The Urchins of Pious Schools

In the 16th century in Bologna, pre-university public schools could respond to the demand for education only in a limited way, as the funds earmarked for education were almost totally taken by the "Studio". By the second half of the 16th century, education activity saw the involvement of religious orders, parishes and private teachers, soon flanked by the Jesuits, and a new education institution, the Scuole Pie - Pious Schools.

The Jesuits pursued the education of the ruling classes, as the goal of their teaching; in fact, their schools were mostly attended by the offspring of noble families.

In the early 17th century the huge development of the economy engendered a relevant increase in the demand for education by popular classes. The access to education "by craftsmen and traders compelled institutions to adjust the school system to the need of these users, for whom the Jesuit schools were obviously not enough" (G. P. Brizzi).

Pious Schools, founded in Bologna in 1616, were run by a Congregation of laymen and priests, responding directly to the town's Archbishop. They taught mostly technical and practical disciplines, and the three R's. The disciplines taught in the school were: Italian and Latin grammar, drawing, singing, Christian doctrine; lessons were held five hours a day from October to August. In October, February and June the "passage" tests were held, for the evaluation of the different learning levels. Particularly important was the co-operation with the families in following their children. In fact, the students whose parents did not pay attention to their school progress, were expelled (R. Fantini).

The Congregation established rules governing the organisational and educational running of the Schools. Despite the high death rate caused by the 1630 plague, the number of students kept on growing and, in order to respond to this increase, other four decentralised schools were set up, one in all the four town districts. They were run by teachers taking charge of poor children from 6 to 8 years of age who learned reading and writing. Afterwards, the children were enlisted to the courses held by the Pious Schools with both lay and religious teachers.

Following the occupation of Bologna by Napoleon in 1796, the religious teachers were replaced by laymen of staunch Republican faith. Many school books were changed, by privileging the ones covering the republican constitution and the rights of citizens. Drawing and Latin were eliminated. After the Congress of Vienna the Pious Schools were brought back under the direction of the Archbishop who promulgated the "Rules for the Teachers of Pious Schools" (1815), who continued to be mostly laymen and hired via public contests.

In 1859 Bologna was annexed to the Savoy Kingdom, and therefore all the schools were transferred to the national Ministry of Education. The following year elementary schools were established in town and the Pious Schools were incorporated into them.

After two and a half centuries their activity came therefore to an end. This institution had the merit of having promoted free education for children of the poorest classes, who studied and played under the arcades next to the church of S. Domenico, and for their liveliness were called by people, "birichein del Scol Pei" - Pious Schools' naughty kid, or urchins.


Second "Motu proprio" by Pope Gregory XV, 1st July 1621. Gregory XV granted a perpetual fund of 300 "scudi" a year in favour of Bologna's Pious Schools to help them face growing expenses due to the increased number of students. The grant was paid by the Gabella Grossa, the revenues from customs levies on foreign goods, which also paid for the "Studio" lecturers (ASCBo, Fondo Scuole Pie, 1621, Photo: MV).
"Rules for all students of Pious Schools in Bologna", s.d. Board where all the rules for the students are listed, as established by the School Congregation and approved by Cardinal Carlo Oppizzoni (ASCBo, Fondo Scuole Pie, 1815 - 1821, Photo: MV).