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The University of Pavia


In 825, the emperor Lotario with specifications issued in Corteolona reorganized the higher education in the Italic Kingdom and founded in Pavia a school, where young students of the major part of North Italy would be welcomed. The rhetoric school included law lessons for the education of notaries and palatine judges: indeed, Pavia was the seat of the royal court. The law school of Pavia was very active in the Medieval period and it’s still attested in the eleventh century. However, the real foundation of a general Studium that originated the University of Pavia dates back 1361, with the emperor Carlo IV, pressing Galeazzo II Visconti duke of Milan. Pope Bonifazio IX granted Pavia the same privileges of the University of Paris and Bologna. The lessons were about canon and civil law, philosophy, medicine and liberal arts. At first, the university had no easy life, but from the end of the fourteenth century it was highlighted by the presence of eminent jurists, like Baldo degli Ubaldi. The prestige grew in the fifteenth century, as proved by the attendance of foreign students too. In the field of the philosophic and literary studies, we can remember the teaching of Lorenzo Valla, in the law field Giasone del Maino. A sudden interruption was due to the serious damages suffered by the city after the siege and the devastations of 1525. However, in the sixteenth century among the teachers there were scholars and scientists like Andrea Alciato and Gerolamo Cardano. The renaissance of the University of Pavia was due to the enlightened policy of the Austrian sovereigns, Maria Teresa and Giuseppe II, in the second half of the eighteenth century. It was accompanied by a grand enhancement programme of the didactic and research structures and building readjustment, giving the University the actual look. From the end of the Second World War, the University of Pavia has been relaunched, largely thanks to the energy and initiative of the rector Plinio Fraccaro. In the sixties, in addition to the traditional faculties there were introduced also those of Business Economics and Engineering. The development of didactic and scientific structures (libraries, laboratories, seminars) has been continued without rest, increasingly characterizing the University of Pavia as an international research and study institute.


In 1770 the minister Firmian sent Giuseppe Piermarini to Pavia, with the aim of renewing the University and giving the front the dignity corresponding to its function. The university has only two courtyards, each provided with an entrance. In 1772 the architect proposed adorning the two entrances with Doric pillars and completing the top floor flat with two tympanums, to support the Austrian House’s coat of arms and to contain inscriptions. In 1774 Firmian explained that the façade “was for announcing the dignity of the Prince, adorning the city, honouring the government, increasing the nobility of the praiseworthy institute and inspiring who frequents it with a major respect”. However, in the executive phase, the project was simplified, with the elimination of the sculptures in 1775. Anyway, in 1777 Sartirana made all the façade white. Between the end of the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth century, the University expanded, incorporating the monastery of Leano, and the façade extended as far as the actual Via Mentana. The entrance flanked by two medals representing Lotario and Galeazzo II Visconti was made in 1950.

The façade

The complex of buildings accommodating the University is divided in two parts: one of the fifteenth century, seat of the San Matteo hospital, and one of the eighteenth-nineteenth century, neoclassic, composed of a sequence of four aligned courtyards. In 1771 Piermarini, called to direct the renovation works of the University by the Austrian government, reshaped the façade on Strada Nuova with clear and geometrical lines and the two northern courtyards with double order of porticos with lowered arches, supported by coupled Doric columns.

The interior

Entering from the main entrance, you can reach the so-called Medical Courtyard and after the Legal Courtyard, with the statue of Alessandro Volta on the centre. Along the porticoes, there are many tombstones and sculptures of famous jurists of Pavia. The historical halls of the University are little architectural jewels: in particular, we can remember the great hall, with a façade similar to a Greek temple, Corinthian columns, pronaos and a tympanum representing the rector Alessandro Volta giving a degree thesis; the Foscolo hall, dedicated to this great Italian poet who taught here; the Volta hall, named from the inventor of the electrical pile; the Scarpa hall or “anatomy theatre”.

Courtyards of Volta and of the Fallen

In the past, the twin courtyards were called Legal and Medical, because the southern one hosted the lessons of civil and canon law, while around the northern one there were the halls for medicine, philosophy and liberal arts. Renewed in the seventeenth century by the architect Giovanni Ambrogio Pessina with a double loggia on coupled columns, in 1772 they were modified by Giuseppe Piermarini, who turned the original wooden ceilings into vaults and rounded the arches of the loggias, former polygonal. Both the courtyards, originally with grassland, were after cobbled. In 1790, as suggested by the architect Leopold Pollach, many monuments come from suppressed churches and professors’ memorial tablets were recovered under the porticoes, constituting a rich stone collection representing the history of the University of Pavia with pictures and words. The insertion of the statue of Alessandro Volta and of the war memorial to the fallen of the First World War, in the centre of the courtyards, has brought about the new names.

