Along with such universities as Bologna, Paris, Oxford and Cambridge, that of Padua was one of the first to exemplify the idea of a Gymnasium Omnium Disciplinarum - an educational model that can now be seen throughout the world. Though the university's year of foundation is generally given as 1222, that in fact only marks the date from which there are records of a fixed and publicly recognised university established within the city and so the actual foundation can be dated even early, to a period when a number of professors and students had left the University of Bologna as a result of offences to academic freedom and the failure to observe the privileges that had been guaranteed to teachers and pupils. Such exchanges of personnel and students - together with the similarities in the Statutes of the two foundations - reveal that Padua placed a certain importance on this link with what was the oldest university in the world, against which it was however very soon setting itself up as a rival (and even centuries later that rivalry has lost none of its edge).
Padua University was not founded as the result of a charter granted by pope of emperor, but as a response to the specific social and cultural conditions that created a need for it; and its motto of Universa Universis Patavina Libertas was well-deserved not only under the original Commune of the thirteenth century but also during the fourteenth-century rule of the Carraresi and throughout the period of Venetian rule of the city (from the 15th to the 18th century), all these different authorities guaranteeing full respect for the university's freedoms.
Work to adapt the existing structures would go on into the early years of the seventeenth century, and include the admirable Old Courtyard designed by Andrea Moroni, whilst a list of some of the important figures who studied here during this time (15th-16th century) might include: Nicholas Copernicus, Francesco della Rovere (the future pope Sixtus IV), Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Leon Battista Alberti, Paolo Toscanelli, Francesco Guicciardini, Pietro Bembo, Torquato Tasso, Paolo Sarpi, Bernardino Telesio, Tommaso Campanella, Roberto Bellarmino, William Harvey and Gerolamo Cardano. And as for the important contributions to knowledge made in this period, these include: Gian Battista Da Monte's role in the establishment of clinical medicine (he was the first man in Europe to teach medicine and diagnosis in the presence of patients); the foundation of the first university Botanical Garden (1545); the introduction of autopsies as a means of acquiring medical knowledge, with the construction of the first permanent anatomy theatre in 1594/5; the anatomical discoveries made by the likes of Andrea Vesalius, Gabriele Falloppio and G. Fabrici Acquapendente. In other areas of knowledge, Padua University can also boast the contribution made by such thinkers as Paolo Veneto, Gaetano da Thiene, Nicoletto Vernia, Piero Pomponazzi and Jacopo Zabarella to breaking now the rigid schema of Scholastic thought. And in the area of jurisprudence, the university was the source of innovative rulings that influenced heads of government throughout Europe.
From the very beginning, Padua's reputation had attracted students from all over the continent, but this influx became particularly noteworthy in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, with people being attracted not only by the fame of the university's teachers but also by the spirit of tolerance that was guaranteed by the Venetian Republic. Many of these ex-alumni would then return to their own countries - perhaps even founding universities and colleges - and thus Padua became a sort of workshop, forging minds and personal bonds that would have a significant effect upon the life of Europe as a whole. One particularly proud moment in the history of the university came in 1678, when Elena Lucrezia Piscopia gained her degree in Philosophy - in effect, becoming the first woman graduate in the world.
During the seventeenth and eighteenth century, as universities spread throughout Europe and ideas were exchanged backwards and forwards across the continent, the role of Padua University changed; however, it still maintained its unique position within the Venetian Republic, and the eminence of its professors meant it continued to hold a high place both within and without Italy. Amongst the figures associated with the University at this time, one might mention: Domenico Guglielmi, Bernardino Ramazzini, Gian Battista Morgagni, Gian Battista Poleni, Antonio Vallisneri and Giuseppe Toaldo, with the students including Carlo Goldoni, Ugo Foscolo, Giuseppe Tartini and Giacomo Casanova. By this time the power of the Venetian Republic was on the wane, but this did not prevent the creation of an important Astronomical Observatory (founded 1761, completed 1777) and the institutions of chairs in such subjects as Chemistry and Agricultural Science. And even after the Venetian Republic did collapse (1797), the ensuring period of political unrest that lasted right up until the Veneto's unification with the State of Italy (1866) did not prevent the University from playing an important role in the intellectual life of the region, in spite of powerful limitations upon intellectual freedom and reduced financial resources. Outside the city of Venice itself, Padua University remains one of the finest contributions that the Venetian Republic made to European history.
That glorious past, of course, is more than just an object for nostalgic contemplation; it serves to inspire the modern-day university to take its rightful place in the international community of learning.
The political role of the university was particularly apparent in the nineteenth century, when its professors and students took part in the local uprising of February 1848 against the Austrian occupation; and again in the First World War, Padua would find itself the centre of the zone of operations bordering on the Austrian Front. Just a few decades later, under its Rector Concetto Marchesi and its Pro-Rector Egidio Meneghetti, Padua University would live up to its motto by taking a leading role in the struggle against the Nazi occupation of 1943-45; and in recognition of the sacrifices made by so many young people who lost their life in that struggle, the university would later receive the Gold Medal for Valour, the only university in Italy to gain such an award.
But to return to its intellectual standing, Padua University became one the universities of the Italian State in 1873, and ever since has been one of the most prestigious in the country for its contributions to scientific and scholarly research: in the field of mathematics alone, its professors have included such figures as Gregorio Ricci Curbastro, Giuseppe Veronese, Francesco Severi and Tullio Levi Civita.
The last years of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century saw a reversal of the centralisation process that had taken place in the sixteenth: scientific institutes were set up in what became veritable campuses; a new building to house the Arts and Philosophical faculty was built in another part of the city centre (Palazzo del Liviano, designed by Giò Ponti); the Astro-Physics Observatory was built on the Asiago uplands; and the old Palazzo del Bo was fully restored (1938-45). Obviously, the vicissitudes of the Fascist period - political interference, the Race Laws, etc - had a detrimental effect upon the development of the university, as did the devastation caused by the Second World War and - just a few decades later - the effect of the student protests of 1968-69 (which the university was left to face without adequate help and support from central government). However, the Gymnasium Omnium Disciplinarum continued its work uninterrupted, and overall the second half of the twentieth century saw a sharp upturn in development - primarily due an interchange of ideas with international institutions of the highest standing (particularly in the fields of science and technology).
In recent years, the University has been able to meet the problems posed by overcrowded facilities by re-deploying over the Veneto as a whole. In 1990, the Institute of Management Engineering was set up in Vicenza; then the summer courses at Bressanone began once more; and in 1995 the Agripolis centre at Legnaro - for Agricultural Science and Veterinary Medicine - opened. Other sites of re-deployment are at Rovigo, Treviso, Feltre, Castelfranco Veneto, Conegliano, Chioggia and Asiago.
Recent changes in state legislation have also opened the way to greater autonomy for Italian universities, and in 1995 Padua adopted a new Statute that gave it greater independence.
As the publications of innumerable conferences and congresses show, the modern-day Padua University plays an important role in scholarly and scientific research at both a European and world level. True to its origins, this is the direction in which the Institution intends to move in the future, establishing closer and closer links of co-operation and exchange with all the world's major research universities.