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No. 12, September 1999

"Quod vis non habes nisi quod non vis feres"*, or, a few recollections from the former head archivist
by Marco Bortolotti


No. 13 - Dec 2000 (PDF)

No. 12 - Sep 1999

No. 11 - May 1998

No. 10 - Jun 1997

Having recently retired as head archivist at the University of Bologna, Universitas has asked me for a few autobiographical reflections on my forty years service, mostly in the university archives, believing they may be of interest to historians and those interested in the scientific collections of the oldest university in Europe. I could have just referred the reader to a list of publications, but these are too light or limited in scope to give much idea of my actual experience. In a sense, I was a combination of an ordinary office worker and amateur enthusiast, who took on something that was bigger than he was. It will be better if I confess all, though of course not everything can be told out of tact or respect for others.

Those who know something of how a great administrative machine works in Italy will be able to read between the lines. I have not been a victim of this machine, but have tried to work with it through efforts which in fact have given me satisfaction, in the service of recognised needs.

One further epigraphic premise: the university has given me much, and I have repaid the debt through increasing the size and quality of its museums, libraries and archives; I am aware that the work would have been more productive if I hadn’t had to waste my time and that of my invaluable collaborators in a host of other, often futile activities:

"chè sempre l’uomo in cui pensier rampolla

sovra pensier, da sé dilunga il segno

perché la foga l’un de l’altro insolla."

In 1959 I was taken on at the humblest levels of university office work, copying down the payment of students’ fees with a pen, rather like someone in the earliest days of the institution. There were twelve thousand students, compared to the hundred thousand now, and fifty people worked with me in the central administration, compared to 545 today. The university had a monumental appearance, in which discipline reigned. The work was simple and monotonous, but the head of my office noticed some aptitude on my part and entrusted me with the preparation of the university yearbook. I therefore became more familiar with the overall structure of the university, and also got to know some of its authoritarian defects. Obtuse hierarchical obedience irritated me, and it was only later that I discovered the quiet nobility of discipline.

My rebellious outbursts were duly met with a corrective, in the form of a letter that changed the course of my thinking: "It has come to our notice that on Wednesday January 4th. 1967, having been invited by the Head of your Office to bring to an end an informal, friendly conversation during work hours, you did not take any notice. It is to our great regret we must advise you to behave more correctly and respectfully towards your Superiors, in order to avoid very serious disciplinary measures being taken in future." The Superiors with a capital S were graduates, and to extricate myself from further humiliation I went back to studying, got the equivalent of A-levels and signed on as a university student. Studying was my salvation, and sweetened my character. I was then put in charge of the office dispensing scholarships for graduates, and those young people, on their way to an academic career, became my friends and teachers. This was the time of student protest, and my office began to overflow with ideas. After ten years in a kind of wilderness I was thirsty for them.

At Bologna’s State Archives I was given marvellous teaching by Isabella Zanni, graduating as an archivist with a thesis on the university archives, which I thought was an easy topic: shifted from one office to the next for reasons that may be imagined, I had been employed to officially register documents, and knew the procedures and necessary paper work.

One afternoon in December 1974 I took a torch down into the enormous cellars of Palazzo Poggi and found the Wonders of Sesame abandoned down there. There in the dark, covered in dust and cobwebs, were the ancient instruments of the Astronomical Observatory, Luigi Ferdinando Marsigli’s equipment, boxes of books, furniture, furnishings, and an infinity of papers. In the great chaos of papers and records, only the files of the students and personnel were recognisable. My little pen pusher’s heart was terrified of what might happen to me if the news of this find got about. I was appalled by the thought of the immense amount of solitary labour implied, lacking theoretical or any kind of practical preparation as I was. But finding it impossible to bear the shame and humiliation of admitting failure, I overcame my fears and lack of experience through an expedient. I restricted my putting some order into things just to the papers of the papal university administration (1815-1860); the previous papers had been deposited in the State Archives in 1892. I added to my inventory some recommendations about good, modern criteria for the creation of the historical archive and deposit, and I appended a cautious note on the disordered nature of what was left.

The papers that had been reordered told that the eighteenth century equipment of the Istituto delle Scienze had been inherited by the scientific institutes. Exploration revealed the extent of the disaster. While the central administration had kept everything, but hidden away, the institutes, who were devoted to teaching and research and not concerned with the conservation of the old, or even the ancient, had dissipated the inheritance. Some of the more splendid equipment had been spared, together with scattered junk or curiosities, cluttered up among bulky nineteenth century additions, the whole lot threatened by irresponsible neglect.

