of Philosophy
University of Bologna
via Zamboni, 38
40126 Bologna, Italy
tel. +39.051.2098353
fax: +39.051.2098670 Email:

About this site

No. 11, May 1998
The history of Italian universities: recent studies


No. 13 - Dec 2000 (PDF)

No. 12 - Sep 1999

No. 11 - May 1998

No. 10 - Jun 1997

by Raffaele Gambigliani Zoccoli

A good place to start a review of recently published studies on the history of Italian universities is the Conference held at Padua in October 1994, La storia delle università italiane: archivi, fonti, indirizzi di ricerca [The History of Italian Universities: Archives, Sources, and New Directions for Research] [1]. One of the essays, by Mauro Moretti, dealt with the published proceedings of the conferences held at Siena in 1989 and 1991. He urged more detailed and structured analysis of the legislation passed after unification, and of the proliferation of specific minor measures, as well as an analysis of the link between state apparatus and the provincial centers of the Italian academic system (here he recommends looking at the local financial contribution for the setting up and maintenance of university structures). He also urged more comparison with the university systems of other countries, plus analysis, at the level of individual scientific disciplines, of the reciprocal influences between universities and the worlds of science, the professions and culture, and finally suggested a closer look at the world of university students.

In line with these indications, some scholars, including Moretti himself, have analyzed the laws passed after unification in more detail, with the idea of providing a sounder basis for an eventual overall history of the university, and as an extension of the work of Simonetta Polenghi on the university in the age of the historic right [2]. Polenghi's book, rich in documentary evidence, concentrated on the problems of freedom of expression in teaching. More concerned with the central issues of the debate was the first book published by Unistoria, an inter-university research center set up in 1991 by the Federico II University at Naples, Siena University and the Istituto trentino di cultura [3]. Including works by foreign scholars, and thanks to a comparative approach, this volume defines the European models to which Italian legislators referred in the course of the nineteenth century. Essays by Ilaria Porciani, Mauro Moretti and Giuseppe Recuperati offer an evaluation of the Acts passed in Parliament after unification: the 1862 Matteucci Reform, the Royal Commission for the re-organization of higher education and the Ceci Report 1910-1914, and the legislation of the Fascist regime. Moretti's invitation to pay greater attention not only to the laws but to those regulations that "made a mark on and actually created university life" in the post-unification period has in addition been backed up by a detailed bibliographical study which is nearly completed, and should soon see publication.

The second volume produced by Unistoria, Università e professioni giuridiche in Europa nell'età liberale [4], which offers the first results of a survey of the way academic spheres and the professions related to jurisprudence influenced each other, tries to analyze the connections between the world of the university, and that of careers, the professions, and scientific research. After unification the universities were asked to carry out the double function of professional formation and scientific production, and "higher education was identified as one of the areas needing to be modified, constructed anew or strengthened, to reinforce the identity of the new state" [5]. It is through this approach, according to Pierangelo Schiera, that "a reading of the history of the Italian university after unification has to be structured; starting with the leading section of jurisprudence, and then going on to analyze all the various formation routes (and research routes) available, which had been given formal shape from unification onwards". There are again several essays by foreign authors in the book, following the idea that the various European countries in the nineteenth century presented "analogous problems of political and social transformation, involving a profound redistribution of power" [6].

Against the background of these basic issues studies have emerged linked to situations which are only apparently of the sector. Le università minori in Italia nel XIX secolo [7], which had already appeared in 1993, brings up the question of the survival of the smaller universities at the time of unification, with the centralizing efforts of the ministries opposed by local pressures aiming to hold on to and consolidate the smaller institutions. What emerges from the studies is the discrepancy between the ministerial projects aiming at making the system more rational, - with the strengthening of the universities which had more students - and the actual results of the legislation; as well as the failure of every kind of formula for decentralization, caused by suspicions that local hierarchies would get undeserved privileges, further threatening quality. This testifies to an inbuilt centralizing tendency which also looked with suspicion on the new universities, like the Bocconi and Turin's Polytechnic. The question of the smaller universities was solved "politically" only with the war in Libya, when - inverting a tendency which by that time seemed generally accepted - the large number of universities was eventually seen as contributing to the prestige of the nation, creating favorable conditions, among other things, for the later foundation of new universities, a question still open, seeing the recent proliferation of new establishments.

A new book by Anna Maria Vinci deals with the genesis of Trieste, a "new" university [8]. She reconstructs the long process that in 1938 led to its foundation, through an intricate series of plans carried through thanks to the political climate of the second half of the thirties, when Trieste was called upon rhetorically to play the role of symbol of unity. Despite the fact that this local study is evidently limited in scope, it does deal with several major themes: the difficult interrelation between university and the various classes of the city, the influence on the teaching staff of the rituals of fascism, and how far the university observed the application of the laws on race.

This latter issue is the subject of Roberto Finzi and Angelo Ventura's work on Italian universities during Fascism and the race laws [9]. Among other things, they have the merit of having pointed out the way historians have gone out of their way to reduce the numbers of university staff purged under fascism. Alongside the reconstruction of the laws and regulations which marked the beginning of fascist repression in the universities, together with the loss to Italian science of men who, when they didn't perish in the concentration camps, finished up by settling in the Anglo-Saxon campuses that had taken them in, emerges the picture of those university teachers compromised by the fascist regime, who at the end of hostilities were allowed to stay on in their jobs. There is severe criticism of the academic world of the two decades of fascism, which with the honorable exception of a few individuals, accepted the 1938 repressive measures without showing any signs of shock. Indeed, in a climate of widespread passivity, which itself made a major contribution to the success of the Fascist initiatives, there were Rectors and teaching staff who threw themselves into applying the new laws to the letter, even in view of the unexpected discretional powers that opened up for the higher levels of the academic hierarchy. The race laws did not produce diffidence towards the regime, which the university world should have shown given its place in society.

