Piero Sraffa was born in Turin in 1898 the son of Angelo Sraffa, a Professor of Commercial Law, and Irma Tivoli. The young Sraffa was educated at the Liceo d’Azeglio and at the University of Turin where his honours thesis Monetary inflation in Italy during and after the War gained the approval of his tutor, Luigi Einaudi. From 1921-22 Sraffa studied at the LSE, but returned to Italy to hold posts at Perugia and Cagliari. He was appointed Professor of Political Economy at this latter institution in 1926 and held it for the rest of his life, donating his salary to the maintenance of the library. However, as a critic of the Fascists there was some personal danger if he remained there permanently and in 1927 he took up a lectureship in Cambridge which he was to hold only for three years, feeling himself unfit for the duties of lecturing. The intervention of Keynes caused the position of Marshall Librarian to be created especially for Sraffa allowing him to concentrate on research and his responsibilities for graduate students. He did, nonethless, return to lecturing for the years 1941-43 when he gave a course on industry.
Although Sraffa held dining rights at King’s College, he was awarded no college fellowship until 1939 when he was elected as a fellow by Trinity, and that College remained his home for the rest of his life. In 1961 he was awarded the Södeström Gold Medal by the Stockholm Academy of Sciences and two years later was made Reader in economics by Cambridge University. He died in 1983.
At his best face-to-face or in small group discussions, Sraffa’s interests and intellectual contacts seem far-reaching. A close but not uncritical friendship with Antonio Gramsci began in 1919. After Gramsci’s imprisonment in 1926 Sraffa visited him and tried, unsuccessfully, to gain his release. He was nevertheless instrumental in the production of the Quaderni dal Carcere by providing Gramsci with writing materials and, after his death in 1937 by recounting his wishes regarding their publication. During the 1930’s, his weekly discussions with Wittgenstein were foremost in persuading the philosopher to turn from the ideas regarding language proposed in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and to strike out on the course that led to the Philosophical Investigations. No less important in terms of influence is the fact that Sraffa was one of the organisers of the circus that discussed Keynes’ Treatise on Money which was to lead to the views propounded in the General Theory….
Sraffa’s own literary reputation rests on a number of important articles and two longer works, The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo (pub 1951-73) and Production of Commodities by means of Commodities: prelude to a critique of economic theory (1960). The former work runs to ten volumes plus an index and was 43 years in completion, requiring the patient aid of Maurice Dobb and a number of research assistants. It is regarded as a scholarly masterpiece. Once volume ten of the Ricardo edition was completed. Sraffa turned again to his notes of the 1920s, 1930s and early 1940s to produce Production of Commodities… which received mixed reviews.
Not entirely divorced from his academic interests was Sraffa’s love of books, especially on the subject of economics and politics. He amassed an outstanding library of over 8000 volumes which is now also housed at Trinity College Library.