1088 is widely considered the date in which free teaching began in Bologna, independently from the ecclesiastic schools. At the end of the 11th century, masters of grammar, rhetoric and logic began to apply themselves to law in Bologna, and the earliest recorded scholar was a man named Irnerius, whose activities cataloguing the Roman legal materials soon ran beyond the boundaries of Bologna.
Right from the outset, the students paid the teachers a "collectio", as a gift rather than a salary, as at that time science, a gift of God, could not be sold. Gradually such donations were transformed into actual salaries. In any case, the students did not always give to the collectio, and the municipality had to intervene to allow the studies to continue.
Between the 11th and 12th centuries came the Investiture Controversy. It was a fundamental period for the development of European politics, defining the relations between the State and the Church. During the controversy, debates on law were fundamental, and equally so was the study of the Codex Justinianus, the foundation of the Empire identity. In 1158 four experts in law, four "doctores" deemed to be the pupils of Irnerio, Bulgaro, Martino, Jacopo and Ugo di Porta Ravegnana were invited by Frederick I Barbarossa to the Diet of Roncaglia to express their opinion on the laws of the Empire compared to those of other political bodies. With the exception of Martino, the other three declared themselves in favour of the Empire. They demonstrated with very fine explanations that the only Law was Roman Law, entrusted to the Empire. Consequently, in 1158 Frederick I Barbarossa promulgated a Constitutio Habita, establishing that every school be established as a "societas di socii" (group of students) overseen by a master (dominus) remunerated by the sums paid to him by the students. The Empire undertook to protect scholars travelling for the purpose of study from the intrusion of all political authorities. This was a fundamental event in the history of European university. The University was legally declared a place where research could develop independently from any other power.
After the death of Barbarossa during the third crusade, the University of Bologna survived the demise of its protector. The municipality tried to control the societates, but in opposition the students organised themselves according to their own origin. Bologna was home to the Citramontani (beyond the mountains, Italians but not from Bologna, Lombards, Tuscans and Romans) and Ultramontani (non-Italians, living beyond the Alps, French, Spanish, from Provence, Picard, Borgogne, Normandy, the English, Catalans, Hungarians, Polish, German, etc.). The 13th century was marked by many contrasts. Among a thousand difficulties and set within the political disputes of the time, the University fought for its autonomy, while the political powers tried to use it as an instrument of prestige. During this period there were over two thousand students in Bologna.
From the 14th century theschools of jurists sat alongside the so-called "artists", scholars of Medicine, Philosophy, Arithmetic, Astronomy, Logic, Rhetoric and Grammar. The teaching of Theology was instituted in 1364.
Dante Alighieri, Francesco Petrarca, Guido Guinizelli, Cino da Pistoria, Cecco d'Ascoli, Re Enzo, Salimbene da Parma and Coluccio Salutati all studied in Bologna.
In the 15th century Greek and Hebrew studies were instituted, and in the 16th century those of "natural magic", experimental science. The philosopher Pietro Pomponazzi upheld the study of the laws of nature against the traditionalist position of Theology and Philosophy. A representative figure of this period was Ulisse Aldrovandi, whose contribution ranged from pharmacopoeia to the study of animals, fossils, and marvels of nature which he collected and classified.
In the 16th century Gaspare Tagliacozzi completed the first studies of plastic surgery. The golden era of Medicine in Bologna coincided with the teachings of Marcello Malpighi in the 17th century, using the microscope for anatomic research.
The University's fame had spread throughout Europe and Bologna was a destination for many illustrious guests including Thomas Becket, Paracelso, Raimundo de Pegñafort, Albrecht Dürer, san Carlo Borromeo, Torquato Tasso and Carlo Goldoni.
Pico della Mirandola and Leon Battista Alberti also studied in Bologna, devoted to canonical law. Nicolas Copernicus began his astronomical observations while studying pontifical law here.
With the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, the University promoted scientific and technological development. In this period came the studies of Luigi Galvani who, along with Alessandro Volta, Benjamin Franklin and Henry Cavendish, was one of the founders of modern electrotechnical studies.
Following the establishment of the United Italian State came a period of great prosperity for the University of Bologna, in which the figures of Giovanni Capellini, Giosuè Carducci, Giovanni Pascoli, Augusto Righi, Federigo Enriques, Giacomo Ciamician, and Augusto Murri stand out.
In 1888 the eighth centennial of the University was celebrated, with a grand ceremony in which all the world's universities convened in Bologna to honour the mother of all universities. The ceremony became an international festival of studies, as the universities recognised their common roots and ideals of progress and tolerance in Bologna.
The University maintained its central position on the scene of global culture until the period between the two wars, when other countries came to the forefront in teaching and research. It is called on to forge relations with institutions in the world's most advanced countries, to modernise and expand its activities. Among the many challenges which it has met with success, the University is committed to the European dimension leading to the innovation of the university system.