The Archignassio: A Paean to Human Curiousity in Bologna

Sharing is caring!

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Isaac Newton (1676)

This expression is even older than Newton himself even though he was the first to popularise it in the English language. This phrase came to mind when I visited the Palazzo dell’Archiginnasio in Bologna Italy.  The Archignassio was the main building of the University of Bologna from the 16th until the 19th century.

The University of Bologna, itself, is the oldest university in the world having been founded in 1088.  To keep this in perspective, remember the Normans had just conquered England in 1066.  While they were busy glorifying war in the Bayeux Tapestry, the inhabitants of Bologna were interested in law and art.  The Archignassio was built to create a central place for students to study these diverse disciplines because previously they were scattered in buildings throughout the city.


The Archignassio

The Archignassio is one of the most important buildings in Bologna and for good reason. When you visit the historical centre of the city, buildings like the Archignassio, really do make you feel like you are stepping back in time.

Built around an internal courtyard on two floors, the building which houses the Archignassio is pretty spectacular visually.  Think columns, arches, frescoes and grand staircases – all with a less is more attitude.

The Archignassio
All the heraldic symbols on the walls.

Built at the request of Pope Pius IV by the pope’s nephew, the magnificence of the building came at the cost of the interiors of the nearby Basilica di San Petronio from which funds were diverted.   You would think the Pope would want the Basilica decorated instead. Actually, he had bigger plans. Constructing a centralised university for Bologna was part of the Pope’s plan to get a firm grip on Bologna’s cultural and social life.

The Archignassio
The grand portico in the courtyard.

The walls and ceilings are covered with the coats of arms of previous professors and students.  There are 7000 such coats of arms from all over Europe.  It was a considerable honour to be allowed to put your coat of arms on the wall.  Of course, every student had a court of arms because in those days only wealthy young men were allowed to study.

If you got an inscription as well then you were a really big deal in your field.  So many of the inscriptions were faded with time.  Yet each of these people were important enough to have contributed something that warranted their inclusion on the building.  I was struck that the knowledge we have today is the end result of the live’s work of so many people with so many incremental contributions to their fields.

The Archignassio
An ode to a long-deceased professor.

There are two ornate staircases leading up to the classrooms. Each discipline had a great hall. The great hall for the lawyers is available to visit but the great hall for the artists is a reading room in the library.

The Archignassio
One of the grand staircases off the internal courtyard.

The building, especially the Anatomy Theatre, was badly damaged during World War II and has since been restored.  You can see photos of the damage pre-restoration at the Archignassio.

The Archignassio
You can see the restoration work in progress.

The Library

In the mid-19th Century, a part of the Archignassio was made into a library. Today the public library portion contains about 800,000 books and pamphlets, 12,000 manuscripts etc.  From the sixteenth century alone, the library has about 15,000 books alone.

The library holds many important books of historical, literary, philosophical etc. significance. You need to have identification and fill out paperwork to enter and no photos are allowed inside the library.  As a mere Looky-Lou, I didn’t get to go inside the library.

The Anatomy Theatre

Built like an amphitheatre from Roman times, the Anatomy Theatre dates from 1637. Instead of lions tearing up Christians in the middle of the room, the spectacle on display would have been the dissections taking place on top of a marble-topped table.  The bodies were obtained from a local hospital so that the students could learn about surgery and anatomy.  It was very much hands-on learning!

The whole anatomy theatre is wood-panelled and decorated to an inch of its life.  What’s not decorated are the benches with very straight backs and tiny little seats. My 21st century bottom was not comfortable at all for the brief period of time I sat.  Apparently the benches are deliberately uncomfortable in order to keep the medical students attentive.  Although I think you have to be pretty jaded to fall asleep with a cadaver being sliced and diced in front of you.

The professor’s seat was very ornate.  Although it looked far more comfortable for seating, it had a wooden canopy held up by two statues of naked and skinless men. Not the prettiest of statues unless, of course, you are really into something like Body Worlds, that travelling exhibit about the skinless human body.  Similar to Body Worlds, the skinless statues blur the lines between the human body, art and science.

The Archignassio
One of the famous skinless statues.

It has to be noted that human body dissections were not as common as animal dissections.  A delegate from the Roman Catholic Church’s Inquisition had to be present when human bodies were dissected so as to prevent anything too offensive (whatever that meant!).

The Archignassio
You get to see the gore up close.

The other statues are of famous doctors, Hippocrates and Galen, the most famous physicians of Greece and Rome, respectively. Another statute pays homage to Gaspare Tagliacozzi, a Bologna native and professor at the Archignassio.  Tagliacozzi pioneered plastic surgery in the 16th Century (specifically, nose jobs).  Check out all these celebrities with nose jobs who have Tagliacozzi to thank for their cute new noses.

In a building like this, you know the ceiling was going to be heavily decorated.  The ceiling decorations refer to Apollo, the Greek god of medicine.  He is surrounded by stars because in ancient times, astrology and medicine were interconnected.  For example, you checked the stars for the best time before you undertook surgery or took medicine.  Considering the state of medicine in those times, I’d have prayed to the gods too.

The Archignassio
Apollo in the sky with diamonds (ok technically stars).

The Stabat Mater Hall

The Stabat Mater Hall was originally meant for the lawyers.  The grand classroom is part of the ticket that lets you visit the Anatomy Theatre.  Its walls are covered with the coats of arms of important students and visitors.  The room is named after Rossini’s Stabat Mater which was first performed in Italy in this hall.

