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The University of Bologna, the city, and the papacy

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The university was a key element in the civic identity and self-image of Bologna. Bologna created the civic university, the model followed by all other Italian universities and, to some extent, universities in other parts of Europe and the world. Civic leaders worked hard to ensure its intellectual, financial, and institutional health. They supported it because they were proud of the learning and teaching produced by the oldest university in Europe. But it was also closely integrated into the fabric of the city and the lives of its leading families.

The University of Bologna competed with the University of Padua for the title of the leading European university in law, medicine, and arts in the Renaissance. It was the largest university in Italy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, with an average of 80–90 professors and 1,500–2,000 students between 1450 and 1600. Bologna had far more professors of law and medicine than did universities in northern Europe, a major reason why so many ultramontane students came south. They came from all over Italy and Europe, with the Germans particularly numerous. Enrolment in the University of Paris reached several thousands, but this included a large number of teenage boys studying for bachelor's degrees. It is very likely that Bologna had more doctoral students in law, medicine, and arts than any other university in Renaissance Europe.

This essay describes four aspects of the identification between city, university, and papacy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. First, how the commune controlled the university through agencies of government (the Riformatori dello Studio and the Assunteria di Studio) and supported it through designated taxes (grossa gabella). Second, how the professoriate represented both local interests and the need to preserve reputation, with the majority of professors being Bolognese citizens from major families and a significant minority being international ‘star’ professors recruited at considerable cost and difficulty. Third, how the four Colleges of Doctors which examined degree candidates in different faculties were exclusively staffed by Bolognese men who were not professors. Fourth, how the city and the papacy worked hard to keep the university strong through the sixteenth century when reformation disputes threatened to cut the flow of northern students to Bologna.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: December 1, 1999

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