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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXIII, No. 1
Eastertide 2008

A University Founded on Wisdom
The Papal Roots of La Sapienza

by Elizabeth Lev

Elizabeth Lev is an art historian who teaches at the Rome campus of Duquesne University, and writes regularly for Zenit, where this article originally appeared on January 24, 2008. It is published here with the author’s kind permission.

Last week’s events at Rome’s La Sapienza University have been front-page news everywhere in the free world, and the 67 professors who protested Benedict XVI’s projected visit last Thursday have been left with egg on their face.

The irresponsible protest has drawn nearly universal condemnation, the hypocritical intolerance of a university named “wisdom” has been rightly chastised, and the absurdity of a place of learning banning a lecture by a world-class professor has brought shame upon the entire Italian educational system.

And happily, the emphatic response from politicians, university professors and students all over Italy, culminating in the 200,000 participants in last Sunday’s Angelus [January 20] to express solidarity with Benedict XVI and the voice of reason, has also been extensively covered.

This whole sad episode, which ended in the most wonderful of ways, has provided a vivid reminder of how God is able to turn evil into good.

Just one thing keeps nagging at me. What explains the deafening silence of the history department at La Sapienza? Don’t these people even know where they came from?

The Beginning of “Wisdom”
Pope Boniface VIII founded the University of Rome (later to be called “La Sapienza” —Wisdom) on April 20, 1303, with the papal bull Supremae Praeminentia Dignitatis, making it one of the first universities in the world. At the time, Rome had many schools but lacked an academic institution of higher education, complete with schedules, courses and degrees — a void the Bishop of Rome saw fit to fill.

Although funded by a municipal tax on wine, and supplemented by donations from rich prelates, the first century of the university was marked by great economic difficulties due especially to the papacy’s move to Avignon in 1307.

The return of the papacy brought with it new facilities for La Sapienza. The university moved from its original home in the Trastevere region to the neighborhood of Sant’Eustachio, next door to the Pantheon. The course offerings expanded from theology and law to philosophy, humanistic studies, medicine and Greek.

During the 17th century, the University of Rome was enlarged and renovated. Pope Alexander VII (Fabio Chigi) conferred on it the title of “La Sapienza” in 1660. This learned pope had formed an exceptional library that he housed in the university’s new facilities, and he sought to underscore the university’s charter as an institution founded for the pursuit of wisdom.

La Sapienza added departments for Arabic and Asian languages, while envoys were sent all over the world to gather texts and specimens. The university worked tirelessly to keep abreast of the latest scientific, geographic and philosophical discoveries.

The papacy, however, was also aware that as one grew in knowledge, the temptation of intellectual pride grew proportionately, reflecting Saint Paul’s well-known adage, “Knowledge puffs up, whereas love edifies” (I Corinthians 8:1).

Borromini’s Building — Symbols of Wisdom
To highlight the transcendent purpose of the academic programs, the pope hired Francesco Borromini in 1643 to build a church in the heart of La Sapienza’s campus. The result is a Baroque masterpiece. Sant’Ivo, dedicated to Saint Ives [or Yves], the patron saint of lawyers, stands apart even today as a message regarding the privileges and responsibilities of education — for those who care to read it.

Borromini always designed buildings using geometrical shapes, creating increasingly complex forms out of circles, triangles and squares. For La Sapienza, he started his plans with two equilateral triangles superimposed over each other to form a Star of David, the symbol of wisdom.

The Swiss architect then inscribed six circles — the symbol of infinity — in the outer points of the triangles and traced the characteristic undulating form of the dome of Sant’Ivo. Light and airy despite its heavy masonry, the dome has been likened to a canopy billowing above the tabernacle.

The curving walls fluctuate in constant motion. The body of Borromini’s church seems to flex and move, ready to accommodate each individual’s intellectual growth. Sant’Ivo allows space for exploration and discovery, but at the same time firmly focuses the attention back on Christ and the altar.

The pilasters supporting the dome lead straight up to the ribs of the cupola. This vertical axis emphasizes the ultimate goal of wisdom and knowledge — to serve God. The exotic spiral perched atop the cupola has been endlessly photographed by tourists, surprised to see such an eccentric touch in Roman architecture.

The exterior of Borromini’s church elaborates the same theme as the interior in the lantern at the top of the dome.

The peak of the dome twisting toward the sky recalls the Tower of Babel of Genesis 11. The grandiose construction was planned by men who thought they could reach heaven through their own ingenuity. God thwarted their plans by confounding their speech so they would not understand each other.

Borromini crowned his Tower of Babel, however, with a ring of tongues of flame. Here, he evoked Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended on the heads of the gathered disciples, giving them the ability to speak in many languages and still understand each other so as to proclaim the Gospel among the nations.

Stretching high above the neighboring buildings, Sant’Ivo stood like a beacon among the students of La Sapienza, warning them to beware of the seductions of knowledge and to use the riches of their education to announce the kingdom of God.

La Sapienza’s Loss
After half a millennium of papal administration, La Sapienza was annexed by the Italian government, along with the rest of Rome, in 1870, with the fall of the Papal States.

Mussolini closed the historic site of La Sapienza, moving the university to the new complex he had constructed, La Città Universitaria, where it remains today. And although it can now accommodate 100,000 students, it has lost Borromini’s beautiful testimony of a papacy that fostered and nurtured education in Rome while always remembering Psalm 111, “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord”.

Photo Credit: Photos of Sant’Ivo are by Mary Ann Sullivan, Professor Emerita of English and Art History, Bluffton University, Bluffton, Ohio, and are reproduced here with permission.

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