Sapienza’s story begins in 1303.
In 1294, Benedetto Caetani became Pope Boniface VIII after convincing his predecessor, Pope Celestine V, to abdicate. A firm supporter of the universal supremacy of the papacy, Pope Boniface clashed with Philip IV of France and excommunicated him after emanating the Unam Sanctam Bull, which confirmed the supremacy of the papacy over all lay rulers. During that same year, 1303, Pope Boniface VIII issued the In suprema praeminentia dignitatis Bull and founded the Studium Urbis, Rome’s first university.
The university was erected outside of the Vatican walls, and while this did not completely resolve the many issues between the university and the clergy, it surely catalysed a new relation between the City of Rome and the many scholars that arrived at the new university from around the world.
The Studium Urbis gradually grew more prestigious. In 1363, it began to receive a permanent subsidy from the City of Rom and soon grew too large for its original site in the Trastevere area. In 1431, Pope Eugene IV reorganised the university, appointed four administrators to help the Rector and purchased a series of buildings in the Rione Sant’Eustachio area between Piazza Navona and the Pantheon in what is now downtown Rome.
At the beginning of the 16th Century, Pope Leo X, the son of Lorenzo De’ Medici, injected new vitality in Rome’s university by hiring prestigious scholars from around Europe and promoting history, humanities, archaeology and science. The University began to introduce new courses of study such as the Simplicia Medicamenta, a forerunner of the Spagyric, a herbal medicine based on alchemical procedures, but also a precursor of holistic medicine. Bartolomeo Eustachio, one of the founders of modern anatomical science, also worked at the Studium Urbis in this period.
In 1592, Pope Clement VIII hired Andrea Cesalpino, the man who demonstrated the circulation of blood and the existence of an opposite centripetal force respect to that which, through the aorta and its branches, pumped blood from the heart to the peripheral blood system.
Expansion and Consolidation
In 1660, the Studium Urbis relocated to a new building on the Corso Rinascimento and came to be known as Sapienza from the engraving over its main gate: Initium Sapientiae timor Domini.
In 1670, Pope Alexander VII founded the Biblioteca Alessandrina on the new premises. In the meantime, papal envoys were dispatched throughout the Near East to acquire manuscripts, volumes and other precious treatises.
The Roman University received new lymph in the mid-eighteenth century when Pope Benedict XIV reformed the university’s degree courses and procedures for hiring professors. Benedict XIV also introduced new courses, such as experimental physics, chemistry and mathematics, and brought the degree programmes from three to five: Sacred Studies, Law, Medicine and Surgery, Humanities (Arts and Philosophy) and Languages. A practical man, Pope Benedict also provided the university with all the resources that were necessary to enact the many new reforms.
In 1798, the spirit of the French Revolution lead to the proclamation of the Roman Republic. The creation of a National Institute for Sciences and Arts made both the university and its degree courses more culturally autonomous. However, the new wave did not last long. The lay spirit of Roman students would have to wait until the Revolutions of 1848.
In 1849, a battalion of university students fought to defend Mazzini, Saffi and Armellini’s Roman Republic from the French troops of Napoleon III. Then, in 1870, the Bersaglieri liberated the City of Rome from the rule of the papacy and completed the unification of Italy.
The new lay spirit, Education Minister Terenzio Mamiani, a philosopher and intellectual, and his successors, ushered a new European context into Sapienza University.
The 20th Century and Two World Wars
The patriotic spirit that imbued the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century incubated the germs of nationalism.
At the dawn of World War One, the campus witnessed clashes between interventionists and internationalists, anti-German rallies and forced the interventionist Rector Alberto Tonnelli to suspend lessons and close the university. The war would leave a profound scar on university life. Indeed, at the end of the conflict, all of Sapienza’s fallen students received a honorary degree.