No survey of recent university history can ignore the university students. If we leave aside research on the medieval period, student studies have been long neglected by Italian historiography, especially when we compare the flourishing state of foreign research with ours. But they have recently experienced an unexpected upturn, with the Conference on Università e studenti nel XIX secolo held at Milan in October 1997, and the establishment of a museum on students and student associations at the end of the Gaudeamus Igitur exhibition held at Bologna in 1995 [10]. The latter saw the publication of essays on student life between the eighth centenary of the foundation of Bologna University (1888) (with the students actively involved in the preparations for the celebrations), and the Gentile Reform of 1923, which severely restricted the opportunities for youthful activism, already affected by developments over the First World War. As Gian Paolo Brizzi writes in the introductory essay to the volume, the history of students by and large still remains to be written, but this study, though linked to the activities of the "goliardia", is to be noticed for its attempt to provide documentary evidence of the activities of young students starting from what they themselves produced.

Alberto Magnani has published two essays on students in the magazine Storia in Lombardia [11]. The studies provide evidence of the Milan students' attempt to promote a reform of the university in 1890. The students' movement failed to reach any significant results, however, and after their first failures some of the more active militants moved over to the Socialist Party which was being formed at that time. The students published a magazine, Lo Studente, in which, among others, Emilio Caldara wrote a first provocative number before shifting towards the more reassuring shores of the "goliardia", which pitilessly showed up the failure of the student initiatives.

Finally, a new review devoted entirely to questions of university history has started publication: the Annali di storia delle università italiane, edited by Gian Paolo Brizzi and linked to Bologna University. In its first number in 1997 it focused on the issue of recruiting staff, a subject of great relevance to the present-day. The essay by Ilaria Porciani and Mauro Moretti on the laws and regulations after unification, takes up some of the themes of Floriana Colao's book on the autonomy of the liberal university [12]. The structure of Italian universities is defined by the two scholars as an ideal-type of "imperfect centralization", the outcome of too much legislation, in bits and pieces, due to repeated failure to carry out an overall reform of the system. The relationship between the center and the individual universities affects the results of the entire framework of laws; on the one hand there is the ministry's centralizing tendency - for reasons outlined above - on the other, the repeated attempts to gain more power for themselves by the individual universities, reflected in local efforts to choose the relevant committees.

The other scholars who made a contribution to the first number of the journal with articles linked to the contemporary scene, Gian Carlo Calcagno and Luisa Avellini, concentrated on themes aimed more specifically at the study of Bologna University, respectively on the Engineering School around the turn of the century, and the teaching of literary disciplines in the first decade after unification.


1. Luciana Sitran Rea (ed.), La storia delle Università italiane: archivi, fonti, indirizzi di ricerca, Trieste: LINT, 1996.

2. Simonetta Polenghi, La politica universitaria italiana nell'età della destra storica (1848-1876), Brescia: La Scuola, 1993.

3. Ilaria Porciani (ed.), L'Università tra Otto e Novecento: i modelli europei e il caso italiano, Napoli: Jovene, 1994.

4. Aldo Mazzacane and Cristina Vano (eds.), Università e professioni giuridiche in Europa nell'età liberale, Napoli: Jovene, 1994.

5. Ilaria Porciani, "L'Università dell'Italia unita", in Università e professioni giuridiche, cit., p.66.

6. Pierangelo Schiera, "Università e società come snodo strutturale della storia moderna", in Università e professioni giuridiche, cit., p. 41 and p. 47.

7. Mario da Passano (ed.), Le Università minori in Italia nel XIX secolo, Sassari: Centro interdisciplinare per la storia dell'Università di Sassari, 1993.

8. Anna Maria Vinci, Storia dell'Uinversità di Trieste. Mito, progetti, realtà, Trieste: LINT, 1997.

9. Angelo Ventura, "La persecuzione fascista contro gli ebrei nell'università italiana", Rivista Storica Italiana,1 (1997), pp. 121-197; Roberto Finzi, L'Università italiana e le leggi razziali, Roma: Editori Riuniti, 1997.

10. Gaudeamus Igitur, studenti e goliardia 1888-1923, Bologna: Bologna University Press, 1995.

11. Alberto Magnani, "Un foglio studentesco in anni caldi di contestazione: Lo studente di Pavia (1891)", Storia in Lombardia, 3, (1995), pp. 57-68 and "L'agitazione legale. Studenti, docenti, uomini politici e il movimento per la riforma dell'Università a Pavia (1890-92)", Storia in Lombardia, 1 (1996), pp. 5-24.- 12. Floriana Colao, La libertà di insegnamento e l'autonomia dell'Università liberale. Norme e progetti per l'istruzione superiore in Italia (1848-1923), Milano: Giuffrè, 1995.

Address: Raffaele Gambigliani Zoccoli, via Ridolfi 50, I-41100 Modena. E-mail: