The Alma Mater in the global world

The history of the University of Bologna in the 20th century.

In 1860, when Giosuè Carducci was asked to hold a professorship in Italian literature, the University was experiencing one of the most challenging times in its long history. For two centuries, it had been restricted by the dogmas of the Church, and nothing remained of its glorious past.

But with the Italian unification, as Italy needed to find common roots, Bologna presented itself to the modern world as the ancient Commune city in which the first university in the Western world was founded.

Therefore, on 12 June 1888, in the courtyard of the Archiginnasio Palace, Carducci kicked off the celebrations for the 8th centenary of the Alma Mater Studiorum, marking its revival and comeback as one of the world’s largest universities.

At the same time, the Esposizioni Emiliane (Expos of Emilia) were being held in the city, mostly at the new Giardini Margherita (inaugurated in 1879), which attracted visitors from all over the world, also due to the fact that the railway network and the railway station had been expanded (1871).

The city seemed to be finally enjoying the liveliness of those days to the fullest.

Elegant and spacious neighbourhoods opened up, long tree-lined avenues were built, city museums were inaugurated and, in this atmosphere of change, led by the Comitato per Bologna Storica e Artistica (Bologna Committee for History and Art), the University also began to plan its expansion.  

Under rectors Giovanni Capellini and Augusto Murri, work began in parallel with the more extensive City Plan. Later on, under rector Vittorio Puntoni, the first construction agreement between the University and the local bodies was signed (which became law in 1899), which made it possible to set up a modern district of scientific institutes in the new Via Irnerio (Mineralogy, Anatomy, Physics and Botany).

The relaunch of the University, which saw its student numbers double (670 in 1880, 1368 in 1890) was also due to the greater fame of its professors, including Murri, Enrico Panzacchi, Giacomo Ciamician, Federigo Enriques and Giovanni Pascoli.

This led to a Second Agreement (1910) to build more institutes in the area between Palazzo Poggi and the new avenues that were opened after the 13th-century walls were demolished.

However, the creation of this macro-area was interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War, during which many professors and students were called to the front lines and allocated financial resources were diverted to the war effort.

Works had to wait until the agreements of the Third Convention between the Fascist regime and the University (1929) to continue during the long period that Alessandro Ghigi was Rector.

The latter, by taking advantage of political sympathies and forcing academics to swear allegiance to the regime, managed to obtain substantial funding. This made it possible to inaugurate several previously planned institutes (Agricultural Economics and Policy, Legal Medicine, Chemistry, Pharmaceutical Sciences, Hygiene, General Pathology, Zoology-Comparative Anatomy-Histology-Anthropology and various medical clinics at the Sant’Orsola-Malpighi Polyclinic) as well as to build, on the other side of the city, the Industrial Engineering and Chemistry faculty, which in the meantime, together with Economics and Business, Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine, had been converted into fully-fledged faculties (1932-37).

In fact, the University had reorganised its structure, integrating what Mussolini himself said could be considered the “most fascist” reform ever presented, namely Minister Giovanni Gentile’s school reform of 1923. 

After establishing a strict pedagogical hierarchy, which had made humanities the foundation of the future ruling class, with those less well-off being excluded from higher levels of education – and, as a result, employment – the racial laws were also passed in 1938. In the case of Bologna, this led to 11 full professors and many freelance teachers and assistants being dismissed from teaching, despite the fact that, in 1464, the Studium was one of the first in Europe to set up a faculty dedicated to Jewish history, language and literature.

When the regime finally fell in 1943, Ghigi was dismissed and refused the new mandate offered to him by the Italian Social Republic. In his place, the Greek scholar Goffredo Coppola was elected, one of the darkest pages in the history of the University. Coppola, who was very loyal to Mussolini, followed him in his flight, succumbing to his own fate.

Meanwhile, Bologna was the target of one of the most devastating bombings in Italy, which caused centuries-old buildings to collapse, including part of the old Archiginnasio university building.

Many students and professors sided against the regime and joined the partisan ranks in a city that was later rewarded for its valour and brave resistance.

On 21 April 1945, Bologna was free again.

The University could not have celebrated the revival of the righteous in a more symbolic way, namely by electing Edoardo Volterra as the first rector of this rebirth: a law teacher, he had been dismissed in 1938 because of his Jewish origins.

It was now time to rebuild, and under Rector Felice Battaglia, the University got back to work on several new building projects (Institutes of Mathematics and Geometry and the Faculty of Economics and Business), which led to a sharp increase in matriculations in the following years.

New students included an increasing number of women (26% of the total), especially after the “Scuola di Magistero” was converted into a Faculty (1955).

But despite this urban redevelopment and these rising numbers, the teaching provided did not really stand out after the Second World War. As the political and social context began to change, students and temporary employees began to show the first signs of tension with the central organisation, which led to the resignation of Battaglia himself (1968).

The global protests, which also spread to Italy, were met with disapproval by a well-known graduate of the Alma Mater, Pier Paolo Pasolini, who, together with Giorgio Bassani, Francesco Arcangeli and Attilio Bertolucci, had studied under Roberto Longhi

And yet, in 1969, those first demonstrations and sit-ins led to a decisive turning point in education and social life as a whole: the Codignola Law, which finally liberalised access to university faculties.

Under Rector Tito Carnacini, the number of Bolognese enrolled students almost doubled throughout his term of office (26,000 in 1968, 50,000 in 1976).

In spite of this, the situation soon evolved from peaceful demands and sit-ins to attacks and terror: this marked the beginning of the Years of Lead.

Some extremist and politicised groups of students also became involved in this whirlwind of opposition, undermining the just causes of the more moderate uprisings. In this situation, in which the army was also involved, the student Francesco Lorusso was killed by a carabiniere in 1977.9th Centenary of the Studium

The Alma Mater on its part was pursuing the much-needed process initiated in the 1950s, aimed at re-establishing close links with other universities in Italy and abroad: for instance, the inauguration of the first European branch of the postgraduate school of the prestigious John Hopkins University (1955) or the creation of the Cineca inter-university consortium in Casalecchio di Reno (1967), one of the first to connect universities, research organisations, ministries and polyclinics through new information technologies.

However, 1988 was the year that actually marked the return of the University of Bologna to the forefront of international academic discourse.

During the celebrations for its 9th Centenary, the then Rector Fabio Alberto Roversi-Monaco welcomed 430 European rectors (today, there are 802 from 85 countries) who signed the Magna Charta Universitatum, a document with which Europe undertook to enhance the importance of education, making it one of the cornerstones of humanity’s progress and well-being.