This ancient university town north-west of Madrid was first conquered by the Carthaginians in the 3rd century B.C. It then became a Roman settlement before being ruled by the Moors until the 11th century. The university, one of the oldest in Europe, reached its high point during Salamanca's golden age. The city's historic centre has important Romanesque, Gothic, Moorish, Renaissance and Baroque monuments. The Plaza Mayor, with its galleries and arcades, is particularly impressive.With the Plaza Mayor, Clerecía (Jesuit seminary), college of Calatrava, Colegio San Ambrosio and the churches of San Sebastián and Santa Cruz de Canizares, the New Cathedral and San Esteban, Salamanca is one of the essential centres of a dynasty of architects, decorators and sculptors from Catalonia, the Churriguera. The Churrigueresque style also exerted considerable influence in the 18th century in the countries of Latin America.
Although founded later than those of Bologna, Paris and Oxford, the University of Salamanca had already established itself in 1250 as one of the best in Europe. It conserves an admirable architectural heritage which illustrates the diverse functions of the University institution in the Christian world.
Beginning with the Roman bridge that spans the Río Tormes south-west of the city, numerous witnesses to the 2,000-year history of ancient Salmantica still stand. Its monuments have an exemplary value: the Old Cathedral and San Marcos (12th century), the Salina and the Monterrey palaces (16th century), and above all the Plaza Mayor, the most sumptuous of the Baroque squares in Spain, begun in 1729.
However, the city owes its most essential features to the University. The remarkable group of buildings in the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles which, from the 15th to the 18th centuries, grew up around the institution that proclaimed itself 'Mother of Virtues, of Sciences and of the Arts' makes Salamanca, like Oxford and Cambridge, an exceptional example of an old university town in the Christian world. The cathedral school of Salamanca existed as far back as the late 12th century. It was transformed into a studium generale in the early 13th century and was granted its first royal privilege by Ferdinand III in April 1243. Taking Bologna as a model, the University was organized as an association of students (universitas studentium). During this first phase and until the 15th century, classes were held, as was the case elsewhere, in church buildings or in rooms rented by the University. The graduation ceremonies took place in a chapel of the Old Cathedral, a tradition that was continued until 1843. The oldest university building in Salamanca, now the Rectorate, is the old Hospital del Estudio, built in 1413. Its facade faces the Court of Schools.
The buildings housing the University proper, Las Escuelas Mayores, are grouped around a central patio and were built between 1415 and 1433. A final touch was added in the 16th century: a sculpted facade of three registers, made possible through a gift from the Catholic monarchs. In 1533 construction began on the final element of the building programme. Situated on the south-west side of the Court of Schools, this was a building centred on a patio which held Las Escuelas Menores, where preparatory courses for the university programme itself were taught. The new building was designed with regard to the Hospital del Estudio, whose facade was remodelled. Salamanca provides one of the oldest examples of university facilities conceived as such rather than as colleges. However, the city also boasted a good many colleges, which were generally charitable institutions with close ties to the University. The first foundation, the Colegio de San Bartolomé, in 1413; was inspired by the college San Clemente de Bologna. It served as a model for all the others with its lodging facilities and chapel. Now the seat of the Faculty of Letters, the buildings owe their present appearance to reconstruction during the 18th century.
The most beautiful example of the Renaissance colleges in Salamanca is the Colegio de los Irlandeses built in 1527-78 to house Irish students. Others ancient buildings are the Colegio de Huérfanos; the Colegio San Pelayo; the Colegio Santa Catalina; the Colegio San Ildefonso. The superb Baroque colleges of the 18th century are: Colegio de la Ordén Militar de Calatrava, Colegio de San Ambrosio, and Colegio de l'Universitad Pontificia, with its marvellous patio, Salon des Actos and monumental stairway. The more austere Colegio de Anaya was one of the last monuments of this institution to be built in a style inherited from the Middle Ages, along with the Colegio de Santa Maria de Los Angeles, founded in 1780; the latter incorporates the late Gothic style facade of the earlier Colegio de San Millán.