The Archignannio
Bookcases lining the wall of the classroom.
The Archignassio
Some of the hundreds of thousands of books.

Visiting the Archignassio

Located near the Plaza Maggiore behind San Petronio, the building entrance is along one of the beautiful colonnades of Bologna.

The official address is the Piazza Galvani.  The Palace courtyard and library are open to the public free of charge.  The AnatomyTheatre and the Stabat Mater Hall are available to view for a joint ticket costing 3 Euros.  Children under 18 are admitted for free.

I did not specifically mention the Archignassio in my post on things to do with children in Bologna.  I think it would be fascinating for kids who are interested in a career in medicine. Even for younger children, the building is pretty and not a long visit if the rest of the family want to have a peek.

This post is linked up with Travel Photo Thursday and Weekend Travel Inspiration.


The Archagnassio is a library in Bologna which used to house the university of Bologna

We did not receive compensation of any form, monetary or otherwise, from any of the products, services, hotels  etc mentioned in this article.

This site generates income via partnerships with carefully-curated travel and lifestyle brands and/or purchases made through links to them at no extra cost to you. More information may be found on our Disclosure Policy.

34 thoughts on “The Archignassio: A Paean to Human Curiousity in Bologna”

    1. I hadn’t really known what to expect until I went either. Just a long unpronounceable Italian name doesn’t give you much of a clue as to what’s inside.

  1. Wow! Such an informative post, thank you! I love seeing different architecture that really reflects a culture, and this post took me there without having to take me there! This has definitely made me really want to get back to Europe ASAP 🙂

  2. I’d really love to visit the Archignassio – and Bologna in general! Sidenote: I studied Latin for years at school, so seeing any ancient inscriptions in Latin gives me academic shivers (in a good way, of course, because I loved it).

    1. You’d have lots of reading to do here! Everything is in Latin of course. I just love the dedication to human progress this building symbolises.

  3. It looks like such a grand place. I think I would especially like the anatomy hall, I was a podiatrist before I was a teacher. It’s also a stark reminder of how far we’ve come. Thankfully many people can access education now compared to the few who were priviledged enough to access it in the past.

    1. true! as much as medicine had advanced, think of all those people who were brilliant in the middle ages but had no access to education. Who knows with their input, where we would be today?

  4. Wow! I’ll be honest, when I first started reading I did NOT expect to be as impressed as I was. 🙂 This sounds like such a fascinating place. It really is astounding to think of how many people, centuries ago, worked so hard to research so many things and now we are benefiting from their hard work – yet we will never even know many of their names. I found the Anatomy Theatre so interesting too – I’m a massage therapist and now a medical transcriptionist, and at massage school we visited a wet lab on a number of occasions to observe bodies that had been donated to science. It’s so fascinating to imagine people doing the same thing hundreds of years ago but in such a different environment.

    1. Thank you. I didn’t expect much when I walked in either. I bet your anatomy class was more sterile than this one. When I say on the bench, you really were fairly close to the proceedings. As a non-medic, I bet it was pretty gruesome. But of course the only way to learn.

  5. You go to such cool places! It is very interesting to see how highly regarded was education in the Middle Ages. So regarded that they built “palaces” to serve as study halls, libraries and others. The idea of having the coat of arms in the walls is cool.

    1. You are right / I didn’t think of it as a palace but it was! They diverted funds from the basilica next door (supposed to be the main one in Bologna but it’s a little bare on the inside). I find the Church’s attitude fascinating too. They insisted on the building do clearly they were promoting learning but then had the Inquisition in hand at the Anatomy Theatre so it didn’t get out of hand.

  6. I always love the ornateness of European buildings, and the attention to detail. I could see myself spending quite a few hours here. I laughed about the human dissection. What could they be doing?? 🙂

    1. It seemed they really appreciated education didn’t they? I look at my kids and some days I’ve got to drag them into school. It’s a chore nothing a privilege.

  7. A marble-topped dissecting table? Impressive! We’ve really come a long way from the time when education was the province of rich men. Thank goodness! Still, it must give an enormous sense of pride to the descendants of these scholars to see their family’s crest on the wall of such a prestigious building. Wonder if any of them hold any positions of power in contemporary Italy?
    When I see buildings like these, I wish we had kept some of the old architectural traditions. They would have been prohibitive now, I know, but they’re so stunningly beautiful. You can see the pride in the work, the craftsmanship, the detail. Vinyl records are slowly coming back, wonder if this type of craftsmanship will too? When they redid DC’s Union Square, they brought over craftsmen from Italy to restore the ceiling. Of course, it’s not nearly as ornate as this but it’s still quite impressive. I’d be surprised if any of the buildings we’re creating now will last 500 years.
    Thanks for the very informative write up!

    1. I get the feeling marble was fairly cheap in Italy so not as big a deal. For example the subway/metro in Athens has a ton of marble which I personally thought was a menace in the rain. It’s pretty amazing to think of all this craft and workmanship isn’t it??

  8. I wish I’d seen the Achignassio too! Hubby and I are talking about maybe going back during the summer with the kids; I bet our teenagers would enjoy the gory stuff … Thanks for the link to my Body Worlds post; it’s just what I thought of when I saw that carving: yuk!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *