At the beginning of the 15th century, instability in the Lombard region which was caused by the political and military crisi, coupled with the untimely death of Gian Galeazzo Visconti, induced the teaching staff of the Universities of Pavia and Piacenza to propose to Ludovico di Savoia-Acaia the creation a of new Studium generale. Choice of the location fell on Turin for a number of reasons: first it was at the crossroads between the Alps, Liguria and Lombardy; it was also an episcopal seat and in addition the Savoy Prince was willing to establish a university on his own land, like those in other parts of Italy. In autumn 1404, a bull issued by Benedict XIII, the Avignon Pope, marked the actual birth of a centre of higher learning, formally ratified in 1412 by the Emperor Sigmund's certification and subsequently, in 1413, by a bull issued by John XXIII, the Pisan Pope, and probably by another issued in 1419 by Martin V, Pope of Rome, and by a series of papal privileges. The new institution, which initially only held courses in civil and canon law, was authorized to confer both the academic "licentia" and "doctoratus" titles which were later to become a single "laurea" (degree) title. It was the Bishop, as Rector of Studies, who proclaimed and conferred the title on the new doctors.
The early decades were marked by discontinuity, due to epidemics and crises which plagued the region between the 1420s and the 1430s following the annexation of the Piedmont territories to the Duchy of Savoy and by difficult relations between the University and the local Public Administration. After a series of interruptions in its activities, the university was moved to Chieri (between 1427 and 1434) and later, in 1434, to Savigliano. In 1436, when the institution returned to Turin, Ludovico di Savoia, who succeeded Amedeo VIII, introduced a new order of studies whereby the Government gained greater control over the University. The ducal licenses of 6 October, 1436 set up the three faculties of Theology, Arts and Medicine, and Law, and twenty-five lectureships or chairs. The growth and development of the role of Turin as the subalpine capital led to the consolidation of the University and to a stability which lasted for almost a hundred years.
From 1443 the University was housed in a modest building purchased and refurbished by the City for this purpose on the corner of via Doragrossa (now via Garibaldi) and via dello Studio (today's via San Francesco d'Assisi) directly behind the Town Hall, until the opening of the university premises in via Po, in 1720.
The Study, closed at the beginning of 1536 with the French occupation, reopened in 1558 with prestigious lecturers at Mondovì; it was re-established in Turin in 1566.
With Emanuele Filiberto and Carlo Emanuele I the University enjoyed a season of great prosperity due to the presence of illustrious teachers and a sizeable and culturally motivated student body. However, a lengthy period of decline set in around the second half of the 17th century because of plagues, famines and continual wars: courses were irregular or temporarily suspended, the number of chairs was reduced and for those which were temporarily vacant it was necessary to resort to private instruction.
The opening of the new premises marked a major turning point in the history of the greatest Piedmontese educational institution. The inauguration of the prestigious building in via Po, close to piazza Castello, and the seats of power and other educational institutions of the City, coincided with the academic year 1720-1721, the first year of the reform of university studies passed by Vittorio Amedeo II in the context of a radical renewal at all levels of public administration and education. Vittorio Amedeo II was convinced that an efficient university controlled directly by the State was the only way to form a faithful and well-trained ruling class which could support him in the process of modernizing the Nation. While the War of Spanish Succession was still being fought, the Duke had entrusted his officials to gather information concerning the structure of the major Italian and foreign universities, and charged the Sicilian jurist Francesco D'Aguirre with the task of drawing up a reorganization project.
Among the notable innovations of the reform enacted by Vittorio Amedeo was the opening of the Collegio delle Province (Halls of Residence for the Provinces) which housed one hundred young people of low social extraction to aid them in completing their studies at the State's expenses, and the establishment of the Chair of Eloquenza Italiana (Italian Rhetoric) alongside that of Latin. This had a noteworthy effect on the cultural linguistic models of the Duchy. At the time, the Piedmontese Studium became a point of reference for university reforms at Parma and Modena and subsequently a model for the universities in Cagliari and Sassari.
