by Mary Tolaro Noyes

"No, no, no, this is not what I imagined," I said to myself. I had found the Palazzo dell'Università (Via Zamboni 33) but it hardly evoked the image of THE University of Bologna, oldest in the western world. I had been searching for more than a street filled with milling students and professors and hustlers with their wares -- where loud, technicolor graffiti splashed the porticoed palazzi walls and strips of pealing-away manifestos flapped in the day's breezes. As a visitor to Bologna, my heart yearned more toward a mystical glimpse into the depths of a medieval city. I searched out the Museum of the History of the Ancient University (also at Via Zamboni 33) and discovered that it had been closed for two years, with no reopening date scheduled. So I did some of my own research . . .

A Little History Goes a Long Way . . .

The history of the University of Bologna, the Alma Mater Studiorum, weaves in and out of the richly textured tapestry of Bologna's history, a significant thread since the early 11th century. Via Zamboni, the present center of the venerable institution, where I had begun my search, has been part of the university's history since about 1803, when Napoleon designated those palazzi the university's home. At the same time he changed it from a church governed organization to the state one it remains today.

Naturally, my mind jumped next to the impressive Palazzo dell'Archiginnasio (Via dell'Archiginnasio, just off Piazza Maggiore). All university lectures finally took place under one roof at its inauguration in 1563, when it was called Palazzo delle Scuole Nuove. A remarkable edifice, yes, but not the seat of the original university.

It cannot actually be found in any building. The university was an idea that found its early expression in the Città Rossa through the activities of individuals whose learning advanced 'Man's Search for Knowledge.' It was the economic, social and political dynamics of the time and place that gave rise to it.

No documented evidence proves the origins of the ancient university. Even the date 1088, the usual one parlayed about, is questionable. Records from the 11th century verify that certain Doctors of the Law were teaching in Bologna, even though they do not show the presence of an organized school. Neither was it founded by order of any authority. Instead, the university of Bologna grew up around those great figures who studied, explained and practiced the law.

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire (476 AD) the manuscripts recording its laws had been removed to Ravenna, the new capital of the Eastern Empire. They were gathered together by Justinian into the Corpus Iuris. How they ended up in Bologna from Ravenna is not clear. One of the great first teachers was Irnerio, who was born sometime during the second half of the 11th century and died between 1125 and 1140. From his famous glosses or comments, written in the manuscripts' margins, the study of law in Bologna emerged, and he and the others became known as glossatori.

Why was the study of law important in the early 11th century? And why did it happen in Bologna? The threat of barbaric invasions diminished and, consequently, commerce grew in the Pianura Padana. Commercial activity required laws to regulate it. Bologna's central location on the Via Emilia, between Rimini (the Adriatic) and Piacenza (the West), made the city a transportation and commercial hub even then. Everyone was traveling it seemed - monks, merchants, adventurers, pilgrims, soldiers returning from the Crusades and eventually, students too. Word had spread rapidly that in Bologna one could study law and that the city was hospitable.

Their arrival from all over Italy and other parts of Europe caused a crisis in the relatively small walled city. The foreign students and their servants needed housing, food, clothing, books, financial services and entertainment. Then too, other people had come from the countryside, and sometimes from great distances, to take care of the students: the artisans to make the cloth; the merchants to sell it; the farmers with their food, to name just a few. In other words, Bologna flourished. The city had to expand. The second set of walls was completed in 1192, with gates (the group known as the Torresotti) opening up on both large and small roads and at the points where the waterways entered and exited the city. Then a third set of city walls became necessary in the early 13th century.

The professors would come for a couple of years and then move on, making for a lively cultural exchange. The students would organize themselves and choose a professor and pay for his services, attending his lessons for a year. The powers that be in Bologna recognized the economic importance of the university to the city and enacted laws to ensure satisfactory conditions for the students' lodging, expenditures and studies. For instance, the porticoes were mandated into existence to help solve the housing shortage (See Com'è bella! Life Under Bologna's Porticoes ).

The number of students had increased dramatically toward the end of the 13th century so they divided themselves into groups according to faculty, and took over various neighborhoods of the city. For instance, the Law School gathered in the neighborhood of the Porta of San Procolo, while the School of Medicine and the Liberal Arts assembled in the neighborhood of Porta Nova, near the church of San Francesco.

From the last years of the 13th century until the 16th century the Antico Studio di Bologna was found in those neighborhoods. To walk in their narrow streets and to sit in the relatively quiet piazzas of San Domenico and San Francesco allow a sense of how it used to be.

So Turning Away From Books . . .

