The foundation of the University of Naples, that since 1987 bears the name of its first promoter, was made public by a generalis lictera issued by Frederick II Hohenstaufen, King of Sicily and Head of the Roman Empire, a document written in Siracusa on June 5th 1224. Frederick II wished to subtract the education of the administrative personnel of his own state to the monopoly de factu of the northern Universities, especially that in Bologna, since these were virtually autonomous or subject to the Pope's influence. He is thus one of the first sovereigns to create a state university (in fact the first to be successful in doing this), a university whose teachers he could select and whose regulations he could deliberate on, in contrast with the totally free and spontaneous process, initiated by both teachers and students, which had presided to the formation of the first European universities in the previous decades. This contrast is further shown by the fact that the Emperor forbade his subjects to go and study anywhere else, and reserved to himself the right to confer academic titles.
It is not clear why the seat was established in Naples, that is in a town close to but different from Salerno, where flourishing schools of medicine (only later moved to the new seat) had existed for some time. Although the foundation letter seems to suggest a studium generale ("doctores et magistri in qualibet facultate", are mentioned therein), only one teacher is actually named, the jurist Roffredo di Benevento, who had already worked in Bologna and Arezzo. It seems however obvious that at least the artes liberales mentioned in the letter, as well as the law, were taught in Naples. As concerns the latter field, major southern jurists taught in Naples, starting with Bartolomeo di Capua and Andrea d'Isernia, who examined and annotated the laws issues by Frederick and his successors, and thus formed the important juridical tradition of the late Middle Ages and laid the foundations for the centuries-old liveliness of law studies in Southern Italy.
The imperial patronage guaranteed a number of privileges to the new institution, but it also submitted it to a strict control which was not customary, nor therefore gladly accepted, and it also tied it to the political fortunes of the dynasty. This explains the difficult beginnings of the university; Frederick, and later Corrado IV and Manfredi, tried to take measures against this by issuing further provisions which seem to suggest a discontinuous operativity of the University. Notwithstanding this, the new Angevin dynasty did not deny the importance of the existing schools; new Dominican schools located in the convent of "S. Domenico Maggiore" were soon added to these, as happened in other parts of Europe. It is because of this that, in the last decades of the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas, one of the most illustrious names in the history of the University, studied and later taught in Naples, before moving to Paris.
A situation of complementarity was thus established between the University, a state institution, and the schools that owed their existence to private initiative, and that were therefore less encumbered by bureaucracy; this situation was to be typical of Naples for the following centuries, too. In the 15th century, or instance, the town was a centre of high-level studies in the humanities, encouraged by the Aragonese court, and here the Academy promoted by Gioviano Pontano was born, taking from him the name of "Pontaniana". The University also continued its activity, though with some interruptions, and moved to the convent of "S. Domenico Maggiore" as from 1507.
During the Spanish domination the University continued to operate, along with several Academies and religious and private schools; in 1616 it was moved to the "Palazzo degli Studi" (the building stands between the streets of St. Teresa and Foria, and presently hosts the National Archeological Museum), where it will stay until 1777. There was an upsurge in academic activity during the short Austrian period (1707-1734) and then under the Bourbons, who confirmed the University in its function as the only centre of higher education in the peninsular South (only Sicily had its own Universities). It must not be forgotten that in those years Giovanbattista Vico taught at the University of Naples. After the dissolution of the Jesuits, the University was moved to their "Collegio del Salvatore", a seat that it still partly occupies.
The University of Naples had a considerable role in the remarkable cultural development of the Kingdom in the second half of the 18th century, partly because some of the teachers, among whom Antonio Genovesi, were fully involved in the Enlightenment movement. It is here that a new class of intellectuals and civil servants was formed, a class which originated the Jacobin revolution of 1799 and the following administrative reorganization during the French decade of Joseph Bonaparte and Joachim Murat when, however, many were killed or exiled. The decades of the Bourbon restoration were not a particularly bright period for the University, especially in the humanities, which were however cultivated in several private schools; in the field of sciences, the University still had good teachers, on a par with the most advanced sections of coeval European research.
