Art, History & Culture

The Oldest Universities in Italy: A Sneak Peek

Not only is Italy home to the oldest university in all of Europe and nearly the oldest in the world, il bel paese is also home to multiple universities which have been in continual operation for several centuries. Where might one find these educational treasures? And how many might there be still in operation? Here’s a sneak peek…


The university as we regard it today —  an educational institution designed for instruction, examination, or both, of students in many branches of advanced learning — had its roots in Italy when, sometime around 1088, the University of Bologna formed. It holds the distinction of being the first institute of higher learning in all of Europe, and nearly the world, not associated with the church. 

As we craft a thorough look at the oldest universities in Italy still operating today, here’s a look at the five oldest, all which had their beginnings in the 1200s.

1. University of Bologna

Established 1088 (charter granted 1158) | Bologna (Emilia-Romagna) | Original location known as Kingdom of Italy, Holy Roman Empire

File:Archiginnasio ora blu Bologna.jpg

Image Credit

The University of Bologna sparked the creation of a number of universities across Italy and all parts of Europe, and is still regarded as the model from which the modern university as we know it today was born. (More on its birth story here

Given more than 900 years of graduates, the university understandably has a long list of notable alumni. This includes four popes (Alexander VI, Innocent IX, Gregory XIII, Gregory XV); Renaissance scholars and philosophers Petrarch, Leon Battista Alberti and Pico della Mirandola; scientific innovators Nicolaus Copernicus and Guglielmo Marconi. The first woman in the world to be named a university professor of physics was Laura Maria Caterina Bassi, who earned a doctorate of philosophy degree from Bologna in 1732. 

2.  University of Padua

Established 1222 (likely earlier) | Padua (Veneto) | Original Location known as the Medieval Commune of Padua

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Originally founded by a group of students and professors from the University of Bologna seeking greater academic freedom, with the first subjects being law and theology. Today it hosts approximately 60,000 students, is the fifth oldest university in the world and still one of the top-ranked in Italy.

A few of the many notable students throughout history include Nicolaus Copernicus (attended 1501-03 after receiving his law degree in Bologna); Andreas Vesalius (1537) known as the founder of modern human anatomy; and Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia, who was the first woman ever to receive a PhD (1678) and went on to become a faculty member at the university in the mathematics department. Another noteworthy faculty in the mathematics department: Galileo Galilei, who chaired the deparment from 1592-1610.

3. University of Naples Federico II

Established 1224 | Naples (Campania) | Original location known as the Kingdom of Sicily

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In the early 1200s, the University of Bologna was one of the only higher education options, creating a problem for Frederic II, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Bologna was an adversary to his kingdom. To keep his scholars close and to train them for ministry in the empire, Frederic II founded the University of Naples as a public institution, and it remains the world’s oldest state-supported university. Today, despite being one of the largest in Italy, with nearly 80,000 students, it remains one of the top universities in the world. 

Among the many notable graduates are St. Thomas Acquinas (mid 1200s), who also founded the university’s theology department; three presidents of the Italian Republic, and Stefania Filo Speziale, the first woman in Naples to receive an architecture degree (1932).

4. University of Siena

Established 1240-1357 | Siena (Tuscany) | Original location known as the Republic of Siena

File:Siena, Tuscany, Italy-12May2013.jpg

City of Siena Image Credit

Another public university since its inception, the University of Siena today has a student population of around 20,000 (nearly half the population of the city itself) and attracts an broadly international crowd.

The 13th century university was founded for the studies of humanites and philosophy, and gained traction as a major university in the early 1300s. In 1321, a Bologna student was sentenced to death for the alleged kidnapping of a young woman, prompting a large number of University of Bologna students to protest and ultimately leave. Siena officials seized the opportunity. “Siena, supported by generous funding from the local commune, was able to accommodate the students resigning from the Studium Bolognese.” (source

University of Siena notes two popes as alumni or faculty: Pope John XXI (1276-77) who was a professor of medicine; and Pope Julius III (1550-55) who studied law at the university.

5. University of Macerata

Established 1290 | Macerata (Marche) | Original location known as the Papal States

University of Macerata Aula Magna Image Credit

Macerata is situated just south of Ancona and about 20 miles from the Adriatic Sea. The university began its life as a law school in the late 1200s, and in 1540 became a studium generale (universtiy) by Pope Paul III.

Today, seven centuries later, the university has a student body of just under 10,000 studying one of seven different schools (law remains one of those.) Some courses are offered entirely in English. Those who enjoy wandering the centri storici of Italy will be interested to note that the offices and departments of the university are found in the historical center of Macerata, within its medieval walls.

Post to be continued…Stay Tuned!

 

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