By Dr Jonathan Davies
Visitors to Venice during the winter months are often bemused by the many unruly degree festivities which are held in the area around the university faculties, especially Calle Larga Foscari, Campiello dei Squellini, and Campo Santa Margherita. Surrounded by family and friends, the graduate is usually dressed only in their underwear. They are forced to read the manifesto di laurea or papiro, a long and often obscene poem which describes their life, their behaviour, and their examination performance. As they read, the graduate must drink wine or other alcohol and submit to the pranks of their friends, who throw eggs, flour, oil, ketchup, talcum powder, or shaving foam. To ‘help’ the graduate drink, bottles of poor quality wine are sometimes tied to their hands. At the end of the festivities, the tipsy graduate runs through the streets to a bar where they are given more alcohol. As they run, the graduate endures further jests from their friends who sing an obscene song beginning ‘Dottore, dottore...’ At the end of the festivities, the graduate is cleaned up, using freezing water from a nearby fountain, and the manifesti di laurea are pasted on walls across the city. Local residents are not always pleased by the festivities, which can leave the streets and squares dirty for days. But they are enjoyed by tourists as well as by the graduate’s family and friends.
These festivities belong to a tradition dating back to the earliest universities. To an extent, today’s graduates are descendants of the ‘goliards’, poor clerical students who first appeared at universities across Europe in the twelfth century. Often living unsupervised, far from home, these students indulged in the pleasures of youth. Love, drink, and games are the subjects of the numerous poems and songs written by the goliards, of which the most famous are the Carmina Burana, which form the text of Carl Orff’s cantata. The poems also contain fierce criticism of the medieval church and the goliards would take passages from the Mass and adapt them for satirical purposes. Their behaviour was notorious and the University of Paris complained to the king of France that ‘Priests and clerks... dance in the choir dressed as women... they sing wanton songs. They eat black pudding at the altar itself, while the celebrant is saying Mass. They play dice on the altar. They cense with stinking smoke from the soles of old shoes. They run and leap throughout the church, without a blush of their own shame. Finally they drive about the town and its theatres in shabby carriages and carts, and rouse the laughter of their fellows and the bystanders in infamous performances, with indecent gestures and with scurrilous and unchaste words.’
Unsurprisingly the church responded strongly to this challenge from within and in 1289 it ordered that ‘no clerks shall be jongleurs, goliards or buffoons’.
Although the golden age of goliardia had ended, its spirit continued. It can be seen in the initiation rites which were a feature of student life in the universities of late medieval and early modern Europe, where the freshman was expected or required to provide for his colleagues, examiners, or the whole student nation. At Pavia a new student’s failure on his arrival to give gifts to the officers of his nation led to a year-long pupillagine, which comprised the continual invasion of his room and occasionally threats to kill. At the beginning of the academic year students entering the residential college in Siena were required to pay for a dinner of pizza and wine for their elders. The eating and drinking were accompanied by jokes, pranks, and the reciting of obscene poetry. Students at Siena also participated in the tradition of the serra. It was usual at the beginning of Carnival for masked students to walk through the streets of Siena collecting money to pay for their festivities. As they went, they cried ‘serra! serra!’ (‘shut! shut!’). This referred to the ancient custom of shutting streets to a wedding procession until the father of the bride paid the ‘shutters’. The serra of 1565 developed into a major riot between the students and the friars of the convent of Sant’ Agostino. Two men were killed and many others were injured. Subsequent instances of the serra were not fatal but they were still unruly. For example, in 1584 the students dressed up as greengrocers and asked the ladies of Siena to sample their produce. The serra of 1590 included a cart on which the Mount of Virtue was represented. At the top of the Mount was a prominent and clearly phallic palm tree.
When goliardia was revived in the Italian states in the nineteenth century it was linked with the independence movement, the Risorgimento. Professors and students would meet in cafés including Florian in Venice. Orders of goliards were established which involved matriculation as well as the awarding of the papiro. These orders were suppressed by the Fascists but restored after World War Two. In April 1946 the Doge of Ca’ Foscari convened a meeting in Venice of the heads of the goliardic orders at the main Italian universities. At Florian they signed a statement which defined the movement:
Goliardia is culture and intelligence.
It is the love of freedom and the understanding of one’s social responsibilities with respect to one’s school today and one’s profession tomorrow;
it is the veneration of the spirit which produces a particular way of understanding life in the light of an absolute freedom to criticise men and institutions, without any prejudice;
it is finally the veneration of the very ancient traditions which will carry throughout the world the name of our free universities.
Today there are eighty-nine goliardic orders at Italian universities, including Venice’s Serenissimus Goliardicus Ordo Phoenicis, the Most Serene Goliardic Order of the Phoenix.
Visitors to Venice during the winter months are often bemused by the many unruly degree festivities which are held in the area around the university faculties, especially Calle Larga Foscari, Campiello dei Squellini, and Campo Santa Margherita. These festivities belong to a tradition dating back to the earliest universities. To an extent, today’s graduates are descendants he ‘goliards’, poor clerical students who first appeared at universities across Europe in the twelfth century.
Dr Jonathan Davies FRHS is a Senior Lecturer in the History Department and regularly teaches on the Venice Programme. His research centres on the history of the Italian states, especially Tuscany, between 1350 and 1600, focussing particularly on universities. Currently, he is concentrating on the study of violence in early modern Europe, again using students and professors as a focus.
Dr Jonathan Davies FRHS
Department of History
J dot D dot Davies at warwick dot ac dot uk