Grand staircase

The grand staircase was designed by the architect Giuseppe Marchesi in 1823. With a double flight, it shows four big openings on the ground floor and as many on the upper floor. It’s covered by a caisson ceiling with flowers made by plaster in relief. Also the three monuments into niches on the lower level were designed by Marchesi. They are marble clypeus in Classic style, with a long celebrative inscription, overlooked by bust-portraits of professors Giacomo Rezia (1825), Pietro Tamburini (1829) and Giuseppe Mangili (1831), and in addition that of Carlo Cairoli in 1852. On the niches of the upper floor, in addition to the monument to Giuseppe Frank, who nominated the University of Pavia as universal heir of his heritage, the monument dedicated to Marchesi was placed too.

Foscolo Hall

In the seventies of the eighteenth century, the great hall of the University was placed by Giuseppe Piermarini on the structure between the Legal and the Medical Courtyards, in a convenient position for both the faculties. The hall, with a rectangular plant, windows on the long sides and covered by a lowered vault, is characterized by the decoration painted in 1782 by Paolo Mescoli, called by the government of Vienna to create ornamentations with lofty elegance. The artist painted on the vault Minerva, goddess of knowledge, with Mercury. On the walls, there are represented the Faculties taught in the University, shaped as caryatids among grotesques with their symbols. Two big portraits, made by oil colours, depict the sovereigns Maria Teresa and Giuseppe II. They were painted in Vienna by Hubert Maurer in 1779, as integral part of the decoration. This room was used as great hall until the construction of the actual one in the nineteenth century; after, it was dedicated to the poet Ugo Foscolo, who held his famous inaugural address in 1809. It’s now used for conferences, meetings and academic ceremonies.

Scarpa Hall

The University of Pavia lived a phase of deep renewing in the second half of the eighteenth century. The new hall for the anatomy lessons dates back to this period. It was designed by Leopold Pollack in 1785: as suggested by Kaunitz, the architect shaped it as an hemicycle with the cavea made by wood, like on an ancient theatre, following also the advices given by Antonio Scarpa, anatomy professor. On the short side, three big round arch windows open on Corso Carlo Alberto, and in addition other two (one for each side), next to the junction of the curved side; between one window and the other, there are painted cinerary urns dedicated to great doctors of the past (Gabriele Falloppio, Bartolomeo Eustachio, Gaspare Aselli and Giovanni Battista Morgagni). The motif of the arc is multiplied by niches on the curved side, with the busts of professors Luigi Porta, Johann Peter Frank, Antonio Pensa, Luigi Scala, Giovanni Zoia, Bartolomeo Panizza, Antonio Scarpa. There is also the bust of Giovanni Alessandro Brambilla, surgeon of Pavia, doctor of the emperor Giuseppe II. The seats, following the shape of the cavea, have banisters with newel posts made by wood painted as fake marble. The umbrella-shaped vault, instead of the original ceiling with lacunar decoration, is due to restoration works by the architect Marchesi.

Volta Hall

In 1785 Giuseppe II ordered to build a new hall for physics and a gallery for machines, on the east side of the Theological Portico (now Courtyard of the Statues). The architect Leopold Pollack shaped it as an hemicycle with a level ceiling, after replaced by the actual shell-shaped vault. The curved side is marked by columns made by French red marble, on the sides two niches contain life-size statues representing Galileo Galilei and Bonaventura Cavalieri. The theatre for physics was the place where Alessandro Volta held his lessons. It’s now dedicated to him. At the back of the teacher’s desk, there is his marble bust, with a short inscription remembering the importance of his studies about the electricity.

Great Hall

The project for the great hall by the architect Giuseppe Marchesi, examined by the Commissione d’Ornato in 1837, started only in 1845. The building was finished before 1850, as attested by the dedicatory inscription on the façade. On the building, there is a matching between two fundamental typologies of the classical world: the temple (with pronaos with Corinthian columns and tympanum decorated by sculptures), to underline the sacredness of this place; for the interior, the basilica, to show its civil and public use. Two lines of Corinthian columns divide the interior in three naves and support the frame and the overlooking central barrel vault with plaster lacunars. The banisters with newel posts, liked to the columns at the half of their height, lighten the austere layout of the building, defining a continuous gallery over the aisles. On the apse, there is the imposing portrait of Vittorio Emanuele II on horseback.