The Mother of All Universities

By Anastasia Mills Healy

Those who know Italy well find it remarkable that no one they know has been to Bologna. A hidden gem, an undiscovered treasure…Call it what you will, but do put Emilia-Romagna on your itinerary. The tortellini de zucca, spaghetti alla bolognese and other regional specialties are worth the journey. Then there’s the lovely centro storico with porticoed walkways. But what has drawn hundreds of thousands of people to Bologna for nearly one thousand years is its university.

As the classes of 2012 from around the globe are spreading their wings, thoughts turn to higher education. Most agree that the University of Bologna was founded in 1088, which makes it the oldest in the Western world and gives credence to its motto, “Alma mater studiorum” (“Nourishing mother of studies”).

University of Bologna

Before the university was officially established, students hired professors and kept them accountable, which worked out very well. This gathering of eager students and highly motivated teachers evolved into a center of learning whose reputation for high quality tutelage was second to none.

Famous thinkers from a variety of fields who studied at the university include several who are known by one name – Dante, Petrarch, Copernicus – as well as the likes of Albrecht Dürer and Umberto Eco.

In some ways Bologna is a typical college town, full of young people, cafés and bookstores. In other ways, its unique history permeates everything. Today the campus includes many buildings from the 17th and 18th centuries and some dating even to the 15th century.


Take the Museo di Palazzo Poggi, the most interesting of the university’s museums. This imposing palace displays a fascinating array of wonders, including ancient Roman weapons, ship models dating to the 16th century and thousands of fossils, plants, minerals and other items now categorized as “natural history.” Don’t ignore the exquisite murals and architectural details throughout the palazzo. A perfect blending of art and science.

Note: Bologna was not damaged by a May 20th, 2012 earthquake whose epicenter was 22 miles northwest of the city.


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