Bologna’s Medieval Elevated Tombs

A visitor to Bologna is likely to come across curious elevated tombs while wandering around the city. Who do they commemorate and why were they accorded such prominent recognition ?

Bologna has five curious elevated tombs at two locations. (P. Granville)

The rebirth of cities

After centuries of turmoil, from around the tenth century Northern Italy slowly grew in prosperity. A combination of more intensive agriculture and population growth, along with increased manufacturing and commerce, drove the development of towns.

Bologna, with a population at that time of around 25,000, began a period of reconstruction and repair of its ancient Roman infrastructure. By the 11th century, there was a need for a new set of walls to enclose the city which had grown far beyond its old Roman boundaries. They were completed in the next century (see my post The Walls of Bologna for more).

The Porta Nuova is one of the remaining gates of the 12th century walls. (Image : P. Granville)

The increase in commerce gave rise to a need for a supporting legal framework. Around this time, the legal compendiums assembled during the reign of Emperor Justinian some 600 years earlier, later known as the Corpus Iuris Civilis, were rediscovered.

In the mid 11th century, a jurist named Pipo started giving private lessons in law in Bologna, based on these recently rediscovered Roman texts. Later in that century, the FBologna born Irnerius started his own law school

Irnerius introduced the practice of writing glosses, which were explanations to the ancient texts in the margins of pages. This gave rise to the term “glossators” to describe him and his successors.

Codex, with gloss of Accursius, a later professor in Bologna, surrounding the main text. (Bodlian Library via

The beginnings of the University

In 1088, students formed guilds to improve their bargaining power in determining fees for their lessons. This is often cited as the beginning of the University of Bologna, although at this time lectures were given in the private homes of the teachers.

We can get a feel for medieval Bologna in some corners where the wooden porticoes of that period have survived, such as here in Via Marsala. See my post “Bologna’s Porticoes” for more.

By 1158, the renown of the Bologna law school was such Emperor Frederick Barbarossa consulted jurists known as “The Four Doctors of Bologna” on the imperial rights included in Roman law. Their advice strengthened his resolve to assert his powers in Italy as Holy Roman Emperor. No doubt they were well

At the request of Bologna’s teachers and students, Barbarossa issued a decree granting them legal rights which most of them previously lacked as foreigners.

The tombs at Piazza Malpighi

Bologna’s University grew in size and stature as did the importance and wealth of the law professors, leading to the building of the public memorials. The oldest remaining free standing tomb is that of Odofredo Denali built in around 1265. It’s located in front of the church of San Francesco in Piazza Malpighi.

Denali was the author a number of legal works reproduced over the centuries and is credited with the saying “Everyone wants to know, but nobody wants to know the price of knowledge”. His tomb has been restored several times over the centuries.

There are two other tombs at this location. One is that of Rolandino dei Romanzi which was built in around 1285 and the other is the final resting place of Accursio d’Accorso and his son Francesco.

The tomb of Rolandino dei Romanzi in Bologna was built in around 1285. (P. Granville)

In 1804, Rolandino’s tomb was destroyed by the French who, in the wake of Napoleonic conquest, were governing the city. It was reconstructed in 1888 from sections that had been transported to the Certosa Cemetery eighty years previously.

Accursius, (ca. 1182 – 1263), was one of the most famous and wealthy of the Bologna glossators. He assembled from previous work the so called “Great Gloss” comprising some 97,000 commentaries on Roman Law.

Unlike earlier glossators, he also offered solutions to problems and inconsistencies. Accursuis became very wealthy through his consulting and teaching and built a large house in the centre of Bologna.

This building, now known as the Palazzo d’Accursio, was enlarged over the centuries and now serves as the home of the City Council, or Commune.

A view of the rear of the Palazzo d’Accursio, much modified and extended over the centuries. (Image P. Granville)

Accursio’s son Francesco also had a career in law as did his brothers and a sister Accursia. Francesco is mentioned by Dante, a contemporary, in Canto XV of “Inferno” as one of the inhabitants of that part of hell reserved for sodomites.

Our family is enternally grateful to Accursius due to his formulation of the maxim “Cuius est solum, eius est usque ad coelum et ad inferos”, or “Whoever’s is the soil, it is theirs all the way to heaven and all the way to hell“.

Accursio’s principle of land ownership is thought to have been incorporated into English common law subsequent to Francesco accompanying King Edward I on his return from the crusades. The king had an interest in law reform.

Edward I. (Wikimedia)

When some years ago a crane associated with construction work next door started swinging over our house, it was trespassing, in line with Accursius’ maxim. We were able to stop work while we negotiated a licence with the developers. The resulting fee helped us pay off our daughter’s tertiary education debt.

This tomb was originally built in 1293 by Francesco who moved the body of his father, Accursius here. It was also the final resting place of Francesco. (Image: P. Granville)

The tomb was in poor condition by the 1880s with the remains of Accursius and Francesco dispersed and the mausoleum converted into a dwelling. It was restored along with the other two tombs at this locatby Alfonso Rubbiani.

The tombs at San Domenico.

The other two glossator’s tombs are located adjacent to the basilica of San Domenico. You can see them whilst visiting the church and the magnificent tomb or Arca of Saint Domenic that I described in my post Michelangelo in Bologna.

Adjacent to a wall across the piazza from the church is the tomb of Egidio Foscherari built ca. 1289. It has a more classical style than the others, perhaps to underline the fact that Egidio taught canon or church law rather than civil law.

Egidio’s tomb in Piazza San Domenico (Image : P. Granville)

The marble arch incorporated into Egidio’s tomb was taken from the ciborium or altar cover of a Carolingan church from around the 9th. century. The peacock was an early Christian symbol of the resurrection. ( Image : P. Granville)

The other mausoleum at this location is that of Rolandino de’ Passegeri. Despite numerous restorations and severe damage from an allied air raid in 1943, its appearance is thought to be quite original.

An interesting feature is the depiction of a teacher and his students which was often copied over the following centuries.

Rolandino was a Bologna born notary who rose to a position of great power and prestige. He founded the notary school at the University and the city eventually awarded him the position by the city of “Elder Consul for Life”.

Rolandino’s tomb in Piazza San Domenico (Image : P. Granville)

When Re Enzo, the son of Emperor Frederick II was captured and imprisined in Bologna, it was Rolandino who wrote the letter in response to the threats and demands of the Emperor.

Rolandino died in 1300 at the age of 90, and his mausoleum was built shortly afterwards.

The sarcofagus of Rolandino de’ Passageri was the first in Bologna to depict students at a lesson with their teacher. (Image: P. Granville)

Other tombs

One later tomb with the same motif is that of Mondino de Liuzzi, a professor of surgery who is credited with the reintroduction of public dissection. He also wrote an influential early anatomical text. Mondino died in 1326.

The tomb of Mondino de Liuzzi in the portico of the church of San Vitale in Via San Vitale. (Image : P.Granville)

Further examples from the 14th century can be found at Bologna’s medieval museum, including a fragment of the sarcophagus of Giovanni da Legnano who left an endowment to assist poor students studying at Bologna.

A sign of the times. (Image: P. Granville)

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