Sherry Fyman writes on 'Bologna and the Scholar in Art'
Updated: Feb 9
Sheer serendipity led me to this 13th century Italian sculpture from Bologna, tucked away in a small room in the medieval Cluny Museum of Paris. This solitary figure expresses the quiet, dignified life of the scholar.
It brought me back to a series of tomb sculptures I had seen in Bologna – tomb decorations that mesmerized and delighted me and that were unlike anything I had ever seen before. I had seen beautiful tomb sculptures before. In Rome’s Palazzo Massimo, I had seen tomb sculptures that expressed the solemnity and honor thought due a member of the imperial family. I had seen a sarcophagus celebrating a brutal battle scene and the capture of innocent, helpless civilians. And tomb sculptures of the faithful.
But when I wandered into Bologna's medieval museum, I was dazzled to see that the tombs of the university professors were often decorated with scenes of their classrooms.
It was so refreshing to see images of the world around them, rather than imagined, fantasized worlds, to see the world as it was rather than what the sculptor thought it should be. I love the palpable animation and engagement of the students, of the willingness to stand so as not to miss a lecture.
There’s so much motion here. While the students pay rapt attention to their professor, it doesn’t stop them from interacting with each other, perhaps to share an insight or question. Rather than searching for spiritual glory, glory on the battlefield, or the honor of rank, Bologna’s professors and their students pointed the way towards something new - secular glory, the glory and celebration of learning.
Today we take university centers for granted. They are part of the fabric of the life of many large cities but that was not always the case. Throughout the 11th and 12th centuries there was a growing need for scholars of Roman Law – the body of law developed by the ancient Romans that came to define most civil law. Bologna, Paris, and Oxford became magnets for those wanting to engage in higher education and were willing to travel to study with the great masters of the day.
The university and its scholars brought prestige and revenue to the city so throughout the 12th and 13th centuries Bologna began assuming the responsibility to pay academic salaries, rather than leave them to the vagaries of student support. Not only did this provide necessary financial stability to university faculty, but it indicated the central importance of scholars to the life of Bologna.
We get a further sense of the importance of scholars to the life of medieval Bologna during a casual stroll through the heart of modern-day Bologna. During my first day in Bologna several years ago, I was puzzled by the elevated tomb structures I passed in some of the main squares. I had never seen anything like them. I assumed that they were tombs of the wealthy and powerful as I had seen in other parts of Italy. But, no, these tombs were different, they were tombs of noted scholars of the day.
This is the tomb of Egidio Foscherari (1219-1289). He was the first canon lawyer to be memorialized and as the word “memorial” suggests, the centrality of his tomb placement was meant to remind subsequent generations of the contributions scholars made to Bologna.
These memorials and law professor tomb sculptures, as far as I can tell, are unique to Bologna. They reach out to me across the centuries to confirm and celebrate the centrality of scholarship and learning. They also remind us that art often celebrates the everyday life around us.