Heraldry: l'Archiginnasio di Bologna

In which we see the decoration as a message from history.

Heraldry illuminates a stairway of the Archiginnasio, Bologna
The spectacular Palazzo Archiginnasio was built in 1563, to a design by architect Antonio Morandi, as the main campus of the venerable University of Bologna. It houses a world-famous Baroque anatomy theater and since the 1830s has been used as the civic library, preserving a vast collection of antique and modern manuscripts and rare books.  I finally got a chance to visit this winter!

* Central courtyard and loggia of the Archiginnasio  (photo)
What makes this impressive place a destination for the Ornamentalist is the heraldic decoration! Presented in every conceivable manner, the walls and ceiling vaults are encrusted with heraldic arms, which were added continuously until the late 18th century.  Some 6,000 coats of arms commemorate past students, alongside memorials to illustrious  teachers, noble patrons, and church affiliations.

enclosed gallery of the Archiginnasio with the coats of arms of past students
These heraldic devices are more than a brilliant form of decoration, they emphasize the history and international prestige of the academic institution, while their inscriptions and mottos inspire intellectual and moral elevation.  

Stairway of the Artisti, Palazzo Archiginnasio
Two grand staircases lead to the lecture halls of the upper level, which was divided between two schools: one for the Legisti (students of civil and canon law) and the other for the Artisti  (students of philosophy, literature and medicine.)  A dizzying collection of arms covers the walls and ceilings.
The honor of displaying a crest was reserved for those students elected as heads of the nationes (student organizations.) These escutcheons or coats of arms indicate the home country or city of the student, along with the student's name.

Up the stairway of the Legisti, and the Lion of Venice
The antique lecture halls were converted in the early 19th century with rows of bookcases, and now preserve the most important books of the library.  The initial collection came from the closure of the religious orders made by Napoleon. Currently this archive contains over 850,000 volumes and pamphlets including 2,000 incunabula (pre-1501 printed editions); 15,000 editions from the 16th century;  8,500 manuscripts; letters and collections of autographs; as well as prints, drawings, maps, and other materials of immense historical importance.

Sala Rusconi, a former lecture hall, begins an enfilade of library stacks full of rare and important texts.
plaster plaques with more coats of arms hang like fringe around a memorial
Parts of the palace, including the anatomy theatre, were destroyed by a bomb in WWII, but have since been faithfully reconstructed. Evidence of the damage can still be seen where painted decoration is missing, or in the in scorch marks of surviving frescoes.  In some places the names or even the emblems have vanished, but the connection to history remains.

The crests and mottos of even the unknown past students,  emanate a message of history and continuation

a dramatic passageway leading to the lecture halls

all photos in the post by Lynne Rutter
except *  by Guido Barbi.
click on images to view larger.

Archiginnasio virtual visit!


  1. This makes me miss Europe so much. We had a trip cancelled to the Greek islands this summer. I can't wait to get back!
    Brian, Owner @ Spokane Interior Design

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