Carlo Emanuele III continued the policy of innovation and consolidation commenced by Vittorio Amedeo II and created a University Museum in 1739. However, in the last decades of the 18th century, the course of events at the University, closely connected to international developments, led to great urban unrest and the lost of State prestige. The revolt of university students in 1791 joined by artisans who stormed the "Collegio delle Province" in 1792 causing numerous victims, was a clear instance of this conflict.
The University and "Collegio" were closed in the autumn of the same year when war broke out against revolutionary France. In January 1799, the provisional Piedmontese Government reopened the University under the control of the "Comité d'instruction publique" (Committee for Public Instruction). In summer, 1800, the second provisional Government transformed the University into a National University and replaced the Faculties with eight Special Schools, which were based on the existing pattern: Chemistry and Rural Economy, Surgery, Drawing and Fine Arts, Legislation, Medicine, Physical and Mathematical Sciences, Literature and Veterinary Medicine. Two years later, Literature was abolished, Medicine and Surgery were merged and many chairs were suppressed for financial reasons.
Another milestone in the Turin university system was the introduction of the new Imperial order, since Piedmont had become a French Department; this involved the personal appointment by Napoleon of a Rector to head each University. Because of its size, number of chairs, teaching staff and students the Piedmontese University became the second largest in the Empire after Paris.
With the fall of Napoleon, Vittorio Emanuele I brought back the former legislation of the Savoy regime. Innovations which ensued in the following years involved the establishment of the chair of Political Economy in the Faculty of Law in 1817, the opening of a Veterinary School at Venaria in 1818 and a new procedure for the appointment of the Rector, entrusted to the academic staff of each Faculty, who proposed to the Sovereign a list of names of retired or teaching professors.
The uprisings in 1821 were supported by students in Turin to the extent that the Collegio delle Province had to be closed and the University itself operated only to a limited degree. To prevent student assemblies in the Capital, it was ordered that all students who did not come from the provinces of Turin, Pinerolo and Susa would continue their education in their place of residence, where coaches went to supervise the progress of their studies and to conduct so-called "private" examinations. In this period too participation in the appointment of the Rector was restricted: the President of the Magistrature submitted the names of five candidates to the King, chosen among the teaching staff of Surgery, Medicine, Sciences, Law, Literature and Theology but without the involvement of the professors.
Carlo Alberto's opening up to moderate liberalism and his international outlook had positive effects on the University, too: like the development of institutions and the foundation of others, in addition to the appointment of illustrious scholars such as the French Augustin Cauchy to teach Sublime Physics and the Dalmatian Pier Alessandro Paravia to the chair of Italian Rhetoric. In 1832 the Institute of Forensic Medicine was set up, in 1837 a specialization course in Obstetrics was introduced and a new Theatre and Museum of Anatomy was opened at the San Giovanni Battista Hospital to bring together the materials stored at the University and those collected since 1818 at the Museum of Pathological Anatomy. In 1842 the Collegio delle Province was reopened and students gradually resumed attending courses, which were better organized thanks to the increased number of chairs. An Upper School of Methods and the Chair of the Military History of Italy (1846), later to become the chair of Modern History, were set up; the Chair of Political Economy was revived. The new order of 1850 redesigned the Medicine and Surgery course to give scope for clinical experience and practice in hospitals and laid the foundations for the School of Pharmacology, which was later to become a Faculty.