I searched out those neighborhoods of modern Bologna. Tiny Fiats, monster orange buses and zipping Vespas screamed and screeched. The line at McDonald's wound its way out of the restaurant and under the portico at the corner of Via dell'Indipendenza and Via Ugo Bassi. I instead, headed on the old Via Emilia (modern day Via Rizzoli) toward the Asinelli and Garisenda towers in Piazza di Porta Ravegnana. "If I could only throw myself back to the 12th century and dream the Middle Ages," I said to myself. I would have been there in the piazza when it was called Piazza Padella (a padella is a cooking pot) and seen bancarelle, their venders selling copper pots and utensils. Medieval Bologna - a dark, cold, walled city, full of musty dank, putrid smells in its narrow streets, the splash of canals, the squawks of hawkers and pigs, the clip-clop of horses' hoofs . . . excitement, vitality . . .

Just past the Palazzo Mercanzia (1384-1391), I followed Via Castiglione. On the left side of the street was fortress-like Palazzo Pepoli (Via Castiglione, n. 4-10) named after a powerful medieval Bolognese family of bankers. I had been puzzled initially by the heavy iron serpent-like hooks and rings that lined the street-side flank of the edifice, about five feet up from the pavement. Further research revealed that Via Castiglione had once been a canal, an offshoot of the Torrente Savena. It had been routed into the medieval city to move the water wheels for the mills that ground the wheat and dyed the silk. The hooks and rings had once moored boats of course.

The street's narrowness and the particularly gentle bend as it flowed south away from the city center helped me visualize the once shimmering ribbon of flowing water. As I looked toward its intersection with Via Farina, I thought I could see the Ponte di Ferro, the iron bridge that had once crossed the canal. I even caught a glimpse, in my mind's eye, of a dark, sleek boat or two, long and narrow, ends pointed up to the blue sky, oars dipping gently into the water as the navigator hurried along.

I crossed to the west side of Via Castiglione and immersed myself in the tiny vie of the Quadrilatero. Originally Roman streets, their names, however, actually derived from the Middle Ages and designated the artisans and merchants who once inhabited them. For instance, Via Clavature had been the street of the locksmiths. Other metal-workers would have populated Via Orefici (goldsmiths), Via Spadari (sword-makers) and Via Pignattari (makers of big pots). Merchants of foodstuffs would have been found on Via Pescherie Vecchie (fish) and Via Caprarie (meat), while Via Drapperie (textiles) and Via Calzolerie (shoes) would have been the home of those trades.

Eventually I headed toward Via Farini and turned west, in the direction of Piazza Calderini. My mind slipped back into 13th century Bologna and the modern store windows became mirrors into the past. I looked deep into the dark inside of small botteghe and saw piles of manuscripts and heard spirited conversations between university rectors and the stazionari who had sold the books. Then Via Farini had been known as Via dei Libri. Other artisans who produced books would have congregated neary: copyists, bookbinders, miniaturists.

When I arrived at Piazza Cavour, I turned left onto what would turn into Via Garibaldi. Again I tried to imagine another Bologna and Via delle Cassette di Sant'Andrea, where many of the law professors had held lessons. In fact, in all of the surrounding neighborhood, from Via D'Azeglio to Piazza Galvani, the law students had attended their classes at the professors' quarters and in churches and other public places.

Echoes of L'Antico Studio di Bologna resonated though. Just ahead at the end of Via Garibaldi, past the church of San Domenico, was Bologna's actual court house, the Palazzo di Giustizia. Twentieth century attorneys and young law students packed the narrow sidewalks and animated the neighborhood's corner bars and book stores.

As I stood in quiet Piazza San Domenico, which is covered with bumpy river rocks as it had been in the Middle Ages, I noticed again the two pyramidal tombs honoring some of medieval Bologna's professors. My first reaction had been "I wonder what ruler or famous warrior they memorialize?" However, Rolandino de'Passeggeri had been an important notary and government official (1305) and Egidio Foscherari, an expert in Church Law (1289). Bologna's heroes have always been her famous Doctors of the Law. The sarcophagi appeared curious and forgotten in the quiet piazza. They tilted, somewhat askew, after six centuries of standing guard outside the basilica.

That of Rolandino (1300) revealed the tradition one sees over and over again when looking at the tombs of the other famous studiosi of Bologna's university. The front panel depicted a professor teaching his students. While he sat in a throne-like chair lecturing, the students reclined below him, almost on the floor, listening and reading. Many later 14th century versions can be seen in the Medieval Museum (in Palazzo Ghisilardi-Fava, Via Manzoni, 4); in the basilicas of San Giacomo Maggiore (Via Zamboni and Piazza Rossini) and San Francesco (just off Piazza Malpighi); and in the wall outside the church of Saints Vitale and Agricola (Via San Vitale 50). They became very elaborate as the tradition developed, but one aspect remained constant: the professor held center stage, some students listening raptly to his lecture, others dozing or chatting with their neighbors.