Physics offers a good example of what had happened. During the second half of the nineteenth century an incomparable museum had disappeared, almost entirely sold to a second-hand dealer by Emilio Villari, the brother of the better-known Pasquale, in order to purchase some then modern equipment, and make more room. The cry of scandal had been loud, fostered more by academic rivalry than cultural indignation, but Villari managed to get away with it through the protection of his more illustrious brother, minister of education. For me, indignation was a dangerous luxury, one might only regret the losses in passing, my task was to seek out and describe.

Throughout the university, the discoveries abounded, some of them unheard-of. What follows is a small sample. Under the pharmacology rooms, together with many other instruments, I found the microscope Francesco Selmi had used in his study of ptomaines; in the cellars of the porters, masses of instruments and equipment; in the ambulacra of St Orsola Hospital, kilometres of underground passages, medical instruments; in one room shut up and underground, there was Giovanni Antonio Galli’s amazing eighteenth century obstetrical equipment, which I brought back to Palazzo Poggi after having convinced the reluctant head of the clinic with embarrassing photographs, showing the degraded state of Europe’s first and most famous obstetrical equipment; under the amphitheatres of the lecture halls were piled books, instruments, and papers: on top of cupboards, in the part behind the ornamentation (as happened to Scipione Maffei with the codices he found in the Capitolare Library of Verona), I found the tools of science: boxes of obsolete instruments, scientific photographs, inventories, and correspondence, all precious evidence of the university’s scientific history. The leading professors tolerated my incursions into their institutes, and treated me nicely because I was head of an important sector, - I organised payments for the scholarships or grants, I received the minutes of the commissions’ meetings, and I had access to confidential papers. They were also flattered by my interest in the work of their predecessors: Professor Leonardo Possati for example, for the 1981 anatomy exhibition, searched in vain for the surgical instruments Benedict XIV had donated to his Chair, finding instead in the drawers of a ward sister a set of instruments of the Lollini brothers.

Collections which survived came to light where conditions and a growing awareness of possibilities allowed. The academic institutions became persuaded of the usefulness of the research, though this was not the case with the university’s bureaucracy, which was irritated by the new attention being paid to old things; it resigned itself to having to tolerate my existence when I graduated with distinction. My thesis roused the curiosity of Rector Tito Carnacini and Ezio Raimondi, the distinguished professor of Italian Literature, who, together with Isabella Zanni Rosiello, tried to keep up my spirits by making encouraging noises.

I began increasingly to collaborate with the Cooperativa Libraria Universitaria di Bologna (CLUEB), the publishing firm. To celebrate their move to new premises I suggested reprinting Dell’origine e de’ progressi dell’Istituto delle Scienze di Bologna, by Giuseppe Gaetano Bolletti, with a few notes of mine, and it was a resounding success. With my scholarship friends, Alessandro Braccesi, Franco Farinelli, the restorer Giovanni Morigi, the Superintendent Andrea Emiliani, Renzo Predi, and my colleague the architect Mauro Monesi, a team was formed for the exhibition and catalogue of 1979 on the historical materials of the Istituto delle Scienze (see bibliographical note). With Alessandro Serra, a very great friend and more of a book lover than myself, we discovered the scientific books of the Della Volpe printers, and brought out the catalogue. Both the exhibition and catalogues were received enthusiastically and encouraged a good deal of research, although I had to continue thinking in terms of my career, because in bureaucracies, influence and relative autonomy depend on your rank in the hierarchy and qualifications, never on one’s competence and merits. Luckily for me the university is not completely bureaucratised, and offers one opportunities that don’t exist elsewhere.

