The students’ Universities

The history of the University of Bologna in the 13th century.

With the Peace of Constance (1183), which ended conflict with Emperor Frederick I, the Communes of the Po Valley were able to gain increased power and autonomy over their territories.

As for Bologna, this event prompted the political body to pay strategic attention to university affairs and to a series of legislations aimed at favouring and protecting students, who significantly contributed to the city’s well-being.

Students also established more stable forms of association, gaining more and more political influence.

Arca Giovanni da LegnanoTheir first informal meetings led to mutual welfare associations being set up, known as Nationes, which were essential for the many foreign students who needed to find a group of compatriots in the city so that they could feel safe and protected.

In those years, Bologna’s borders were expanding, with new walls and new laws. It was becoming a leading centre of production and an international crossroads of economic and cultural exchange, which stood out, thanks also to the Studium, for its bustling and extraordinary liveliness.

In the early 13th century, the Nationes acquired even more power, consolidating their associations in supranational cooperatives: the Universitates, which had official statutes and a huge influence on the city’s decision-making.

They found that the city’s large convents and monasteries were ideal places to hold their assemblies: the assembly of the “Citramontani”, i.e. non-Bolognese Italians (Lombards from the North of Italy, Tuscans from the Centre, and Romans from the South) in the Basilica of San Domenico, and that of the “Ultramontani”, the foreigners (French, English, Spanish, German, Polish and Hungarian), in the Church of San Procolo.

Both Universities elected their rectors from among the best students, supported by the representatives of the various Nationes and a larger assembly of students. These figures reflected the student-oriented nature of the university organisation and represented its values at city meetings, managed its administration and presided over its legal system.

University life was therefore governed by rules and official statutes, which had not been contemplated at all in the first decades due to the fact that courses and lectures were of a strictly private and independent nature.

Lectures began to be organised in a set number of hours and attendance was compulsory. They were held through the Lectura, which involved reading and commenting on selected texts, further analysed and supplemented each week by Repetitiones, in which students also actively participated. Finally, students were encouraged to learn notions that were then tested by means of the Quaestiones publicae disputae, during which students could demonstrate their skills with considerable freedom of speech.

However, not everyone aspired to completing the studies they had started, since the title of “doctor”, which was initially awarded informally by individual teachers, was only necessary for those who wanted to teach. This lasted until the students’ Universities achieved self-management.

In fact, the 13th century was a complex one, during which the Studium grew and became official, but in this period students also began to lose their power.

As early as 1219, Pope Honorius III was able to impose the archdeacon – the city’s second most important religious office – as the only authority that could award graduating students with the Licentia docendi (permission to teach), thus bringing the most important ceremony, which by then had become essential and unavoidable, under his power.

At the same time, however, the papacy was strongly opposed by the city’s politicians, who accepted its “protection” only in 1278, following a strenuous struggle against Frederick II and the subsequent decades of continuous internal conflict between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines.

Bologna officially became part of the Papal States.

Nevertheless, the loss of independence did not undermine the achievements accomplished up to then: on the one hand, the Commune retained administrative autonomy while, on the other hand, the Studium remained legally administered internally, with powers shifting more and more from students to teachers.

In actual fact, the professors had formed the College of Doctors, which was the equivalent of students’ Universitates. It was exclusively dedicated to those from Bologna, with a set number of members according to their Schools of origin (16 civil law professors, 12 canon law professors and 15 medical artists).

With this new administrative burden, the professors successfully negotiated with the Pope, and the awarding of the title of “doctor” became a double ceremony. First of all, students were examined, privately, by a board of Bolognese professors in the sacristy of the Cathedral of Saint Peter (also known as the Bologna Cathedral). A magnificent and solemn ceremony then took place inside the cathedral, during which the archdeacon, surrounded by the same board, bestowed the symbols of their new social rank on students: the ring, the cap and the book.

The nature of the Licentia docendi title was finally declared universally valid by Pope Nicholas IV (1291) and, from then on, graduates of the University of Bologna could teach anywhere, spreading the reputation of Bologna “La Dotta” (The Learned) throughout Europe.

Not surprisingly, it was during this period that the inscription “Pietro padre del mondo, Bologna madre delle leggi” (Peter father of the world, Bologna mother of laws) first appeared in the Commune’s seal, which would later inspire the actual name of the University itself: Alma Mater Studiorum.

It referred only to the discipline of law, since until then the Studium had been restricted to Law students.

Towards the end of the 13th century, however, the Artists, who until then had been associates and subordinate to the Jurists, were also able to emancipate themselves and obtain the coveted Licentia docendi.

Rhetoric, Notary, Medicine and Philosophy students, based in the western part of the city, set up an independent university, and assemblies were held in the convent of the Basilica of Saint Francis.

Behind the apse of the Basilica of Saint Francis, and in Piazza San Domenico, opposite the Basilica of San Domenico, the glossarists’ “arche” (tombs) still hand down the memories of the great masters of the medieval Studium, commemorated publicly in a way that not even sovereigns were commemorated, at a time when individuals were just part of the community. Sepulchral monuments celebrated jurists and notaries whose work had contributed to the well-being of the city’s society, and in this way honoured their memory, remembering them as true “patriots”.

The tombs of Rolandino de’ Passaggeri, Egidio Foscherari, Odofredo Denari, Rolandino de’ Romanzi, and of Accursio (father and son) have been restored and preserved at their original sites: the others, instead, are kept in the Museo Civico Medievale (Civic Medieval Museum).