Publication Date

May 1, 2012

Perspectives Section

In Memoriam

Domenico SellaEconomic Historian and Scholar of 17th-Century Europe

Domenico Sella, professor emeritus of economic history at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, died on Thursday, March 8, 2012. He was born 16 November 1926 in Milan and took his Laurea at the University of Milan in 1949. He grew up speaking French, German, and Italian, so he studied English. Although Italian remained his most beloved language—the language he spoke with his family to the very end of his life—English set early steps in his career. English would first take him on a fellowship to De Pauw University, then to the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, where he was invited to take a master's degree in history (1951). His facility in English led his doctoral adviser to suggest the oeuvre of the American historian of Christianity, Kenneth Latourette, as the focus of his dissertation, for which he received his doctorate from the University of Milan in 1954. Before moving to the United States in 1960, he was a Rockefeller Fellow (1957–59) and a British Council Fellow (1959–60) at the London School of Economics.

The year after completing his dissertation, he was called to Venice to work as a postdoctoral fellow under the direction of Carlo Cipolla. With support from the Fondazione Ca'Foscari, he began research in the Archivo di Stato on a topic that was far removed from his dissertation—the early modern Venetian economy. This became his second book, Commerci e industrie a Venezia nel secolo XVII (1961), which qualified the then-beloved notion of a “rise of the Atlantic economies,” by proving that the Mediterranean basin did not necessarily decline. It proved to be the first in a series of works grounded in meticulous and original research in the archives of northern Italy that would reshape the history of early modern Italy and the economic history of early modern Europe.

Sella arrived in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1960, to take up a newly created position, a joint appointment in both history and economics at the University of Wisconsin. His first year was probationary, but three years later, in 1963, he was tenured, and in 1967, promoted to full professor. He remained at Wisconsin for his entire career, retiring in 1995. One of his favorite stories was of a Lutheran undergraduate who thought that Sella, a Catholic, had offered a "pretty good lecture on Luther."

In 1966 and 1967, Sella was a visiting professor at the Universitá L. Bocconi in Milan, on a fellowship from the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche. Seven years after his study of Venetian commerce and industry, he published his study of labor in the Po Valley, Salari e lavoro nell'edilizia Lombarda nel secolo XVII (1968). Sella demonstrated the need to embed economic life in social relations and institutions by explaining the divergent movements of nominal and real wages (the former holding steady, the latter falling steadily in the 17th century) in terms of corporative organizations, labor recruitment, and by-employments. Once again, Sella plumbed little used archival collections and asked questions far ahead of the field.

When Cipolla took over theFontana Economic History of Europe (1974), he asked Sella to write the article, “European Industries, 1500–1700.” The volume remains a foundation for economic history, and the article remains unsurpassed in its clarity and in its mastery of labor, production, raw materials, and commerce.

Sella was a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in 1971 and 1972, and the Andrew W. Mellon Visiting Professor at the University of Pittsburgh in 1977. In 1979, he published Crisis and Continuity: The Economy of Spanish Lombardy in the Seventeenth Century, for which he won the Howard R. Marraro Prize of the American Historical Association. As the title suggests, Sella took up the then prevalent model of “general crisis” for the seventeenth century and, through research on the countryside—which had hardly figured in either 17th-century history or early modern Italian history—raised fundamental questions about it. While the fiscal policies of Spanish authorities and urban guilds contributed to an undeniable decline of urban economies in northern Italy, the rural economy—both industrial and agricultural—remained undeniably vigorous. Even Spanish attempts at “refeudalization” failed to weaken growth, but reinvigorated the economy. The crisis was by no means general.

In 1997, he wrote for LongmanItaly in the Seventeenth Century, now in its sixth edition. Intended as a textbook, it remains a key work for anyone wishing to study the topic.

In 2009, Sella published a collection of some of his articles, Trade and Industry in Early Modern Italy. These are gems of concision, the kind of mastery of historiography and sources that allows precise, clear statements. And they demonstrate the breadth of his knowledge of “economy”: international trade, the wool, silk, paper, and iron industries—each of which had different raw materials, different organizations of labor, different processes of production—spinning wheels and energy, wages for artisanal and agricultural labor, land tenure, famine and war.
In the course of his long and productive career, Sella shed light on a hitherto little studied region of early modern Europe, the Lombard and Venetian countrysides of the 17th century. He belongs to an extraordinary generation of historians—Carlo Cipolla, Richard Goldthwaite, Roberto Lopez, Harry Miskimin—who together transformed our understanding of the economy and society of early modern Europe.

His wife, Annamaria, died in 2002. He is survived by his older brother, Francesco, in Lausanne; his sister, Cristiana, in Milan; his four children, Barbara, Monica, Antonio and Roberto; and 10 grandchildren.

University of Wisconsin

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