In 1980 I attended the courses of the Scuola Superiore della Pubblica Amministrazione, passed the exams with a paper on the organisation of libraries which Giorgio Freddi liked, and finished up as librarian at the University of Trieste. So I decided to take another degree, and was able to return every now and again to Bologna to take exams and carry on with my interrupted labours. It was in 1980, indeed, after a ministerial inspection had checked up on the good condition of the by now re-ordered historical archives, that the university received official recognition from the Ministry of the special importance of its archive. Bologna was the first university to obtain such recognition, necessary for the eventual setting up of an office and to get a person appointed to take charge of it, although these were measures taken only some years later. With another degree under my belt, with a thesis which developed my previous work on libraries, and coming back to Bologna with the added Trieste library experience, I was given the post of coordinator of our libraries, whose wastefulness and functional disabilities I had already pointed out. I proposed in vain a historical library for the university, for its ancient and rare books scattered about and never looked after properly, and satisfied my vanity with a few slight publications. I disappointed the expectations of those who thought the library service could be improved merely by my enthusiasm, leaving the organisational framework unchanged, as well as the many, petty academic privileges which had struck me as both incongruous and parasitic. That post was phased out with the eventual alteration of the system, which with adequate resources and the reorganisation of responsibilities, has succeeded where I failed.

In 1983 my colleague Comastri and I brought back the original furniture to the restored lecture hall of Giosué Carducci, in Palazzo Poggi. Into the room next door we moved the statue of Hercules, substituting the original outside in the courtyard with a copy; Superintendent Emiliani offered us some show cases, and the place, with my colleague Viviana Lanzarini assigned to the archive from 1981, from that time onwards gradually became a reference point for publicising our museums. In 1984 I published a booklet on the museums of the science faculties of the University which ran through two editions; though this was because of a bureaucratic "incident" rather than my own merits. The booklet exposed the inadequacy of the safety measures concerning fire and theft in some of the museums. Fearing eventual difficulties with the law, the administration had two thousand copies of the booklet destroyed, to be replaced by a reprint omitting the incriminating evidence.

The event encouraged me to be more obedient and conformist, values I at once applied in setting up the exhibition of the Galli’s obstetrical equipment and that of Marsigli’s military architecture, next to the Museum of the Studio and of the Eighth Centenary.

With the new Rector, Fabio Roversi Monaco, elected in 1985, - besides many other, well-known achievements - the seal of the Studio replaced the star of the Italian Republic on our official paper, and the letters destined for the ministries ended with the Rector’s "yours truly" rather than the obsequious bureaucratic "osservanza".

In 1988, the year of the ninth Centenary of the University of Bologna, I and my collaborators were involved in a very wide range of activities for all sorts of people. Both the archive and the library proved invaluable. In the same year I accepted the pressing invitation to leave off working for the museums, where my hands were often tied. The CISMA was set up, the present system for the university’s museums. In the committee meetings and in writings, I pleaded (to no avail) for a more intense collaboration between the scientists in charge of the museums and their historian colleagues; a collaboration I imagine necessary also for the Palazzo Poggi’s future as a museum hosting several of the now scattered collections. In order to avoid being congratulated on initiatives which are none of my own making, it needs to be said that I have been able to take very little part in the planning of the new museum, and then just at the level of airing my doubts, and with information solicited by the architects planning it.

The Centenary was an incredible opportunity for both the Archive and the library attached to it, assisted since 1984 by the excellent qualities of Daniela Negrini, a professional archivist who is now in charge. With the gifts of books made to the University, or to the Rector, who then donated them, accompanied by a letter to universities all over the world, the archive has seen the establishment of a library focusing on the history of universities.

I also tried to make a contribution to the Centenary, by attributing the little throne used by Napoleon on his visit to Bologna after being crowned in Milan, to Palagio Palagi (with circumstantial evidence); by discovering through an antiquary an extremely rare and possibly unique miniature anatomical statue of Lelli’s, purchased afterwards by the Association of Bologna Graduates and donated to the Studio for the Palazzo Poggi museum.

I had been able to visit many European universities through EC scholarships from 1989 to 1992, and I had noticed the high regard enjoyed by the students, and the careful attention paid to them. Students are, after all, the main reason for our labours, so all my previous experience was brought to bear to direct the museum’s and the archive’s activities, as well as bibliographical research, to discovering the European history of the students and their associations. I began with the incomparable cultural heritage they have handed down to us - the theses presented at the moment of graduation. Financed through the university’s governing bodies, the theses from 1860 to 1930 in the faculties of law, letters, natural sciences and medicine have thus been classified, and the others are due to follow. The Association of Graduates of the University of Bologna, presided over by my dear friend Leonardo Giardina, gave its support to the programme that plans to publish theses of special interest; Pier Paolo Pasolini’s thesis on Pascoli has thus come to light, edited by Marco Bazzocchi and Ezio Raimondi, and published by Einaudi. Still with an eye to the institutional history of the students, at Brussels in 1995 I organised an exhibition and a catalogue with the books and documents of the Jacobs or Flemish College of Bologna.

