History of the College

The legitimate charter by Pope Pius IV, Ad apostolicae dignitatis apicem of October 15, 1561, sanctions the start of Saint Charles’ project to build a university college in Pavia: the project was entrusted to architect Pellegrino Pellegrini, known as Tibaldi (1526- 1596).

The foundation of the Collegio is part of the complex framework of the educational and pedagogical reform promoted by Charles (archbishop of Milan since 1560), and of the specific history of the Pavia university centre, where minor realities already existed, such as the university residence founded by Cardinal Branda Castiglioni, where Charles’ uncle, who became Pope Pius IV, was welcomed.

Therefore, he did not hesitate to support the initiative of his nephew, who was well aware of the importance of an adequate residential structure to encourage the study and maturation of young people. With a subsequent document, the Pope binds the land rents of the Cluniac monastery of San Maiolo to the nascent institution, thus constituting the financial basis for its start-up and persistence.


Pellegrino Bolognese, a painter of great expectation and beautiful genius […] He finally started a palace for the Sapienza in Pavia for Cardinal Borromeo.

Description of the works of Francesco Primaticcio from Bologna, abbot of S. Martino, painter and architect, in “The Lives of the Most Excellent Italian Painters, Sculptors and Architects, from Cimabue to the present day”, ed. 1568.

The first stone was in fact laid on June 19, 1564 and construction proceeded for over twenty years, with changes in setting (for instance, during construction, Charles required a significant extension of the original project) and slowdowns due to the client’s commitment to the construction of other important factories in the Milanese diocese. The building was equipped in 1579 with a chapel dedicated to Santa Giustina, patron saint of the Borromeo family.


Pavia, 30 short miles. I immediately started to see the main things in the city […] I saw the rudiments
of Cardinal Borromeo’s buildings for students.

Journal of the trip to Italy, 1580-1581.

The building was completed in 1588, when it officially welcomes the first pupils, albeit it already housed a community of boarding-school students since 1 April 1581, including another famous Borromeo, Charles’ cousin, Federico.


In 1580, [Federico Borromeo] expressed his resolution to devote himself to the ecclesiastical ministry, and took the vows
from the hands of his cousin Charles, who was already reputed to be a saint. He entered shortly
after in the university residence founded by him in Pavia, and which still bears the name of their family.

The Betrothed, chapter XXII

In the years 1603-1604, the hall on the upper floor is embellished with a series of paintings dedicated to Saint Charles Borromeo (vault and northern wall, by Cesare Nebbia from Orvieto and assistants) and with the episode of the imposition of the cardinal hat by Federico Zuccari on the southern wall.


In Pavia, in the Collegio Borromeo, I enjoyed very honourable rooms and apartments, of which the said Collegio is full, and a very ornate façade and front, both inside and out, which are perhaps unique in Italy.

Il passaggio per l’Italia del Sig. Cavaliere Federico Zuccaro, 1608

The project was continued and completed within the 1620s thanks to the intervention of Francesco Maria Richini (1584-1658), who defined the eastern side with the two buildings reaching out to the Italian garden: a hortus conclusus, which determines a perspective telescope in line with the building’s door, closed at the bottom by a niche with a Baroque-style fountain. The design of the splendid wrought iron gate with the Borromean heraldic emblems is also by the Milanese architect.
A fundamental architectural intervention, which has given the building its current form of a perfect homogeneous quadrilateral defining the different elevations and inserted in a green area, is by Giuseppe Pollak, who in 1818-20 completed the side facing the river, with the demolition of the church of San Giovanni in Borgo, consistently with Pellegrino’s design (which Stendhal liked so much).


15 décembre 1816 […] J’étais venu à Pavie pour voir les jeunes Lombards qui étudient en cette université, la plus
savante d’Italie […] J’ai été fort content de l’architecture du collège Borromée; elle est de Pellegrini, l’auteur de
l’église de Rhô, sur la route de Milan au Simplon.

