On this day in the year 1303, the last of his reign, Pope Boniface VIII issued the bull “In supremae praeeminentia dignitatis”, establishing the University of Rome. The university’s official motto is “Studium Urbis – the study of the city”, “studium” being the word most broadly used in the Middle Ages for academic institutions; since the mid-16th century, it has been nicknamed “La Sapienza”, Italian for “wisdom.” It is now considered very prestigious and rated one of the best in the world for the study of both classics and ancient history, but for much of its existence, its fortunes have vacillated considerably. Its reputation often came out the worse in competition with other academic institutions in the Eternal City, and in the days of the Papal state, more than one Pope thought of closing it. Plans for providing it with new buildings were begun during the reign of Alexander VI (1492-1503), but not brought to completion until the reign of the next Pope of that name (1655-67), although the final results include one of the splendors of the Roman Baroque, Francesco Borromini’s great church of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza.

(The dome of Sant’Ivo exemplifies Borromini’s fondness for unusual geometrical forms and his dislike of color. Six-pointed stars were a traditional symbol of wisdom, and the building is permeated with patterns based on the number six. Image from Wikimedia Commons by ArchitasCC BY-SA 4.0.)

The opening paragraph of Pope Boniface’s Bull is not just an excellent expression of the role of a university, but also a fine piece of Latin writing, in the best tradition of Roman rhetorical elegance, one to which our own poor effort at translation does no real justice.

“In supremae praeeminentia dignitatis divini dispositione consilii constituti, ad universas fidelium regiones nostrae vigilantiae creditas tanquam pastor Dominici gregis aciem Apostolicae considerationis extendimus, ad earum profectum quantum nobis ex alto permittitur intendentes: sed ad urbium Urbem, Romanam videlicet civitatem, quam divina clementia statuit caput Orbis, eo attentionis (attentius?) meditationis intuitum retorquemus, quo principalius in eadem nostri sedem Apostolatus caelestis dispositio stabilivit, et firmavit Ecclesiae fundamentum. Hanc profecto nimirum inter caeteras urbes sub Christianae religione fidei militantes, uberioris affectionis praerogativa prosequimur, studiosius Apostolicis munimus praesidiis, et condignis libentius gratiis honoramus, ideoque ferventi non immerito desiderio ducimur, quod eadem Urbs, quam divina bonitas tot gratiarum dotibus insignivit, scientiarum etiam fiat foecunda muneribus, ut viros producat consilii maturitate conspicuos, virtutum redimitos ornatibus, ac diversarum facultatum dogmatibus eruditos, sitque ibi fons scientiarum irriguus, de cujus plenitudine hauriant universi literalibus cupientes imbui monumentis.

Having been placed by the arrangement of God’s counsel in the foremost place of supreme dignity, as the shepherd of the Lord’s flock we extend the attention of our Apostolic regard to all those regions of the faithful entrusted to our vigilance, looking to their advancement as much as is permitted to us from above. But to the city of cities, namely, Rome, which the divine clemency appointed the head of the world, we turn the gaze of our consideration the more attentive, since there above all did the arrangement chosen by heaven establish the seat of our Apostolate, and fixe the foundation of the Church. Most assuredly do we attend this city, among all those that strive under the religion of the Christian faith, with the prerogatives of a richer affection, protecting it the more zealously with our Apostolic guardianship, and honor it the more willingly with becoming favors. Therefore, not undeservedly are we led with fervent desire that the same city, which the divine goodness had marked with so many gifts of grace, should become also rich in the works of knowledge so that it might produce men outstanding for the maturity of their counsel, crowned with the ornaments of the virtues, and learnèd in the teachings of the various fields, and that there may be therein an overflowing fountain of the knowledge, from the fullness of which all those who desire to be fully educated in the great works of letters may draw.” (Magnum Bullarium Romanum, vol 1, p. 205; Borde, Arnaud et Rigaud, Lyon, 1655.)

(A contemporary portrait of Pope Boniface by Giotto; public domain image from Wikimedia Commons, by Sailko; CC BY 3.0)