When students are seen from the perspective of the institution that governs their activities, they are confined to the records of who signed on where, of exams taken, and degrees given, and seem necessarily inferior or lesser beings. But students act and express themselves with the intelligence, imagination and the enthusiasm of youth. Their associations have over the centuries been the ones to prepare the way for the evolution of ideas, of politics and of the way people behave. The history of students has yet to be written, drawing on neglected, scattered and often charmingly attractive documents. So with the help of enthusiastic friends, university towns everywhere have been searched high and low, and after gifts and purchases the 1995 exhibition "Gaudeamus igitur" catalogued the results, now a permanent exhibition in the Aula Magna of the Studio. The materials have grown to such an extent that the collection has now become unique in Europe, giving a good idea of student youth culture everywhere, and from earliest times. Books, ancient documents, magazines, objects, photographs and curiosities, with the backing of the Rector and the university’s governing bodies, will find their place in the museums, libraries and information centres devoted to the history of European students, turning Bologna into a kind of capital in the field. The university was born here, indeed, with the statutes calling it "Università degli Studenti". The enterprise is led by Gian Paolo Brizzi, and I collaborate, having retired in 1998, with an unpaid post conferred on me by the University.

Before signing off, I would have liked to describe all those projects that have remained on paper, for lack of time or other reasons. But there is one I will mention, for which I think the time is ripe, and which seems to me realistic enough: that of uniting the centres and institutes of the University of Bologna that in one form or another research into the history of universities, under one roof, as near as possible to the heart of the University. More than elsewhere, in Bologna the history of universities and the history of science seem to be strategic resources for shaping the policies of higher education and research at the turn of the millennium.

None of the results described above would have been achieved without the encouragement and support of Rectors Tito Carnacini, Carlo Rizzoli and, above all, Fabio Roversi Monaco. I am deeply grateful to them, as well as to my collaborators Viviana Lanzarini, Daniela Negrini, Gloria Barbieri, and Fabio Ceccarelli.

Bibliographical note

For the reader interested in some bibliographical information on the collections mentioned above, the following is a selection of the more relevant publications I have edited, cutting description to a minimum:

G.G.Bolletti, Dell’origine e progressi dell’Istituto delle Scienze, (1751), reprint, Bologna, Clueb,1977; 2nd ed. 1987, with a note of mine;

G. Canterzani, Catalogo ragionato... dei libri della Volpe, (edited by M.Bortolotti and A.Serra), Bologna, Clueb, 1979;

"Insegnamento, ricerca e professione nel museo ostetrico G.A.Galli" and "La stamperia dell’Istituto delle Scienze e i della Volpe" in I materiali dell’Istituto delle Scienze, Bologna, Clueb, 1979;

"I lumi nel ventre materno", Bologna incontri, I979, n° 12;

Atti legali per la fondazione dell’Istituto delle Scienze, Bologna, Clueb, 1979;

Saggio bibliografico per un servizio di documentazione dell’amministrazione universitaria (with D.Negrini), Bologna, 1986;

Scienza e Storia. I musei della facoltà di scienze, Università di Bologna, 1984;

"Il museo storico dello Studio e dell’Ottavo Centenario, in I luoghi del conoscere, Milano, Pizzi, 1988, pp-178-I83;

"Il maestro alla lavagna. Il museo del Galli dall’inventario al catalogo", in Ars obstetricia bononiensis, Bologna, Clueb. 1988;

"Palazzo Poggi, teatro della scienza europea", in Saecularia nona, 9,1989;

I libri dell’ingegnere, Università di Bologna, 1990;

Epistole gratulatorie, Università di Bologna 1990;

"L’Università fotografata" in Il tempo dell’immagine, Torino, Seat, 1993;

I libri del IX Centenario (with D.Negrini), Bologna 1993;

"Gli archivi universitari in seminario",in Gli archivi universitari ed accademici per la storia della scienza e della tecnologia, Bologna, Cusl,1995;

"La scintillla goliardica..." and "Introduzione alla mostra", in Gaudeamus igitur. Studenti, e goliardica 1888-1923 , Bologna, Bologna.University Press, 1995;

Student Fraternities, (with D.Negrini), Università di Bologna, 1997.


Marco Bortolotti, Archivio Storico, Università di Bologna, Largo Trombetti 3, 40126 Bologna-I.