Sapienza University of Rome was founded in 1303 with the Papal bull In Supremae praeminentia Dignitatis, issued on 20 April 1303 by Pope Boniface VIII, as a Studium for ecclesiastical studies more under his control than the universities of Bologna and Padua,making it the first pontifical university.
In 1431 Pope Eugene IV completely reorganized the studium with the bull In supremae, in which he granted masters and students alike the broadest possible privileges and decreed that the university should include the four schools of Law, Medicine, Philosophy and Theology. He introduced a new tax on wine to raise funds for the university; the money was used to buy a palace which later housed the Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza church. However, the University's days of splendour came to an end during the sack of Rome in 1527, when the studium was closed and the professors dispersed, and some were killed. Pope Paul III restored the university shortly after his ascension to the pontificate in 1534.
In the 1650s the university became known as Sapienza, meaning wisdom, a title it retains. In 1703, Pope Clement XIpurchased some land with his private funds on the Janiculum, where he made a botanical garden, which soon became the most celebrated in Europe through the labours of the Trionfetti brothers. The first complete history of the Sapienza University was written in 1803–1806 by Filippo Maria Renazzi. University students were newly animated during the 19th-century Italian revival. In 1870, La Sapienza stopped being the papal university and became the university of the capital of Italy. In 1935 the new university campus, planned by Marcello Piacentini, was completed. The patriotic spirit that imbued the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century incubated the germs of nationalism.
At the dawn of World War One, the campus witnessed clashes between interventionists and internationalists, anti-German rallies and forced the interventionist Rector Alberto Tonnelli to suspend lessons and close the university. The war would leave a profound scar on university life. Indeed, at the end of the conflict, all of Sapienza’s fallen students received a honorary degree.In the years following the war, social conflict drove Italy towards the Fascist dictatorship. In 1931, the Fascist Regime, which viewed the university and schools as a prime tool for propaganda, called all faculty to take an oath of allegiance to the Duce. Those who refused would lose their job. Only twelve Italian professors out of 1200 had the courage to stand up against the dictatorship. There were four Sapienza professors amongst them: Ernesto Buonaiuti, History of Christianity; Giorgio Levi della Vida, Oriental Studies; Vito Volterra, Mathematics and Physics; and Gaetano De Sanctis, Ancient History. A few other professors requested early retirement to avoid clashing with the Regime.
The environment in Italy was no longer conducive to scholarly studies and research. Professors began to emigrate. Enrico Fermi remained in Rome until 1938, but by the time he received the Nobel Prize for Physics, the regime already promulgated its infamous Racial Laws. After accepting the Nobel Prize in Stockholm, Enrico Fermi left for New York. Emilio Segrè, one of Fermi’s students, who had been a professor at Sapienza for over ten years, followed his mentor. The following year, a young Law graduate also left for the United States. Franco Modigliani was to receive the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1985.
After World War Two, Italy began a painstaking process of national reconstruction. The professors who had been forced to resign were reintegrated and democratic processes were reinstated for the free election of the rector and other university charges. The 1960s heralded the beginning of a new era. Italy was enjoying an unprecedented economic boom and the country was quickly modernising. The first Italian centre-left government introduced a wide-ranging series of reforms, while the Second Vatican Council veered the Catholic Church towards a greater respect of the contribution of science to the progress of humanity. When Hungary was invaded, the Italian Communist Party broke all direct links with the Soviet Union.
It was a period of great hopes and communal participation. The social sciences, which had been constrained by the ideas of Giovanni Gentile, were free welcome new ideas. In the 1970s, the university introduced two new degree programmes in Psychology and Sociology, although these two disciplines would have to wait until 1991 to be organised as true faculties. The rest is recent history: the tumult of 1977 and the fallout between the student movement and the trade unions that drew students away from politics, until the Panther Movement of the 1990s rekindled a new form activism amongst students. During the so-called Anni di Piombo, the university was twice hit by the assassination of illustrious professors: Vittorio Bachelet in 1980 and Ezio Tarantelli in 1985.
Rector Antonio Ruberti, who directed the university from 1976 to 1987, brought Sapienza to the forefront. The university was to play a key role in the development of new university policy in Italy. Ruberti was also responsible for revamping the University’s original name. Antonio Ruberti later became Italy’s first Minister for University and Scientific Research. Meanwhile, the alarming growth rate of the Sapienza student body lead to the creation of two new universities in Rome: Tor Vergata and Roma Tre.