In the years following the war, social conflict drove Italy towards the Fascist dictatorship. In 1931, the Fascist Regime, which viewed the university and schools as a prime tool for propaganda, called all faculty to take an oath of allegiance to the Duce. Those who refused would lose their job. Only twelve Italian professors out of 1200 had the courage to stand up against the dictatorship. There were four Sapienza professors amongst them: Ernesto Buonaiuti, History of Christianity; Giorgio Levi Della Vida, Oriental Studies; Vito Volterra, Mathematics and Physics; and Gaetano De Sanctis, Ancient History. A few other professors requested early retirement to avoid clashing with the Regime.
The professors who swore allegiance to the regime were rewarded with the edification of a splendid new university campus, the so-called città universitaria. The new campus, designed by Marcello Piacentini, was opened in 1935 and inaugurated with a grandiose ceremony at the presence of the Italian Royal Family.
The environment in Italy was no longer conducive to scholarly studies and research. Professors began to emigrate. Enrico Fermi remained in Rome until 1938, but by the time he received the Nobel Prize for Physics, the regime already promulgated its infamous Racial Laws. After accepting the Nobel Prize in Stockholm, Enrico Fermi left for New York. Emilio Segrè, one of Fermi’s students, who had been a professor at Sapienza for over ten years, followed his mentor. The following year, a young Law graduate also left for the United States. Franco Modigliani was to receive the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1985.
After World War Two, Italy began a painstaking process of national reconstruction. The professors who had been forced to resign were reintegrated and democratic processes were reinstated for the free election of the rector and other university charges.
The Sixties and Seventies
The 1960s heralded the beginning of a new era. Italy was enjoying an unprecedented economic boom and the country was quickly modernising. The first Italian centre-left government introduced a wide-ranging series of reforms, while the Second Vatican Council veered the Catholic Church towards a greater respect of the contribution of science to the progress of humanity. When Hungary was invaded, the Italian Communist Party broke all direct links with the Soviet Union.
Student enrolment was on the rise, but the university remained an extremely conservative environment. Suddenly, clashes erupted between left and right wing students. On April 27, 1966, a student called Paolo Rossi died at the Faculty of Humanities after an attack by right wing students. Students and professors occupied the university as a form of non-violent protest and for the first time in the history of the university, its Rector, Ugo Papi, was forced to resign. Student movements requested more rights for students and workers and forced the government to liberalise university access in 1969.
It was a period of great hopes and communal participation. The social sciences, which had been constrained by the ideas of Giovanni Gentile, were free welcome new ideas. In the 1970s, the university introduced two new degree programmes in Psychology and Sociology, although these two disciplines would have to wait until 1991 to be organised as true faculties.
The rest is recent history: the tumult of 1977 and the fallout between the student movement and the trade unions that drew students away from politics, until the Panther Movement of the 1990s rekindled a new form activism amongst students. During the so-called Anni di Piombo, the university was twice hit by the assassination of illustrious professors: Vittorio Bachelet in 1980 and Ezio Tarantelli in 1985.
Rector Antonio Ruberti, who directed the university from 1976 to 1987, brought Sapienza to the forefront. The university was to play a key role in the development of new university policy in Italy. Ruberti was also responsible for revamping the University’s original name. Antonio Ruberti later became Italy’s first Minister for University and Scientific Research. Meanwhile, the alarming growth rate of the Sapienza student body lead to the creation of two new universities in Rome: Tor Vergata and Roma Tre.
Towards the Future
The future of Sapienza begins today, thanks to its glorious past and the selfless contribution of the entire university community.
Sapienza is today among the most important universities in the world, with prominent positions in all international rankings. The reforms that affected the Italian university system at the end of the nineties led to a strong expansion of its educational offer and its structures.
A reorganization process began in 2009 which led to the adoption in 2010 of the new Statute, further revised following Law 240/2010 in 2012 and updated again in 2015.
In December 2020, Sapienza elected Antonella Polimeni, the first woman to become rector of the University in over 700 years of history.