Private institutions of higher learning and state technical and trade schools in Italy have to go through a process of accreditation and approval in order to be “pareggiato” (lit., “made equal to”) state universities, at which point they are authorized to grant accredited university degrees. Naples has a number of such accredited institutions, including the Orientale university, the new Parthenope university, and the Suor Orsola Benincasa university.
S uor (sister) Orsola Benincasa (1547-1618) was a Roman Catholic mystic and founder of a religious order in Naples on premises which eventually became and still house the university that bears her name. The history of the institution as a place of education (and not a convent) starts in 1864 when the anti-clericalism of the new united Italy simply closed most monasteries and convents in the nation. There were 32 students in that year, and for a number of years the school was somewhat of a trade school for young women, concentrating on teaching domestic skills and light handicraft such as the working of coral and artificial flowers.
I n 1895 the curriculum was greatly expanded to include foreign languages and mathematics; Suor Orsola was then accredited as a university for women (Istituto universitario di magistero pareggiato femminile). Recent innovations have expanded Suor Orsola beyond its original premises above the Spanish Quarter on the street named Corso Vittorio Emanuel to include a nearby space (in another ex-monastery, Santa Lucia al Monte) for the department of jurisprudence and, also nearby in the old convent of Santa Caterina da Siena, space for the humanities department, which offers an impressive curriculum in archaeology, ethnology, and preservation of art and cultural artifacts. (Little did the Spanish realize how much they were building for the secular future when they put up dozens of convents and monasteries between 1500 and 1700; almost all of them now serve other uses.) Additionally, there is a department of social sciences. Suor Orsola Benincasa now offers courses in nearby Pomigliano d’Arco as well as in Salerno and also now accepts male students. It makes the claim to being the oldest private university in Italy.