The “Federico II” University of Naples turns 800. Why was it founded and what is its history?

On June 5, 2024 theUniversity of Naples Federico II turns 800 years old. The first secular and public Italian university, as well as one of the oldest in Italy, was founded in June 5th 1224 with an imperial act at the behest of the king of Sicily, Frederick II of Swabia, who intended to provide his kingdom with an institution capable of training officials and administrators. The university's motto, “Ad scientiarum haustum et seminarium doctrinarum” (“at the source of science and at the nursery of knowledge”) is taken from the circular letter of Frederick II of Swabia.
Over the centuries, the University of Naples has known periods of splendor but also of decadence. Until the beginning of the twentieth century it was the only one universities of the South, but later, with the birth of other universities in the southern regions and in Campania itself, it lost this “monopoly”. In the last century, it has become a mass university and the number of students has progressively grown. In 1992 UniNa took on its current name, becoming “University of Naples Federico II”, and today, with over 70,000 members, it is the fourth Italian university by number of students.

A premise: universities in the Middle Ages

To understand how what is now “Federico II” was born, we need to mention the foundation of the first universities, which occurred after the year one thousand, in the late Middle Ages. Until then, higher education was provided by cathedral schools, established in churches and convents. In the late Middle Ages, thanks to social and cultural progress, the first independent universities, not connected to churches, were established. The first ever is considered to be that of Bologna, born in 1088, which was followed by the universities of Paris, Oxford and others. Medieval universities, of course, were very different from the current ones and were attended only by small groups of students. Many universities were born from the transformation of ancient cathedral schools or from splits of already existing universities. The University of Naples, however, was founded by decision of the sovereign.

Students of the University of Bologna in a 14th century relief

The foundation of the University of Naples

The birth of the Neapolitan university takes place in the most general renewal program promoted by Frederick II of Swabia, sovereign of the kingdom of Sicily (which included all of southern Italy) from 1198 to 1250. Frederick needed officials to efficiently administer public affairs and decided to establish a special one studium (name by which universities were called at the time), which would have prevented his subjects from going to study in Bologna or other states. Although the court resided in Palermo, Frederick decided to establish the university in Naples due to the cultural traditions and geographical position of the city, which was an important hub for transport and trade.

Portrait of Frederick II

The “official” date of birth is considered to be 5 June 1224, the day on which Frederick issued a generalis litera (a sort of proclamation), inviting students to go to Naples on 29 September, the start date of their studies (according to some sources the literate was issued on 5 July). The sovereign wrote:

We wish that in every part of our Kingdom many will become wise and shrewd by drawing on the source of science and a nursery of knowledge. We therefore arrange for the arts to be taught and studies connected with every profession to be taught in the most pleasant city of Naples, so that those who are fasting and hungry for knowledge will find in our Kingdom what to satisfy their desires and are not forced to seek knowledge. , to wander and beg in a foreign land.

The Neapolitan university is considered the first “state” university to the world, because it was founded directly by the king and not by the church or by groups of scholars, as in other cases. Originally, jurisprudence, medicine, grammar, logic and theology were taught at the university, to which new subjects were added over the centuries. It is not known what the original location was.

The University of Naples over the centuries

After the foundation, the University has “accompanied” the history of Naples in all its vicissitudes. During the Angevin domination (1265-1442), when Naples became the capital of the Kingdom, the university continued to function as in the time of Frederick II, but remained closed for a few years after the rise to power of the Aragonese dynasty. Permanently reopened at the beginning of the 16th century, it remained in operation throughout the period in which the territory of the kingdom was a viceroyalty of Spain (1503-1713)

In the sixteenth century, the University found its headquarters in Convent of San Domenico Maggiore and, from the following century, in Palace of Royal Studies, the building that today houses the National Archaeological Museum. However, the 17th century was a period of decline, from which the university began to recover only in the following century, after Naples had regained its autonomy under the rule of the Bourbon dynasty, which came to power in 1734. During the 18th century, illustrious intellectuals Neapolitans, including Giambattista Vico and Antonio Genovesi, taught at the University and new chairs of astronomy and economics.

Cloister of San Domenico (credits IlSistemone)
Cloister of San Domenico. Credit: IlSistemone

In 1777 the headquarters was moved to Convent of the Savior and in the years of the French Decade (1806-1815) the study courses were divided into five faculties: medicine, mathematics and physics, law, economics, theology.

The University of Naples in United Italy

The Unification of Italy brought new changes for the Neapolitan university. At the beginning of the twentieth century the headquarters were moved to a purpose-built palace on Corso Umberto Iwhich still houses the rectorate and other offices.

In the 1925with the foundation of the University of Bari, the Neapolitan university lost its monopoly of university studies in the South. Nonetheless, after the Second World War the university underwent profound changes, connected to the more general evolution of the university system: from study centers frequented by restricted elites, the universities became have become mass institutions, with tens of thousands of members. Even at “Federico II” the number of students has progressively grown and new campuses have been inaugurated throughout the city.

In 1992 the university took on its current name: University of Naples “Federico II”.

The University building in Corso Umberto I (Credits Giuseppe Guida)

The “Federico II” University today

Today “Federico II” has around 72,000 members (data from the 2022/23 academic year) and is the fourth Italian university in terms of number of students after “La Sapienza” in Rome and the universities of Bologna and Turin. It is divided into 26 departments and has almost 4,000 professors and researchers.

The University is “scattered” across various neighborhoods of the city: it occupies several buildings in the historic center and some locations of other neighborhoodsincluding the Fuorigrotta campus and the more recent San Giovanni a Teduccio campus.

The headquarters of Palazzo Initiative, in via Marina
The headquarters of Palazzo Initiative, in via Marina

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