Professors on Pedestals: The Tombs and Legacy of University Masters in Medieval Bologna

Elena Rossi | University of Oxford

The Tomb of Rolandino Passaggeri in Piazza San Domenico, Bologna.
The Tomb of Rolandino Passaggeri in Piazza San Domenico, Bologna.

Rolandino Passaggeri (c.1215-1300) was an Italian jurist at the University of Bologna, famed for his work on notaria – the art of drawing up legal documents. He achieved much throughout his life, including his Summa totius artis notariae, which became a core text for the study of notary throughout Europe. Outside of the academic sphere, he also had a significant role in public life, including his involvement in the creation of the Liber Paradisus in 1257. This new legal text freed approximately 5800 serfs who had been bought by the commune from their respective masters – ten lire for adults and eight for children. Although the abolition of slavery may have been motivated more by tax purposes than moral justice, it nonetheless presented a significant movement for the city and those who had been freed. To commemorate his accomplishments and significance within Bologna, a tomb was erected in Piazza San Domenico, in the first decade of the fourteenth century. Passaggeri’s tomb is just one of many such mausoleums that can be found in Bologna, exemplifying the importance of the university and its masters within the city. Today, people sit in Piazza San Domenico in Bologna, whether they be on their lunch break, or resting from sight-seeing. Their seat of choice tends to be the steps of these grand monuments, but little do they know that they are sat at the feet of the forefathers of the University of Bologna.

The University of Bologna

The University of Bologna was one of the first studium generale, the Latin term for what we call a university. These early studia, such as Bologna, Paris and Oxford, were schools that organically emerged as scholars gathered within cities to engage in higher education – who would even travel abroad to benefit from the knowledge of great masters. In the wake of the Investiture Contest, there was a growing need for expertise in Roman Law – a body of law developed by the ancient Romans that came to define most civil law. Whilst the secular rulers of Europe and the papacy continued to debate the nature of ecclesiastical appointments, particularly the investiture of bishops by royalty, scholars gathered in Bologna to consider Roman Law and help resolve the conflict. Irnerius’ (c. 1055-1130) commentary on Justinian’s Corpus Juris Civilis and Gratian’s Decretum put Bologna on the map for the study of both civil and canon law, which were the foundations for the secular and ecclesiastical courts, respectively. As Bologna developed into an epicentre for legal education, the university naturally evolved, enticing more foreign students to travel there for their studies, and student guilds began to emerge.

The university and its scholars brought prestige to the city and generated income; the commune could not afford to lose the studium and its clientele. On multiple occasions, the commune tried to control and protect the institution by enforcing oaths that doctors could not teach outside of Bologna (1182 and 1189) and should discourage students from studying elsewhere (1189), as well as statutes against conspiring to move the university (1216). Although masters were initially paid by their student clientele, in accordance with the student guild model established at Bologna, from 1280 onwards the commune began to pay law professors’ salaries. As Paul Grendler recognises, the commune most likely started paying academic salaries to guarantee the stability of the university.[1] By funding the teaching staff through the public purse, professors served longer tenures in their posts. The tombs not only signified the importance of university masters within Bologna, as the commune commemorated these men with grandeur, but also the deep connection that these masters had with the city and their craft.

Remaining Tombs

The mausoleums followed a consistent model: an aedicule – a shrine supported by columns – topped with a pyramid roof. The casket for the professor’s body was elevated but nonetheless maintained intricate detail depicting the man’s life, from his effigy to his lecture room. These tombs were literal pedestals on which these masters were to be placed and honoured. However, elements within these models could be adjusted to represent each master and their subject. The tomb of Egidio Foscherari (1219-1289), which was built c. 1289 and can also be found in Piazza San Domenico, differs greatly from that of Rolandino Passaggeri. Foscherari was the first canon lawyer to be memorialised through one of these tombs, and Renzo Grandi observes that Foscherari’s sepulchre moved away from the rigidly secular models of tombs adopted for civil lawyers in Piazza San Francesco.[2] The disciplines of canon law and civil law represented the separation in society of religious and secular matters, particularly when it came to the court. Lawyers typically specialised in one of these areas, and it is not surprising that the first tomb for a canon lawyer would need to differ from those of a civil lawyer. As Foscherari and his work represented the church and its values, his tomb would need to do the same – transitioning away from the grandeur of these secular monuments to a more subtle version. Through minute architectural differences, a greater image of Foscherari and his specialism in canon law are revealed. Instead of three arches supported by twin pillars on the longer edges of the aedicule, as seen in Passaggeri’s tomb, Foscherari’s only has two arches supported by twin pillars in the middle and larger singular posts at the edge. Moreover, on the shorter side of the tomb, there is only one round arch supported by larger, individual columns. Even in size, Foscherari’s sepulchre is smaller and subtler. The model for the professorial tomb was standardised, but elements could be adjusted to reflect each individual.

