by Roderick Conway Morris

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Scholars and Artists

By Roderick Conway Morris
BOLOGNA 22 April 2000
Basilica of San Domenico, Bologna
Crucifixion by Giunta Pisano, c.1250



Able to trace its origins to the 10th century, Bologna's university lays claim to being the most antique in the world. By the beginning of the 13th century, this burgeoning institution and the city's key position on a fertile agricultural plain at the crossroads of northern and central Italy had made it one of the wealthiest and, with its population of 50,000, one of the largest cities in Europe.

At this time Bologna reigned supreme as the seat of higher learning in southern Europe, its only equal in the field being Paris in the north, and the city enjoyed a precocious proto-Renaissance that is now looked back on as its Golden Age.

Architectural and other survivals of this brilliant period can still be seen today, but many of its artistic treasures have been lost altogether or dispersed within Italy and abroad. So the gathering together of more than 130 pieces in 'Duecento' (the 13th century), subtitled 'Form and Color in Medieval Bologna,' at the Museo Civico Archeologico until July 16, offers a rare and welcome glimpse of the rich environment of this remarkable epoch.

In its first centuries the university, then known as the 'Studium Generale' or simply 'Lo Studio,' was divided into two parts, the 'Universita degli Ultramontani' ('of those from beyond the mountains,' i.e. the Alps) composed of foreign students and the 'Universita dei Citramontani' ('of those from this side of the mountains') made up of Italians, each body democratically electing its own rector, regulating its affairs and even punishing its members for any misdeeds committed.

In fact, the combined institution operated like a state within a state, and became the model for the many other universities that were founded in the middle ages. Relations between town and gown appear to have been more harmonious than in some other places, although the students jealously guarded their privileges and on occasion threatened to decamp en masse to some other city, when confronted with attempts to curtail their rights.

The ever-expanding number of students and academics turned Bologna into a center of the international book trade and a magnet for practitioners of all the arts connected with it, bringing scribes, illuminators and binders from far and wide. Many of them settled or spent long periods in the city, gradually giving rise to a distinct school of Bolognese calligraphy and illumination. There is a superb array of books in the show and several absolute masterpieces, such as the Gerona Bible, which has not been seen in the town where it was created for more than seven centuries.

Both St. Francis and St. Dominic came to preach and established missions in Bologna, availing themselves of the opportunity to reach in a single place scholars destined to fill influential positions in religious and political elites throughout western Christendom. During one of St. Francis's open-air sermons two lavishly dressed young members of the university were so overcome with emotion that they threw off their expensive garb and forthwith 'donned the rough tunic of poverty.' And, having arrived here in 1218, St. Dominic stayed on until his death three years later.

The Franciscans and Dominicans constructed enormous churches in Bologna during the 13th century, and their close ties with the university are witnessed by the 'glossologists' tombs in their precincts, which contain the remains of particularly distinguished and popular lecturers, who provided the explanatory commentaries on the texts that were required reading for generations of students.

The convents of St. Francis and St. Dominic became significant additional sites of book production, especially of Bibles, but interestingly, most of the actual scribes seem to have been laymen, who might equally have been employed by the commercial publishers and stationers engaged in duplicating works approved and commissioned by university.

Both orders were also major patrons of architecture, sculpture and painting and attracted prominent artists to the city. The barn-like vastness of their churches demanded crucifixes of commensurate size, and a series of these, still deeply imbued with Byzantine conventions, by Giunta Pisano and the anonymous Master of the Blue Crucifixes, is one of the highlights of the exhibition.

Nicola Pisano, whose application of lessons learned from Roman marbles led him to anticipate later Renaissance trends and who is often credited with introducing a sense of realism to sculpture of kind the Giotto was to bring to painting, was called upon in 1267 to fashion a monument with a bas-relief depicting the events of St. Dominic's life to house the saint's relics. This tomb, still in situ at St. Dominic's has, like the building itself, since been much modified. Pisano's sarcophagus once stood on a set of pillars in the form of graceful human figures. Two of these, now in the Bargello Museum in Florence and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, have been brought together in the show and give a clear picture of how much more beautiful was the original composition.

Bologna's success in acquiring not only many of the best teachers and artists but the most refined products from distant workshops is underlined by the gift to St. Dominic's of the exquisite 'opus anglicanum,' a cope of English manufacture, embroidered with amazingly lively and artful scenes, that makes dazzling painterly use of shading and color.

Far less sophisticated is a towering statue of Boniface VIII, the inaugurator of the first Jubilee, in 1300, designed by a resident goldsmith of Sienese birth for the municipal authorities. This intriguing concoction of gilded bronze and copper is a bizarre oddity, yet symbolic of Bologna's increasing dependence on Rome, which would in due course bring about absorption into the pope's domains of this once proudly autonomous city-state, and the suppression of the ancient statutes of its cosmopolitan and independent-minded university.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024