Art, History & Culture

These 14 Universities in Italy Have Welcomed Students Since the 1400s — or Earlier

As roughly 207 million college students worldwide begin their new fall term, many will attend universities which have been in operation since the 1400s — some since the 1200s. Being a passionate armchair historian, I find that information very enticing.

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. 

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

1. University of Bologna

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

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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); 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 department 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

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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 a broadly international crowd.

The 13th century university was founded for the studies of humanities 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

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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 (university) 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.

6. Sapienza University of Rome

Established 1303 | Rome (Lazio) | Original location known as the Papal States

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Italian for wisdom, the University of Rome or simply Sapienza, was the first university founded with religion in mind. Sapienza was born in the spring of 1303 with a papal bull issued by Pope Boniface VIII as a studium for ecclesiastical studies, giving the church more control over the studies than they would have had in Bologna or Padua. A century later, in 1431, Pope Eugene IV expanded university studies to include law, medicine and philosophy, in addition to theology.

Following the 1527 Sack of Rome, Sapienza understandably closed, but was restored in 1534 by Pope Paul III. Today, the university has a number of campuses and ranks among the top univerisities in southern Europe. Last year it ranked first in the areas of Classics and Ancient History.

“Sapienza educated numerous notable alumni, including many Nobel laureates, Presidents of the European Parliament and European Commissioners, heads of several nations, notable religious figures, scientists and astronauts.” (source).

Nobel prizewinners hailing from Sapienza include Daniel Bovet (psychobiology), Enrico Fermi and Emilio Gino Segrè (Physics). Other noteworthy grads are Maria Montessori (also served as professor), renowned film directors Federico Fellini (law degree) and Bernardo Bertolucci (modern literature).     

7. University of Perugia

Established 1308 | Perugia (Umbria) | Original location known as the Papal States

PERUGIA

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Perugia, in central Italy, is considered a university town but has roots dating to Etruscan times. The university launched in 1308 with a papal Bull from Pope Clement V; about 50 years later it received further distinction when Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV gave it the distinction as an imperial university, in an effort to support Perugia following the devastation of the Black Plague. 

The university lists 11 popes among its alumni, including Julius II, the pope responsible for expanding St. Peter’s Basilica into what it is today. 

8. University of Florence

Established 1321 | Florence (Tuscany) | Original location known as the Republic of Florence

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The birth of the Italian Renaissance in 14th century Florence also gave rise to the first Studium Generale of the Florentine Republic, when the University of Florence launched in 1321. The university lists Giovanni Boccaccio and Leonardo da Vinci among its faculty. Boccaccio, whose famed work Decameron was published around 1350, taught Ancient Greek and Literature. Leonardo conducted anatomy studies at Santa Maria Nuova hospital, a teaching hospital associated with the university, and still Florence’s oldest hospital.

9. University of Pisa

Established 1342 | Pisa (Tuscany) | Original location known as the Republic of Pisa

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The University of Pisa is a large, public research university which historically has ranked among the top universities in Italy. It was the first university to found an academic botanical garden, a tradition that many other universities across Italy followed and which are still maintained and open for public viewing.

Hometown son Galileo Galilei attended the University of Pisa, with the intent to study medicine, but became more interested in math and physics. He later went on to chair the math department at the university.  

10. University of Pavia

Established 1361 | Pavia (Lombardy) | Original location known as Domain of the House of Visconti

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Established through an edict by Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, Pavia was located in the Duchy of Milan, ruled by the Visconti. The House of Visconti dominated Milan for 200 years, starting in the late 1200s and interestingly, the University of Pavia served as the only university in Milan and one of the main universities in all of the Lombardy region until the 19th century. 

Rather than a centralized campus, buildings are scattered amongst the city. It maintains a fierce athletic rivalry with the University of Pisa, which for the past half-century has culminated every year in a rowing regatta on the waters of the Arno (Pavia is the current champ).

11. University of Ferrara

Established 1391 | Ferrara (Emilia-Romagna) | Original location known as the House of Este

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The turn of the century was fast approaching, crossing over from the 1300s to the 1400s. Institutions of higher learning were forming across Europe and in 1391, on the feast day of San Luca (St. Luke), the University of Ferrara launched under the region’s ruling lord, Alberto V D’Este (with permission, of course, from the reigning pope, Boniface IX).

Today the University of Ferrara is a state-supported university in the northern region of Emilia-Romagna, with eight main schools of study and approximately 16,000 students. 

One very notorious alumnus is Girolamo Savonarola, the zealous Dominican friar who “became moral dictator of the city of Florence when the Medici were temporarily driven out in 1494” and eventually was put to death in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence. (A disk on the ground in the piazza still marks the exact spot where Savonarola was hanged and then burned.)

12. University of Turin

Established 1404 | Turin (Piedmont) | Original location known as the Duchy of Savoy

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“The University of Turin (Università degli Studi di Torino, or often abbreviated to UNITO) is a university in the city of Turin in the Piedmont region of north-western Italy….it continues to play an important role in research and training [and] is steadily ranked among the top 5 Italian universities and it is ranked third for research activities in Italy.” (source)

13. University of Catania

Established 1434 | Catania (Sicily) | Original location known as the Kingdom of Sicily

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With approximately 60,000 students, the University of Catania holds the distinction of not only being the first university in Sicily but also the main university of Sicily, then and now. It was founded by King Alfonso, king of Aragon and Sicily, with classes being held in Piazza del Duomo next to the Cathedral of St. Agatha. Two centuries after its inception, the main building became the Palazzo dell’Università (pictured below), still considered, the “seat of the university.”

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14. University of Genoa

Established 1481 | Genoa (Liguria) | Original location known as the Republic of Genoa

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A pope, a president of the Italian Republic and the first Italian citizen in space all hail from the University of Genoa. Respectively, they are Benedict XV (pope from 1914-1922), Sandro Pertini (president from 1978-1985) and Franco Malerba (astronaut on Space Shuttle Atlantis in 1992).

Although not the first university in the area when established, today this university ranks among the top European universities in computer science. It has strong connections with the Italian Institute of Technology, also in Genoa. 

15. University of Urbino

Established 1506 | Urbino (Marche) | Original location known as Kingdom of Italy, Holy Roman Empire

Urbino

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Although technically not founded in the 1400s, the University of Urbino earns the spot of Italy’s 15th oldest university, established in 1506.


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