Then I tried to imagine that place where I stood as it would have been in the late 11th century. Vineyards would have covered the mild, undulating, green hills that ran off toward the Apennines to the South. The Oratorio of San Nicolò delle Vigne would have rested there, just outside the wall. The city would have been expanding though, to accommodate its growing population. The Dominicans, the Franciscans, the Benedictines and other mendicant orders of monks descended on Bologna in the 13th century, another force to propel the city outward. And as usual, I wanted to put myself back into that time, far from the noisy modern city that clamored around me.

* * * * *

Instead of the contemporary jumble of traffic noise and noxious smells, the hustle and bustle of a modern city, I wanted to be among the hush of listeners standing in the Selciata di San Francesco, where early Franciscans preached to scholars from around the world, to rich silk merchants, to simple farmers and artisans. I wanted to be there in 1236 when they began to build their basilica.

I wanted to think Piazza Malpighi an elegant, lovely place. I looked out across it at the apse of the Gothic basilica, its two slender campanili framed by the vault of the Porta Nova. I saw the green and white tombs of more glossatori, like little houses standing in a row, next to the crowded sidewalk. But I wanted to glimpse the old marketplace and watch the peddlers sell their wood. I wanted to find pleasure in a spectacle unfolding on the piazza stage, as they once used to do.

I imagined the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi close to the green, sweetly rolling hills, just barely outside the city gate. I closed my eyes and the musty smell under the medieval porta evoked the darkness and damp of that closed-in, walled city. I heard the song of birds and the clipped cadence of farmers' voices on the other side of it.

During its earliest history, when the university thrived in medieval Bologna, the neighborhood had been the meeting place of students and professors, artists and musicians. The Schools of Medicine and the Liberal Arts (medicine, astrology, music, philosophy, poetry and grammar) had held lessons in various sites in the zone between Via D'Azeglio, the church of San Salvatore and the basilica of San Francesco. Many of the professors and scholars were buried in the basilica and in its cloisters.

After crossing Piazza Malpighi, I skirted the tombs of Accursio and his son Francesco (1250), Odofredo (1265) and Rolandino de'Romanzi (1285) and then turned left onto Via San Francesco, which bordered the side of the basilica. When I could, I turned right onto Piazza San Francesco. At its intersection with Via del Pratello I stopped for a moment and looked both ways, amazed by the quiet of an oasis in the normal confusion of the city.

Low, humble porticoes lined the fronts of the squat stucco palazzi flanking both sides of the narrow street. The dirty yellow and brown-stained ocher of the stucco communicated the decay of a working-class neighborhood. My eyes slid quickly along the wooden beams of the old bulging houses. They and the chunky, rectangular pillars that held them up formed the crumbling porticoes.

I felt comfortable in the street's quiet and unpretentious, matter-of-fact ambiance. When I looked up I saw a flower box spilling red blossoms and the window's yawning green wooden shutters opened to the pleasant warm air and sunlight. The word "pratello" is a diminuative for the Italian noun "prato," which means a plot of land left to grow wild. As I meandered, my mind erased the squatty houses and saw instead the green fields of tall grass and bushes blowing in spring breezes.

I compared that day's quiet musings to the animated evenings that Via del Pratello offered the modern visitor. Usually the street rocked with activity that spilled out from the osterie and trattorie, catering still to the preferences of students -- good company, economical and plentiful food and drink. Musicians often strummed guitars or pounded bongo drums outside under the porticoes recalling the past when young actors, philosophers, doctors and musicians would have frequented the quarter close to their studies. Enough . . .

I knew that there was much more to see and imagine in Bologna. Her streets and piazzas always held hidden treasures. I had found the Antico Studio di Bologna, I thought, that sense of place and time I had searched to understand. And I marveled that the modern city, along with a good dose of imagination, could still grant me that glimpse into her medieval soul.


L'Antico Studio di Bologna - But Where Is It? Copyright January 1996. All rights reserved. Mary Tolaro Noyes


I am an American writer, still enchanted by Bologna and her wonderful citizens. I invite your comments in English or Italian about Bologna - or about what I have written.

Watch here for additional stories about Bologna.

Home: Mary Tolaro Noyes

Last update: 20-Mar-2004 Page Author: Mary Tolaro Noyes