By 1860 the academic institution, divided into six Faculties (Theology, Law, Arts, Medicine, Mathematics and Natural Sciences) had slowed down the pace of its development, and did not share in the renewal undergone by the German Universities in the first part of the 19th century, a renewal that had led French and British Universities to introduce, in their turn, deep innovations. When Francesco de Sanctis came back from his exile, enriched by new experiences, he was appointed general director of education; in this authoritative function, he was able to renew entirely the statutes and the staff of the University, bringing it up to modem European standards. The Faculty of Theology was also closed in those years.
Later on, the University of Naples, still the only one in the South, conformed totally to the regulations enforced in the Kingdom of Italy following the Casati law of 1859. The buildings available were, however, utterly inadequate to the new situation; after the cholera epidemic of 1884, new town-planning initiatives assigned to the University the area from the "Cortile del Salvatore" (the old Jesuits' seat) to the new Umberto I Avenue. Moreover, a main University building was under construction: it was finished in 1912 and became the seat of the Faculties of Law and of Arts; the seats of the Institutes of Chemistry and Physics were also built in this period. The old "S. Marcellino" convent, adjacent to the "Cortile del Salvatore", became the seat of other scientific institutions. In the meantime a Polyclinic was built for the Faculty of Medicine and Surgery; after heated controversy, it was placed right above the acropolis of the old Neapolis, not far from the other Faculties. The University Library, located in the "Cortile del Salvatore", was detached from the University (while still maintaining close relationships with it), to become one of the National Libraries of Italy.
In those years the foundation of the University of Bari put an end to the uniqueness of the University of Naples in the South but in the meantime the latter acquired new Faculties, partly by annexing some already existing schools, partly ex novo. These Faculties are: Engineering (1904, derived from the older School for Bridges and Roads), Agriculture (1935), Veterinary Surgery (1936), Architecture (l936), Pharmacy (1933), Economics (1936).
In this situation the University of Naples faced the difficult years of World War II. Though often bombarded, it did not undergo severe damage till the armistice (8th September 1943); during the riots which then took place in the town, some University buildings were set fire to by German troops, and others were occupied for some time by Anglo-American garrisons. The reconstruction, organized by Rector Adolfo Omodeo, was immediate but not easy. Only in the Fifties and Sixties new seats started to be built, such as the new Faculty of Engineering in the area of Fuorigrotta, near the National Research Council ("C.N.R.") institute, and a new Polyclinic on the "Cappella dei Cangiani" hill. Meanwhile, the Faculty of Political Sciences was born.
The huge increase in the number of enrolled students was not stopped by the foundation of new Universities in the South and even in Campania itself, this number settled around 100,000, creating new housing problems, made more acute by the 1980 earthquake. A new reorganization tried to remedy these problems: the old and abandoned Dominican convent of "S. Pietro Martire" was restored to house the Faculty of Arts; a new large University building complex, still under construction, was created in Monte S. Angelo for the Faculties of Economics, Science and, partly, Engineering; the Faculty of Pharmacy found a new seat near the new Polyclinic; more recently, the Faculty of Law has acquired a new seat next to Arts; additional buildings for Architecture were found in the "Spirito Santo" area, etc. The University had by now twelve Faculties and was the only one in Italy to have two Faculties of Medicine.
The number of enrolled students and that of the teaching staff have made of the University of Naples one of the largest Universities in the country. It is thus not difficult to understand that here, before anywhere else, the creation of a second university was felt necessary. This was born in 1992, and its seats are spread among Naples, Caserta, Aversa and S. Maria Capua Vetere. Beside new Faculties, it includes the old First Faculty of Medicine and Surgery, with its Polyclinic. Today, however, there are thirteen Faculties again in "Federico II" University, since the Faculty of Sociology, housed in an old building in "Spaccanapoli Street", was formed in 1994 and Biotechnological Sciences Faculty was formed in 2001.
Since 2001 the Rector of Federico II University is prof. Massimo Marrelli.