The tombs were positioned in incredibly public sites, placing these masters at the heart of the community of Bologna forever. Along with Passaggeri and Foscherari’s tombs in Piazza San Domenico, the tombs of Odofredo Denari (1200-1265), Rolandino de’ Romanzi (c. 1220-1284) and Accursii (c. 1181/1185- c.1256/1263) still stand in Piazza San Francesco. Whilst we cannot fully picture the medieval churchyard within which these mausoleums once stood, especially with so many of the tombs in ruins and placed in museums, their proximity to two of the city’s major churches further affirms the importance of university masters. The Basilica of San Domenico and the Basilica of San Francesco were established by the Dominican and Franciscan orders. Both the Dominicans and Franciscans were mendicant orders, which meant they were dedicated to a lifestyle of poverty and preaching, and the Dominicans also had a particular emphasis on education. The orders established themselves in university cities to recruit scholars to their orders and educate their own brethren. These squares would have been centres of preaching and also pilgrimage, especially following Saint Dominic’s burial at the Basilica of San Domenico. Anyone who visited these churches would have been reminded or introduced to the masters of Bologna and their legacy within the city.

Tomb of Egidio Foscherari in Piazza di San Domenico
Tomb of Egidio Foscherari in Piazza di San Domenico

Ruins of Tombs

Sadly, some of these mausoleums do not remain in the squares nor in full form, but they can be found in the Museo Civico Medievale. The deterioration of these sepulchres has a silver lining, though, as you can see the details of the caskets in more detail. You can even view these from the comfort of your own home as the museum has created an excellent virtual tour (see rooms 4 and 8-13). By taking the professor off his pedestal, you can see the intricate detail of the bas-relief. For example, the tomb of Giovanni da Legnano (c. 1320-1383), the highest-paid lawyer of his age, shows a variety of students writing notes, listening intently, pondering ideas, or even daydreaming. There is something incredibly human about these students that really helps illustrate the lecture room. Somethings never change – I relate very much to the teacher’s pet in the front row, frantically writing notes.

A bas-relief depicting students listening to a lecture from the tomb of Giovanni da Legnano in Museuo Civico Medievale, Bologna.
A bas-relief depicting students listening to a lecture from the tomb of Giovanni da Legnano in Museuo Civico Medievale, Bologna.

Tomb of Giovanni d’Andrea in Museuo Civico Medievale, Bologna.
Tomb of Giovanni d’Andrea in Museuo Civico Medievale, Bologna.

Similarly, the sepulchre of Giovanni d’Andrea (c. 1270-1348), the renowned canon lawyer, represents the typical depiction of a master lecturing his students. D’Andrea is at the centre of the scene and is surrounded by attentive students. Aside from teaching at the university from 1302 until his death, with a brief stint at the University of Padua from 1307-1309, d’Andrea also produced glosses – marginal commentaries that could be published alongside texts or on their own – on the Liber sextus and Constitutiones Clementinae. His commentaries became core reading for the study of canon law, and alongside writing his own works, d’Andrea was also involved in creating the statutes of the University of Jurists in 1317. The university was governed based on these rulings, with the statutes covering everything, from important decisions, such as the election of the rector, to everyday matters, including how much to fine your lecturer if he was late to class or let his lesson overrun. Even during the turbulent times of the Black Death, the commune commemorated one of their greatest professors, creating this tomb in Piazza di San Domenico for d’Andrea after he died from the plague.

Whilst today, the pyramid remains the most colourful element of the intact mausoleums, these tombs used to be more vibrant. A slab from the sepulchre of Bonificio Galluzzi (died c. 1346) illustrates how even the casket was full of colour. The remains of a blue dye can be seen on three of the students, with one student’s robes appearing yellow, either from dye or the deterioration of its colouring over time. Despite the weathering of these monuments, the lack of colour does not take away from the expressions and individuality of the master and his students.

A slab from the tomb of Bonifacio Galluzzi in Museuo Civico Medievale, Bologna.
A slab from the tomb of Bonifacio Galluzzi in Museuo Civico Medievale, Bologna.


The university and its masters put Bologna on the map as a centre of higher education, becoming the heart and soul of the city. Aware of the prestige and financial benefits that came with the university, the commune needed to protect the institution and entice its masters to stay through a steady income. Consequentially, more masters remained at the institution for most, if not all, of their lives. The loyalty of these masters to their city, students and craft was repaid through these grand monuments, recognising their accomplishments and immortalising them forever as Bologna’s emeritus professors.


[1] P. F. Grendler, The Universities of the Italian Renaissance (Baltimore, Md., 2002), pp. 6-7. [2] Renzo Grandi, I Monumenti dei Dottori e la Scultura a Bologna (1267-1348) (Bologna, 1982), p. 114.

Further Reading

  • Blanshei, Sarah Rubin, ed., A Companion to Medieval and Renaissance Bologna (Leiden, 2018)

  • Cobban, A. B, The Medieval Universities: their Development and Organization (London, 1971).

  • De Ridder-Symoens, H. (ed.), A History of the University in Europe, I. Universities in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1992).

  • Grandi, Renzo, I Monumenti dei Dottori e la Scultura a Bologna (1267-1348) (Bologna, 1982).

  • Grendler, P. F., The Universities of the Italian Renaissance (Baltimore, Md., 2002).

Elena Rossi is a second-year DPhil student in History at Magdalen College, Oxford. Her research considers how women encountered worlds of learning in the university towns of Oxford, Paris and Bologna from c. 1200-1500. She is also a Student Lead on The Medieval Student Experience Project at Queen Mary, University of London.

Twitter: @ElenaFranRossi