Bologna – Italy’s University City

Anya and I spent a few days in Bologna in May (it was quite a change after riding a bike on the back roads of South Australia) on our way to the mountains in the north of Italy. 

Bologna is a city with a long history, evident in its medieval buildings and churches, its cloistered streets and narrow lanes, its statues and archways and squares. 










Like every other historic Italian town, Bologna’s past is the story of ongoing feuds between competing aristocratic families, of coups and counter coupes, of plots hatched and daggers drawn: the setting in which the Machiavelli wrote his famous book ‘The Prince’,  a text which proved to be timeless with its portray of politics in terms of ruthless self-calculation.

The most visible remnants of this family feud politics today are the so called ‘two towers’ of Bologna near the city centre. Built in the 12th century, the towers are named after the families, who commissioned their construction, keen to show which family was the most powerful: the Asinelli and the Garisenda towers. Originally the Arisenda was 70 meters and the Garisenda was 60. But in later years Garisenda started leaning and had to be shorten to 48 metres. The Asinelli was heighted to 97 meters. Hence one high relatively upright tower and the other, shorter and leaning. 


For me the single best reason to visit Bologna is it’s university museum.

It is certainly one of the most interesting museums I have visited. The exhibits and accompanying texts (one in Italian, one in English). The university is the oldest in Europe. For two centuries, the 14th and 15th, it was a kind of medieval silicon valley, a centre for scientific endeavour on many different fronts, from geography and botany, to biology and astronomy. 

It had one of the largest libraries in Europe – which is still there today. 

Bologna’s library – one of the largest in Europe – in the 15th century and below, the same library which is now a part of the museum: 


Bologna’s university museum gives an impressive view of the development of the sciences during the 14th and 15th centuries. The explanations, given in English as well as Italian, take one on a journey into the past, when Europe’s scientists were recording the known world, from its geographical features to the immense diversity of its plants, animals, rocks and human beings. 

I was intrigued to note that much of this research was funded by Bologna’s powerful Catholic archbishops, many of them keenly interested in the sciences and major patrons of the university.  Generally speaking, one might expect religion and science to be antagonistic. Not so here in Bologna, leastways not until the 16th century. I detected hints of the impending censorship with an exhibit concerning an Italian astronomer whose lenses were imported from Amsterdam. 

Once awakened, the spirit of inquiry was difficult to stop. The acquisition of knowledge on the basis of reasoned analysis has it own unquenchable inner dynamic. How long could the Catholic church patronise the development of science if it moved beyond explaining the characteristics of the natural world – to challenging the dogmas of the church and even, the existence of God – leastways a personal God similar to a human form?  

By the 17th century, scientists with new instruments such as the microscope and telescope were opening up new worlds, micro and macro, from germs to outer space.

But these scientists were living in northern Europe. The impetus had moved. In The Netherlands, a diminutive Dutch Jew named Baruch Spinoza, who earned his living by grinding lenses for microscopes and telescopes – and was friends with some of the pioneering Dutch scientists – created a new philosophy which rejected the idea of a personal god and claimed that if God was to be found, it was in the measurable and observable laws of the physical world. 

He was in every sense, the product of the new spirit of scientific endeavour. His books were banned by the Catholic church. Its list of banned books grew. Spinoza became the target of an official hate campaign (illustrations in Catholic publications portrayed him a devil). He and other Dutch scientists were ‘persona non grata’ in the Catholic nations. But the were welcome in England. Spinoza was offered a professorship in Germany. 


A shrine to the Baby Mary (‘Maria Bambino’), a plastic doll covered in lace, in a former monastery  right in the heart of Bologna. It is still a place of worship for some people. Once, this kind of ritualistic symbolism was a prominent part of an all powerful Catholic Church – the same one which financing Italian scientists in their ground-breaking endeavours. 


Departing Bologna University’s wonderful museum, I felt immeasurably enriched (always the mark of a great museum experience) which meant: I was transported to another age and confronted by some intriguing questions. I had a list of topics I wanted to read up on.   

It was midday. I was met by students, most of them staring at their mobile phones. (there are 80, 000 of them attending Bologna’s university). 



Wrestling my way over pavements seething with tourists and students, I resolved that when I came back to Bologna to visit its museum again, it would be in the winter.

May, spring, was already too late. 


Categories: Italy

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