The foundation of the University of Catania, the oldest in Sicily, dates back to 1434, when the king of Spain, Alfonso of Aragon (who was also King Alfonso I of Sicily) authorised the establishment of a Studium generale with the privilege of issuing legally valid academic titles – baccellierati, licenses and degrees – in the four core disciplines of theology, canon and civil law, physical (medical) and joint philosophy, liberal arts (literature), the papal recognition arriving ten years later from Pope Eugene IV.
Prior to this, the main centres of education were in Palermo, Messina and Trapani. However, none of them held the jus doctorandi or the right to grant degrees which could only be given by the Pope. In 1444, the first four faculties of Medicine, Philosophy, Canonic and Civil Law and Theology and Arts were established. Students began to attend classes in 1445, however it was not until two centuries later that the university gained its own establishment in Piazza Università. It still stands in the Piazza today, in the former grounds of the hospital of St. Mark’s. The former building was completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1693 and students were left without a place to continue their study. In the interim period before it was rebuilt, the resourceful students, unperturbed by such events and endowed with infinite determination, transferred classes to wooden huts near the harbour. The new building, designed by Giovan Battista Vaccarini, is a magnificent monument of Baroque architecture.
Today the university buildings are spread throughout the city, with a contrast between the modern, hi-tech “University City”, and numerous historical buildings in the old city centre.