Today, Bologna’s Archiginnasio – seat of the Alma Mater Studiorum, the oldest university in the western world, between 1563 and 1803 – is home to a remarkable library: the Biblioteca comunale dell’Archiginnasio (Municipal Archiginnasio Library), designed by Antonio Morandi between 1562 and 1563. Its collection dates back to 1801 and now includes approximately one million pieces, ranging from volumes to leaflets, from incunabula to 16th-century books, from antique publications to periodicals.
In Francesco Guccini and Loriano Macchiavelli’s “Appennino di sangue” (Mondadori, Milan 2012), two characters – one of them is the protagonist of the novel, marshal Santovito – enter the building:
“They were welcomed by the Archiginnasio’s cool temperature, quiet rooms and scent of books. Santovito didn’t know where to begin, so he let Raffaella – who had a little more experience – go ahead. She collected her slip at the reception and motioned to Santovito to follow her. She almost immediately found the card in the old cabinet’s little drawers, amongst the many cards that had been written in elegant chiaroscuro calligraphy so long ago. She filled in her slip with the information on the card, gave it to the librarian and sat down on the old benches – followed at every step by a quiet, almost intimidated Santovito. A few times, the tram passing by along Via del Pavaglione made the glass panes in the huge windows rattle. Except for that, it was all silence and heat.”
As if this amazing library was not enough, the Archiginnasio has many other wonderful treasures to offer. Its walls are covered by some 6,000 student emblems and inscriptions honoring teachers: the largest heraldic wall display in the world. Its fine – yet macabre – Anatomical Theater, built in 1631, was the setting for many lessons where professors dissected cadavers and lectured from a desk under a decorative canopy, held by two wooden 18th-century statues known as the “Spellati” (the “skinned”), which indeed represented two men without skin.
Last but not least, the magnificent Stabat Mater Hall of the Archiginnasio – named after the fact it was here that Gaetano Donizetti, on 18 March 1842, directed the first performance of Gioachino Rossini’s work – saw Albert Einstein hold three memorable conferences on 22, 24 and 26 October 1921, for a large crowd that included scientists, professors and students, but also a number of curious common people.