The Innocenti building commission was awarded to the famed architect Filippo Brunelleschi in 1419, and the foundling home officially opened in 1445. Emblematic sculptures of swaddled infants decorate the portico, commissioned from Andrea della Robbia in 1487. These swaddled babes were clearly visible to all who passed through the square, putting charity, piety, and social care on display.
For many children abandoned at the Innocenti, the emblem was a far cry from reality. Some were abandoned naked, others in rags, as those who pushed them through the grate did their best to wrap them in the materials they had available. Some guardians also left small tokens that might be used to identify children if they later returned to reclaim them.
Some parents abandoned children from sheer necessity—unable to provide food and shelter. Others left infants born out of wedlock. The illegitimate children of wealthy Florentine men grew up alongside children of the poorest. Inside the foundling home they all became children of the city. Many, like Marietta degli Innocenti, took the institution as their surname. Civic and institutional officials depicted themselves as ‘fathers’ and ‘mothers’ to the city’s needy. Overseeing all of this was the ‘father’ of the city himself, Duke Cosimo de Medici.
With over 1200 souls residing behind its walls by the late 1500s, the Innocenti operated on an industrial scale. To keep everyone fed it had at least ten country farms producing tens of thousands of bushels of wheat, legumes, and cereal grains per year. Grown women wards kept pigeons and chickens on the orphanage premise. The baker made countless loaves of bread and women cooks churned out meals to feed 1200 mouths. Feasts, fasts, and the days in between were all part of a food regime that aimed to build hearty and healthy wards—upright and ready to work.
Children laboured to bring in funds for the institution and learn trades that would see them through adulthood. As Marietta recalls, inside the Innocenti she and the other girls completed piecework in silk, wool, and linen— producing the fabrics Florence was renowned for. These fabrics circulated in the Innocenti, Florence, and beyond.
Julia Rombough and Spirit-Rose Waite
You can visit the Innocenti hospital.
To cite this essay, we suggest:
Julia Rombough and Spirit-Rose Waite, ‘City of orphans’ published online 2019, in ‘Hidden Florence’, The University of Exeter, https://hiddenflorence.org/stories/marietta/marietta1_abandoned/
Philip Gavitt, Charity and Children in Renaissance Florence : The Ospedale Degli Innocenti, 1410-1536. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990.
Diana Bullen Presciutti, “Carità e Potere: Representing the Medici Grand Dukes as ‘Fathers of the Innocenti’” Renaissance Studies 24.2 (2010): 234- 259.
Nicholas Terpstra, Abandoned Children of the Italian Renaissance: Orphan Care in Florence and Bologna. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.