Astronomy in Bologna from the XIth to early XVIIIth centuries

1 - The school of liberal arts.

In the early Middle Ages until the XIth century, Bologna was a relatively small inhabited centre compared to the larger towns of Pavia, the Longbard administrative centre of Northern Italy, and Ravenna, bridgehead of the Byzantine empire in Italy, and even Cremona, Mantova and Verona (1).

The ancient Roman city had been destroyed in 728 by the longbard King Liudprand (? - 744) and a good part of the old inhabited area, whose right-angled road grid is still recognizable in the centre of the city today, remained "ruined and uninhabited" for centuries.

Even for the Longbards, however, Bologna must have been of special importance on account of its geographical position at the crossroads of many important routes and on the border, towards the Exarchate, of their dominions.

This accounts for the fact that, while part of the ancient city remained uninhabited, an important Longbard village grew up to the east in the suburban area around the Basilica of Santo Stefano.

The two towns, the Latin and the Longbard, lived side by side, the former never completely losing its identity seeing how for a certain period Bologna had two Bishops, one Latin the other Longbard.

Longbard dominion lasted about fifty years, until 774 when the Longbards were defeated by the Franks. Bologna thus reverted to Roman rule and, by all accounts, the ancient customs of the Latin city were restored.

When in 825 Lothair I (795-855), emulating Charles the Great (742-814), reestablished in Italy what for the times could be called higher education, he chose Pavia, Ivrea, Turin, Cremona, Verona, Cividale, Florence and Fermo as centres for setting up the schools. In the edict Bologna went unmentioned, which is not surprising given that it was a papal dominion, a dominion that would last until about 898 when the city fell into the hands of Berengarius King of Italy (?-924).

The ninth century is a period of particular importance to us for a document that bears witness to the state of astronomical knowledge then surviving in Italy and, perhaps, in Bologna itself.

The Codex Manuscript I.27 of the Antoniana Library in Padua does in fact date from this century. Alongside the calendar of holidays presumably observed in Bologna in the IXth century, the codex contains a calendar running from 802 to 1063 and a wide range of scientific treatises, especially astronomical, mathematical and computational, the content of which has been found to agree with the computational part of the Codex Angelica 123. This latter codex, which belongs to the very earliest collection of the Angelica Library in Rome and which will be discussed later, provides a direct record of how astronomy was taught in the Bolognese capitulary school two centuries later (2).

The first thing the Codex Manuscript I.27 reveals, albeit in its essentials, is the sheer breadth of knowledge which, in a century considered so backward, was held to be of interest.

It did not deal merely with computus, attested by the treatise of Rabano Mauro (c. 784-856) and extracts from Bede (672-735), but looked at practical ideas regarding weights and measures, a portable solar clock, the planets and constellations, meteorology, calculus and human anatomy, as well as some quotations from Isidore of Seville (570?-636).

From what is known of the importance of the episcopal seat in Bologna, at the beginning of the IXth century, of the presence, alongside the bishop, of a body of canons, of the different functions they had to discharge, and of the relative prosperity of the city in that century, it is not unreasonable to consider this codex a truly Bolognese document.

If in those years - indeed in the year 802 if the initial date on the calendar is to be believed - the cultural level of the Bolognese curia was as reported in this codex, it would come as no surprise that a capitulary school was active and that the liberal arts of the trivium and quadrivium were taught in Bologna.

To be sure the end of the IXth century and the first half of the Xth marked the height of decadence for Bologna, its curia and the areas around it. Already in 884 its biggest church, Santo Stefano, with all its riches, had come under the control of the diocese of Parma. At the beginning of the next century repeated raids by Ungari had brought death and famine to the whole region, even though the story about the fire at the basilica of Santo Stefano was perhaps more a flight of imagination (3).

However, towards the mid-Xth century civic life showed signs of recovery. In 993 sovereignty over Santo Stefano was handed over to the Bolognese bishop and at about the same time the building of a new cathedral got under way. A school attached to it most probably opened up soon after although there is no documentary proof of when it actually started.

What we do know is that in the mid-XIth century this school was flourishing given the number of important people who came there to study (4). Among these was Brunone (1044 or 1048-1123), abbot of Montecassino and bishop of Segni, later sanctified, a figure who, while still a young man, was sent in 1070 from Asti to Bologna to study not only the trivium - scilicet grammatica, rhetorica et dialectica, the artes sermocinales - but also the quadrivium - scilicet arithmetica, geometria, musica et astronomia, the artes reales.

  1. - A. Sorbelli: 1938, Storia di Bologna, Dalle origini del cristianesimo agli albori del comune, II, Bologna.
  2. - L. Gherardi: 1959, Il codice Angelica 123 monumento della chiesa bolognese, Quadrivium, III, p. 22.
  3. - A. Sorbelli: op. cit., p 278.
  4. - A. Gaudenzi: Lo studio di Bologna nei primi due secoli della sua esistenza, Annali della Regia UniversitÓ degli Studi di Bologna, A.A. 1900/1901, p. 31.