The seat of the ancient university and now the seat of the Municipal Library, the Archiginnasio is one of the most important buildings in the city. It was built in the sixteenth century when Pope IV called for a drastic reconfiguring of the Piazza Maggiore area. The pope commissioned the work through Cardinal Carlo Borromeo because he felt it was important to have all the different university disciplines taught in a one place instead of spread out across different locations like before. Archiginnasio remained the seat of the Bolognese Studium until 1803.
The building has two floors and, like most buildings in Bologna, is entered through a portico. It also has an internal courtyard that incorporates the former church of Santa Maria dei Bulgari. On the inside is the splendid Anatomical Theatre. Built in 1637, the fir panelled amphitheatre was built for anatomical studies. The room has fascinating statues in various anatomical positions.
The cathedra is also unique: it is covered with a canopy suspended between two statues of men with their skin removed called “The Skinned”, a seventeenth century work that merges art and science. Several other statues decorate the walls portraying a mixture of past and present physicians: the lesser known with busts, the most famous luminaries with complete figures.
There are two statues on the right of the entrance. One represents Hippocrates - the important Greek doctor - and the other, Galen – the famous Roman doctor. Perhaps the most interesting statue and certainly the most unique, is the one in front of the cathedra which shows a doctor holding a nose in his hand: this one portrays a Bolognese surgeon and perhaps the predecessor to rhinoplasty.
On the upper floors are the old study halls for the jurist (law students) and the artists (those studying other subjects). Both the jurists and the artists had the use of ten classrooms, but only those of the jurists, who were snobbishly considered “A class students”, were found along the main hallway. The two classes also reached the classrooms through different entrances, precisely so they wouldn’t mix.
Witness to the university’s long life in the building is the more than 7,000 inscriptions written by students about their professors found on the building façade. This was one of the few things to survive the destruction wrought by the Republican government in 1797 and the bombings of the Second World War.
The building terminated its university function in 1803. Since 1839, is has been the seat of the Biblioteca Comunale dell’Archiginnasio, the largest library in Emilia-Romagna. It preserves important texts on history, philosophy, political science, literature, art, and a section on Bolognese culture. It also houses approximately 35,000 manuscripts and incunables.
The Anatomical Theatre was restored after sustaining major damage from American bombs in 1944.