the present and apprehend the future, and hence contribute to the society? 

An economy in decline; a city in ruins; political intrigue; crisis and turmoil. This is not the mise-en-scène of a historical melodrama. This is still very much our world. There's a lot we can learn from it. 

I would like to believe that the story I tell in this paper might be relevant to how we think about public policy, incentives, powerful stakeholders, investment, and even urban renewal. I hope that knowledge of the past can guide decisions of the future. But I do not think this work says – or should say – anything about a particular policy agenda today. That is where the story I tell stops, and the real world and the work of policy-makers begins.

Why studying and conducting research at HEC Paris? 

This is a wonderful department at a great institution. There is a lot of genuine curiosity about anything and everything. The work of students and faculty is interdisciplinary and broad-ranging, and the level of collaboration is quite extraordinary. I think it was important to me that I find a department that would share my interests in this regard – and I could not ask for a better group of researchers to discuss with and learn from. It’s a real privilege to study here.

You can find the long version of that interview on Knowledge@HEC.