Domenico Sella (1926-2012) by Lee Palmer Wandel

Domenico Sella HeadshotDomenico 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 and German as well as Italian, so he studied English. 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 advisor to suggest the oeuvre of the American historian of Chrisitanity, Kenneth Latourette, as the focus of his dissertation, for which he received his doctorate from the University of Milan in 1954. Before moving permanently, as it turned out, to the United States in 1960, he was a Rockefeller Fellow, 1957-59, and a British Council Fellow at the London School of Economics, 1959-60. 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.

While at Notre Dame, Sella decided to become a historian. 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 Archivio di Stato that was far removed from his dissertation: on 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 of 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.

He 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.”