The crisis in the 17th century, the Studium and the Academy of Sciences of the Institute of Bologna

The history of the University of Bologna in the 17th and18th century.

The crisis in the 17th century 

In the early 17th century, Bologna began a long period of stagnation and inactivity.

The population boom caused by prosperity in the previous century was followed by an increasingly intense succession of famines and epidemics, which prompted Pope Clement VIII to intervene in the management of trade tariffs, which up to then had been exclusively used to pay university teachers (Gabella Grossa tax).

This did not, as one might think, lead to a reduction in salaries and teaching. On the contrary, this period saw a paradoxical increase in the number of professorships – up to 120 – leading to the unfortunate presence of four professors to every student. Furthermore, the increase in the number of courses was inversely proportional to the quality of the teaching provided, which was bound by strict Tridentine principles and increasingly entrusted to the poor intellectual abilities of many local nobles who easily managed to obtain a teaching post.

It is no coincidence that it was precisely in the 17th century that the carnival mask of Dott. Balanzone (Il Dottore) was created. The character was based on a pompous jurist who flaunted knowledge that was now outdated and antiquated. Doctors were laughed at by the townspeople who also enjoyed the fact that they were mocked in the famous satirical poems Bertoldo e Bertoldino by the popular poet Giulio Cesare Croce (1606-08).

Meanwhile, the students were becoming increasingly provincial and lost all autonomy and power after the suppression of the student rectorate in 1580.

The wealthiest and those pursuing an ecclesiastical career also began to prefer the new Jesuit colleges. By mid-century, they had created a veritable district around the church of Santa Lucia, governed by the Order of Ignatius of Loyola.

In 1630, the plague certainly did not alleviate this critical situation for the Studium or the city, and wiped out a third of the population.

This led to the radical decision in 1668 to suspend new teaching posts for a period of twenty years.

At the end of this long period of total stagnation, the archdeacon of the cathedral and chancellor of the University at that time, Antonio Felice Marsili, tried to intervene in every possible way. In 1689, the erudite aristocrat openly challenged the College of Doctors, accusing it of laxity and neglect and proposing a reform of the teaching staff. What could have been a successful move was bitterly opposed not only by the professors themselves but also by the Senate, which was too entangled in the murky activities of an institution in continuous decline.

On the one hand, therefore, there was the Studium, mired in local careerism and by the limits imposed by the Church. On the other hand, the Jesuits, although better prepared for modernity, were enraged by ecclesiastical propaganda and the severity of their doctrines.

Only a few professors managed to escape this decadence, although almost all of them ultimately left the city to go to other universities that were better prepared for new directions in knowledge. Such was the destiny of the doctors Marcello Malpighi and Carlo Fracassati and the mathematicians and astronomers Giovanni Cassini and Germiniano Montanari.

The Studium and the Academy of Sciences of the Institute of Bologna

The situation in the Studium in the late 17th century was one of the most dramatic: some local students were indoctrinated with notions that were antiquated and controlled by the Church.

Some of them, however, found a way to react, gathering at the home of 16-year-old Eustachio Manfredi, where, in 1690, they established the Accademia degli Inquieti (Academy of the Restless): a private club which, like many others throughout Europe, became a meeting place for intellectual exchange and discussion.

This small group of scientists was later welcomed into the palace owned by Luigi Ferdinando Marsili. Having returned from a long period spent in the ranks of the Habsburg army, he had previously attempted to modernise the teaching at the Archiginnasio Palace, proposing a radical reform far more complex than the one proposed a few years earlier by his brother Antonio Felice.

Having also received a negative response, the noble scholar offered his lodgings and resources not only to the “Inquieti” but also to the newly founded Accademia Artistica Clementina, sponsored at that time, as its name suggests, by Pope Clement XI.

The latter became the most ardent supporter of meetings between the two academies, which led to the establishment of the Academy of Sciences of the Institute of Bologna in 1711.

Palazzo Poggi EngravingThanks to papal support, Marsili obtained, from the otherwise reticent Senate, the funds and political support required for the autonomy and independence of his academic experiment. He was then in a position to purchase the 16th-century Palazzo Poggi, where he found and created ideal spaces for his laboratories, lecture rooms, exhibition galleries, a library and even a printing and bookbinding shop.

It was 1714 and the Institute was now, at last, able to open the doors of Bologna to modernity.

It was not long before this “Solomon’s Temple” became famous throughout Europe, joining the vast international network of scientific exchanges and personal and professional relationships between the most illustrious inventors and artists on the scene at that time.

The teachers of Bologna were also attracted by this world enclosed in a palace, where they had the opportunity to analyse and test, in complete intellectual freedom, discoveries that would enlighten and improve the quality of life of future societies. The same professors who lectured at the University in the mornings taught at the Institute in the afternoons, and vice versa. They brought their students with them, who were delighted to be able to learn something new in addition to the outdated lectures held at the Archiginnasio Palace.

Besides the traditional scientific disciplines such as Medicine, Mathematics and Astronomy, new fundamental subjects were introduced: Physics, Mechanics, Optics, Obstetrics, Electrochemistry, Chemistry and many others, which were related and therefore also supported each other within a modern interdisciplinary concept of experimentation and knowledge.

Antonio Maria Valsalva, Eustachio and Gabriele Manfredi, Francesco Antonio Oretti, Jacopo Bartolomeo Beccari, Francesco Maria Zanotti, Pier Paolo Molinelli, Giovanni Antonio Galli, Giovanni Battista Guglielmini and, above all, Luigi Galvani are just some of the protagonists of this period.

In the turmoil of such scientific innovation, which was also supported and patronised by Pope Benedict XIV of Bologna, a much more radical socio-cultural revolution took place. This brought women not only to the lecture halls but also to academic professorships.

As in associations in Paris and London, women, who had been excluded for centuries from the more official male university bodies, were immediately welcomed into the ranks of our Institute.

Bologna is a case apart in this respect. Even in the most misogynistic periods, the University prided itself on the historic medieval presence of academics’ wives, daughters and sisters, who in exceptional cases became lecturers or teachers (Accorsa, Bettisia Gozzadini, Novella Calderini and Dorotea Bocchi).

It is therefore not just a coincidence that the Alma Mater was the first institution to assign a modern professorship to a woman. In 1732, 21-year-old Laura Bassi, to the collective jubilation of the whole city, became a teacher of Philosophy.

She was followed by many others who studied and taught, including Faustina Pignatelli, Anna Morandi Manzolini, Cristina Roccati, Clotilde Tambroni and Maria dalle Donne, who all passed the baton but still struggled to overcome the many obstacles of history, which were always increasingly higher for the women’s race in an already difficult and complex university career.