Rome, Naples et Florence, 1826

The challenge won in the last century was that of a progressive modernization: the transformation into a Military Hospital during the First World War also left its marks. The structural and technological modernization, starting from the early years of the twentieth century, the construction of electric, heating and telephone systems, the construction of an additional floor (the so-called “Iperuranio”) intended for the students’ rooms, the functional recovery of large areas of the building (such as the basement used as a library, multimedia study rooms and recreational spaces), the extension of green areas and the restoration of the seventeenth-century garden in a manner consistent with the original project, the transformation of the former Pio Luogo Pertusati building into a Section for undergraduates and graduates, the restoration of the Renaissance building in via Perelli destined to the Administration, the construction of a new Section to house the first female students in September 2009 represent a long line of interventions united by the goal of maintaining the right balance – required from the beginning by the founder to his architect – between beauty and liveability, overall harmony and rational functional concatenation of the parts.

The Collegio, by virtue of both its prestigious foundation, its bond with the Borromeo family, and its long and uninterrupted history, is also a treasure trove of masterpieces: from the frescoes in the Chapel and the Hall to the paintings in the Picture Gallery, from majolica to sacred vestments to the furnishing elements. For this reason too, it has been considered over the centuries and in recent times a historical, architectural and artistic monument of exceptional value, to be subjected to careful maintenance and continuous supervision.


In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it mainly provided jurists destined for positions in the government and administration of the Church and the Milanese state: Cesare Monti, Federico Visconti, Giuseppe Pozzobonelli, cardinal archbishops of Milan, Marco Arese, regent of the Supreme Council, highest office in the Milanese state, Giorgio Clerici, president of the Senate; numerous bishops and cardinals: Giuseppe Alessandro Furietti, cardinal and expert in ancient mosaics. At later times, the Collegio house: among jurists, Pietro Custodi, collaborator of Minister Prina; Giuseppe Ferrari, an important representative of republican federalist ideas, pupil of Gian Domenico Romagnosi, and protagonist of the Italian Risorgimento; Contardo Ferrini, distinguished teacher of Roman law, recognized as “Blessed” by the Church; Scipione Ronchetti, Minister and Keeper of the Seals of the Giolitti and Tittoni governments, proposer of the law on conditional sentence. Among doctors, Agostino Bertani, organizer of the Expedition of the Thousand and secretary of Garibaldi, promoter of the public hygiene code of 1885; Enrico Acerbi, precursor of bacteriology mentioned by Manzoni in a note to The Betrothed; Lamberto Parravicini, surgeon; Carlo Forlanini, creator of the first artificial pneumothorax for the treatment of tuberculosis. Among mathematicians, physicists and engineers: Giovanni Codazza director of the Royal Industrial Museum of Turin; Francesco Brioschi, founder of the Polytechnic University of Milan and author of 279 scientific publications; Gaspare Mainardi scholar of differential geometry, of which we recall the Gauss-Mainardi-Codazzi formulas; Luigi Volta astronomer of the Brera observatory. Among the scholars: Eligio Possenti, playwright and critic, one of the first to evaluate the originality of Pirandello. In addition, the Collegio hosted the Russian poet Venceslav Ivanov between 1926-1936 and counts among its rectors Cesare Angelini, an important interpreter of Manzoni and an attentive scholar, and Leopoldo Riboldi, Rector Perpetuus, who, with the donation of 4,200 volumes from the Collegio library, contributed to the establishment of the Faculty of Political Sciences in Pavia, the first in Italy. Currently, a substantial part of the Pavia faculty members were students at the Collegio.



Founded for a few dozen students […] Borromeo reveals what a great thing young man was for the people in the sixteenth century: respect for his dignity, trust in the high promises he brought along, and they also had to find the right place where to mature and take place. And still today the Founder imposes his style on those who enter, inviting them to a patrician sense of life and to the awareness of praiseworthy works. It is undoubtedly one of the first University Residences in Italy […] It can well be said biblically that in Pavia the Collegio Borromeo is the house that cheers up the city: with the impetus of its architectural lines, the power of its size that overlooks and and overcome the centuries, the majesty of its hall celebrated by ever-beating frescoes, the breath on the river and on the “coherent” gardens; and also for the fact of having become such a natural part of The Betrothed, with the solemn figure of Cardinal Federigo, the first pupil, “flos Alumnorum”.

Questo Borromeo, 1957