Rodolfo Sacco: the professor, the partisan, the man

The news of Rodolfo Sacco’s death on March 21, 2022, has grieved the entire academic community of comparativists and beyond. Without a doubt, he was a giant in all senses. Professor Sacco was born in 1923 in the small town of Fossano, Cuneo (northern Italy), where he lived gracefully until his teen years.

A natural inclination for history moved him to pursue a career in medieval studies, but he finally enrolled in law due to family pressures. In law school, a young Sacco was introduced to the intricacies of legal epistemology. Unfortunately, as the dark years of fascism in Italy rose, he had to set aside his studies to join the resistance at the Val Chisone, being a commander of the first “independent” alpine division. Prof. Sacco was later able to resume and complete his studies at the University of Turin, writing a thesis on the Concept of the Interpretation of the Law [Giappichelli, Turin, 1947], explaining that hermeneutic tools are just simple ideas that pre-exist in the interpreter’s spirit when confronting the legislative declaration.

Sacco’s work rejected the extreme Italian dogmatism in analyzing private law issues by resorting to extrinsic fields. His intellectual curiosity nourished a wide array of interests to understand how the connection between history, linguistics, and anthropology could enlighten his understanding of the law. Indeed, Professor Sacco frequently called himself a legal anthropologist. He extensively wrote on comparative (and Italian) contract law, African private law, systemology, and comparative methodology. His frontier studies started in 1959 when he published a monograph on unjust enrichment, L’arrichimento Ottenuto Mediante Fatto Ingiusto, [Utet, Turin, 1959, 238 p.] applying the comparative method to show how European countries attributed different labels to the same widely accepted norm. This study also evidenced convergence and exposed those amorphous syntactic features of the law that are crucial for constructing the legal system and tradition–the cryptotype.

Sacco’s then investigated the legal system of socialist countries and explored the African continent. His time spent as Dean at Mogadishu ignited his interest in legal ethnology, publishing the Introduzione al Diritto Privato Somalo [Introduction to Somali Private Law, Giappichelli, Turin, 1973, 191 p.] while expanding his field research to Zambia and Morocco until 1975. All this background paved the way for his cornerstone treatise Il Contratto [Utet, Turin, 1975], interpreting Italian contract law through the lenses of functional analysis.

From the 1970s onward, Professor Sacco devoted his studies to the Common Law tradition, focusing on the comparative method. In his view, this method was indispensable for jurists but needed proper guidance, requiring its insertion as a core subject of law. In 1979, a course on the comparative method and legal epistemology was born with the book Introduzione al Diritto Comparato [Introduction to Comparative Law, Giappichelli, Turin, 1980, 199 p.] translated into six languages. Years later, in the 1980s, the newly established Faculty of Law at the University of Trento appointed Sacco to its scientific committee to provide robust comparative imprinting to the J.D. program. While in Trento, Sacco also drafted the cultural and legal manifest: the Tesi di Trento[VCVA1]  [Trento’s Thesis, Authors: F. Castro, P. Cendon, A. Frignani, A. Gambaro, M. Guadagni, A. Guarnieri, P.G. Monateri and R. Sacco, July 3, 1987] addressing the significance of comparative law embedded in the law curricula.  

Inspired by the vision of Mauro Cappelletti to write in English to communicate with the world, he then published his seminal work, Legal Formants: A Dynamic Approach to Comparative law (in two installments). Sacco’s theoretical foundation, the formants, the elements that constitute a country’s “living law” was essential in developing the Common Core of European Private Law–a project with the scope of discovering the best solution to legal problems across European countries with a neutral approach. Later in his career, this retrospective and diachronic approach conducted him to further explore cryptotypes with the Supernatural and the Law and Mute Law, exploring societies without jurists and eliciting norms when there is no dispositive law in appearance.

Professor Sacco was Dean of the University of Pavia School of Law and the Somali National University in Mogadishu. He also joined the Law schools of the University of Trieste and Pavia as a faculty member. Finally, he served as a Professor of Law at the University of Turin until his retirement, later becoming Emeritus. While at Turin, his dedication to Comparative Law allowed him to teach Comparative Private Law, Socialists Countries Legal Systems, African Law, and Anthropology of the Law. Always committed to education, Professor Sacco taught summer courses at the Faculté International de Droit Comparé, first at Luxembourg–substituting Luigi (Gino) Gorla, another Italian figure of Comparative Law–then at Strasbourg for thirty years, a régulier.

Professor Sacco has received several awards, including the Valore Militare Medal and the Medaglia d’Oro della Liberazione for his service as partisan fighting fascism. Furthermore, he received several honorary degrees from the Universities of Paris 2, Geneva, Toulon, and McGill.

As a towering figure in comparative law, Professor Sacco’s leadership brought him several appointments. He was president of the Italian hub of the Association Henri Capitant, the International Association of Legal Sciences–UNESCO, the Associazione Italiana di Diritto Comparato, president and founder of the Italian Society for Comparative Law Research (SIRD), member of the Société de Législation Comparée, the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei of Rome, the Accademia delle Scienze of Turin, the International Academy of Comparative Law, Académie des Sciences Morales, and the Academia Europaea.  

Rodolfo Sacco will be remembered as a sophisticated scholar studying private law issues and the comparative method with the extravagance that distinguished him. But, in his case, this extravagance rarely generates distrust and always instills consensus.

 [VCVA1]There is a hyperlink.

This is appended at the U of Trento website