Subsidence over the last 0.78 myr of a basin in central Italy bounded by a normal fault caused the deactivation and uplift of an Early–Middle Pleistocene alluvial fan at the fault footwall. Uplift of the fan occurred with a basin-bounding fault slip-rate of the order of 0.2 mm a−1. Subsidence resulted in the reorganization of the river network due to a fall in base level, which triggered headward erosion, stream piracy effects and drainage inversion. The mapped river inversions and catchment piracy were related to the distribution of a quantile regression of 134 alluvial fans v. basin areas. Despite the fact that the two parameters were well fitted by a power law relationship, all the fans corresponding to the captured rivers lay above the regression line (in the fan area field), whereas those corresponding to the capturing rivers were below the regression line (in the basin area field). We propose a general model of alluvial fan growth in active extensional settings that helps to interpret this scatter of fan v. basin area distribution and to identify the most active fault segments. Such an approach can better constrain fault activity in a time window that bridges long-term deformation and the present day deformation inferred from geodesy and/or seismology, increasing our understanding of the steadiness/unsteadiness behaviour of faults.