The loggia of the Bigallo dominated the south-east corner of the piazza where Florence’s Cathedral and Baptistry faced eachother. For over two hundred years it had been a refuge where destitute Florentine parents could bring the children they were unable to raise, and where others could come and foster that child into their family. A fresco barely visible on the outside of the building commemorates these exchanges, which were more common than we may think. Another fresco inside the Bigallo that faces on to the loggia pictures the Madonna of Misericordia, or Mercy, protecting the whole city. Medallions on her cloak depict the individual acts of mercy – feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick and imprisoned – by which Florentines made the Madonna’s mercy real.
Marietta knows that had she been destitute after her husband Piero died, the Bigallo would have sheltered, fed, clothed, and educated her son Tommasso. It has become part of the social safety net of the city of Florence. It demonstrates both the personal generosity of countless individual Florentines, and also the paternal care of their Duke, Cosimo I, who has turned the Bigallo from a lay charitable confraternity into a state welfare magistracy.
Tommasso is very much on Marietta’s mind because he has reached the age when he should become an apprentice to learn a trade. She must find someone to take him on and train him – perhaps one of Piero’s former friends or colleagues, who will do it as an act of misericordia or mercy in honour of Piero, in service to the Virgin Mary, and in the interests of earning some money from the child’s energies. Nine year old Tommasso may then move out of his mother’s house to live with his new master, opening a new stage in Marietta’s life as well.
You can book a visit to see the tiny group of public rooms of the Bigallo.
To cite this essay, we suggest:
Nicholas Terpstra, ‘It takes a village’ published online 2019, in ‘Hidden Florence’, The University of Exeter, https://hiddenflorence.org/stories/marietta/marietta6_bigallo/
Konrad Eisenbichler (ed), The Premodern Teenager: Youth in Society, 1150-1650. Toronto: CRRS, 2002.
Thomas Kuehn, Family and Gender in Renaissance Italy, 1300-1600. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
Nicholas Terpstra, Abandoned Children of the Italian Renaissance: Orphan Care in Florence and Bologna. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.