Medieval Bologna: Art for a University City is the first museum exhibition in the United States to focus on medieval art made in the northern Italian city of Bologna. Bologna fostered a unique artistic culture at the end of the Middle Ages. Long characterized as the Dark Ages between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance, the medieval period was in fact a great age of learning.
The northern Italian city of Bologna is home to the oldest university in Europe. The university is one of its most significant and enduring inventions. The school traces its origins to the late eleventh century, when scholars began gathering in Bologna to engage in the recovery and study of ancient Roman law. Turning their knowledge into a commodity, the scholars soon started offering classes to students for a fee. Medicine, theology, and other subjects would later also be taught in Bologna to great acclaim, but law initially brought the city international renown as a center of higher learning.
In the late thirteenth century, a time when Bologna was the fifth-largest city in Europe, the university attracted about two thousand students each year from all over the continent. The academic environment gave rise to Bologna’s unique artistic culture. Professors enjoyed high social status and were buried in impressive stone tombs carved with classroom scenes. Most importantly, teachers and students created a tremendous demand for books. A surprising number of medieval Bolognese textbooks survive either whole or in part. In addition to colorful scenes enriched with gleaming gold, their pages often bear corrections and notes added by their original owners—evidence of the labor of learning.
With its large population of sophisticated readers, the city became the preeminent center of manuscript production south of the Alps, and it helped bring about a revolution in the medieval book trade. Manuscripts circulated in a thriving market of scribes, illuminators, booksellers, and customers operating mostly outside traditional monastic scriptoria. As the university initially specialized in law, many law books were illuminated in Bologna with brightly colored scenes.
This exhibition highlights Bologna’s key role in the history of education and art. It also explores the distinctive features of the university city: its brick buildings, soaring towers, expansive main piazza, and porticoed streets. Works of art made for churches, guilds, and popes as well as for the university are on view. The objects span the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and encompass painting, sculpture, and manuscript illumination.
The nearly seventy objects in the exhibition span from the mid-1200s to 1400, from the first great flowering of manuscript illumination in Bologna to the beginnings of the construction and decoration of the ambitious Basilica of San Petronio in the city’s Piazza Maggiore. Paintings and sculptures as well as manuscripts will be on view. Lenders include the J. Paul Getty Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Morgan Library & Museum, and the National Gallery of Art.
Take a Frist at Home: Medieval Bologna online tour—a closer look at some of the art currently at the museum. Spend thirty minutes in the company of their docents and other art lovers. Presented on Zoom on Thursdays, 1:30–2:00 p.m; free; registration required: December 9, January 6, January 20, or January 27.