Cultural life involving intellectuals and exiles, journalists and politicians was very lively inside and outside the University until the Capital was moved to Florence: its decline commenced when members of the teaching staff were called to government duties or to State management. Thus the circles which gravitated around the Court thinned and the City itself dropped from 220,000 inhabitants to less than 190,000. However, the University managed to find new life among the science faculties and their staff: in fact, in early 1864, Filippo De Filippi, professor of Zoology in the Science Faculty, held the first lecture in Italy on the theories of Charles Darwin. At his death, in 1867, Michele Lessona succeded to the chair and became director of the Museum of Zoology, then Dean of the Faculty of Sciences and, finally, Rector from 1877 to 1880. Thanks to Giulio Bizzozero, who founded the Laboratory of General Pathology (1873) and contributed largely to the spread of the microscope in addition to discovering blood platelets, medicine in Turin branched out into the field of social medicine to meet the health and sanitary needs of the population, particularly as regarded infectious diseases and infant mortality. The political activities of Luigi Pagliani, professor of Hygiene and founder in 1878 of the Hygiene Society, were at the basis of the strategies of public health in Italy, while discoveries made by Edoardo Bellarmino Perroncito, the first to hold a Chair of Parasitology in Italy (1879), saved the lives of thousands of miners all over Europe. In 1876, Cesare Lombroso set up the Institute of Forensic Medicine; in 1884 Carlo Forlanini tried out the first artificial lung in Turin. More recently, Renato Dulbecco and Rita Levi Montalcini, both Nobel Prize winners, trained at this medical school which has always kept abreast of the times.
In 1887 the Botanical Institute and Gardens started a systematic collection of all plants present in the Piedmont Region; in 1878 the University Consortium was constituted with the Municipality, the Province of Turin and some of the neighbouring Provinces "in order to preserve the prestige of the University of Turin as one of the primary centres of university studies".
At the turn of the century some of the science institutes moved to the Valentino area and vacated the old buildings in via Cavour and via Po. The teaching and research activities of Physics, Chemistry, Pharmacology, Physiology, General Pathology, Human Anatomy, Pathological Anatomy and Forensic Medicine were relocated in purpose-built facilities. Significant results were reached in the following years both in scientific research and in the organization of teaching.
In 1893 the foundation of the Laboratory of Political Economy connected to the University and the Industrial Museum marked a further feat beyond the scientific sphere.
In the Humanities, Arturo Graf, a "European Turinese", deserves special mention. He was born in Athens of an Italian mother and a German father. In 1876 he was appointed lecturer in Italian Literature and Comparative History of Neo-Latin Literatures; he became Professor in 1882 and Rector from 1892 to 1894. He was a thinker, a critic, a historian and above all a poet, who taught such prominent personalities as Pastonchi, Bontempelli, Augusto Monti, Balsamo Crivelli, Arturo Foà, Luigi Foscolo Benedetto and Guido Gozzano.
The 20th century saw the institution of the first Italian Chair of Psychology, held by Friedrich Kiesow in 1905, the foundation of the Institute of the History of Mediaeval and Modern Art in 1907 and that of Archaeology in 1908. In 1906 the Regia Scuola Superiore di Studi Applicati al Commercio (the Royal School of Applied Studies in Commerce) commenced its courses; this early nucleus would become the fully fledged Faculty of Economics in 1935, together with the Faculty of Agriculture.
At the turn of the century, a branch of the University formed the first nucleus of the Polytechnic under the guidance of Galileo Ferraris.
Last century, the Letters Faculty could claim such prestigious staff as Luigi Pareyson, Nicola Abbagnano, Massimo Mila and Lionello Venturi. Luigi Einaudi and Norberto Bobbio taught in the Law Faculty.
The Gentile Reform of 1923 officially recognized 21 universities in Italy; Turin was included among the 10 State universities which were directly managed and funded by the State but were independent as regards administration and teaching, as far as the law allowed, and supervised by the National Education Ministry.
Many of the protagonists of Italian political and social life in the 20th century, such as Antonio Gramsci and Piero Gobetti, Palmiro Togliatti and Massimo Bontempelli, graduated from Turin University. With its rich variety of subjects, the University of Turin has always maintained a characteristic cultural imprint made up of rigour and independence in teaching, and a spirit of service and openness to European culture.