The Orbatello widow’s asylum is a prime example of how operations of charity involved Florentines from across the socio-economic spectrum. The refuge was founded in 1372 by a wealthy Florentine, Niccolò degli Alberti, as a home for virtuous poor girls and women. In 1401 the institution and its finances were taken over by the Captains of the Guelf Party. Male priors were appointed to report on daily affairs and oversee the spiritual care of residents. A few years before Marietta entered the Orbatello the prior had reported a particularly salacious case in which Franciscan monks were found sneaking into the institution to engage ‘dishonestly’ with some of the women. In the seventeenth century the Medici Grand Duchess named herself governess of the asylum. Government officials, wealthy citizens, and Medici rulers all had a hand in caring for the city’s vulnerable widows.

But as Marietta reminds us, in day-to-day life it was widows themselves who ran things. Networks of female relationships were centrally important for women like Marietta. It was through these channels that women found support, brokered business deals, marriage arrangements, and navigated the city’s ‘sharp edges’. Widowhood was a respected social category and, as Marietta later experiences, an economic category that could bring challenges but also opportunities and independence. Orbatello widows had a long history of deciding who entered the institution, taking command of financial affairs, and resisting civic interference when it didn’t suit them.

Like many charitable homes, the Orbatello struggled to keep up with demand. By the late sixteenth century the building was in need of substantial renovations. Crumbling walls and rot made many suites uninhabitable. Apartments were crowded as up to three generations of women lived together in small living quarters. Young widows brought their children to live with them, and more established residents pushed to have family members and friends accepted into the institution. Many more women petitioned for entrance into the complex than could be accepted.

From the mid-sixteenth century on a steady stream of Innocenti wards entered into the asylum. The Innocenti faced serious overcrowding and looked to other charitable homes to take on young adult wards. These were not widows, but young women with no other prospects. Established widows often clashed with these new residents. A series of archival letters confirm that some Innocenti youths, like Marietta’s friend Antonia, used the institution as a quasi-brothel.This added more strain to an already overburdened institution that did its best to offer opportunity and respectability for its many residents. Marietta was lucky enough to access the institution’s dowry fund which provided certain women funds to secure a marriage or entrance into a convent.

Julia Rombough


To cite this essay, we suggest:
Julia Rombough, ‘Widows and welfare’ published online 2019, in ‘Hidden Florence’, The University of Exeter,

Further Reading:

Richard Trexler, Dependence in Context in Renaissance Florence. Binghamton: Medieval & Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1994.

Kate Colleran, “Scampanata at the Widows’ Windows: A Case-study of Sound and Ritual Insult in Cinquecento Florence,”Urban History 36 (2009): 359-378.

Sandra Cavallo and Lynden Warner, eds. Widowhood in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. New York: Routledge, 2014.