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  • Writer's pictureClementine de la Poer Beresford, MA

A Brief History of Ospedale degli Innocenti in Florence

What is Ospedale degli Innocenti?

Ospedale degli Innocenti is a 15th-century orphanage designed by Filippo Brunelleschi that now contains a small museum.

Ospedale degli Innocenti

Warburg, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Ospedale degli Innocenti History

On the 5th of February 1445, a female infant swaddled in rags was placed tenderly on a concave stone known as the pila outside the Ospedale degli Innocenti (or Hospital of the Innocents) in the Piazza della Santissima Annunziata. The Ospedale, for the care of abandoned children, had only opened eleven days before. It was the first orphanage to be opened in Europe and its services would prove to be very much required; by the end of the 15th century, it housed over 1,000 children. Many of them, mostly females, were given up reluctantly because of an inability to feed, clothe and look after them, and they were left with sentimental items such as coins, rosary beads and ribbons. Many of these objects were split, and should the mother or father ever come looking for them, reuniting the split parts could act as a means of identification. Today, these objects are on display in the building’s small museum, providing insight into the Ospedale’s emotionally charged history.

The Ospedale, which was commissioned by Florence’s silk weavers’ guild, represented the social and humanistic values of the city during the early Renaissance. It was customary for guilds to take up such philanthropic duties. After being taken in, children were wet-nursed and weaned. Boys were taught to read and write, and girls were sent to mistresses who taught them how to sew, cook and carry out domestic duties. Astonishingly, the girls were provided with dowries, and had the option of getting married or entering a nunnery.

The silk weavers’ guild gave the commission of the Ospedale to Filippo Brunelleschi in 1419. (The architect, as a goldsmith, was a member of the guild.) Brunelleschi’s essentially classical design is arguably the first of the early Renaissance. Based on classical Roman architecture, the façade is formed of a loggia with nine semi-circular arches supported by rounded columns and composite capitals. While loggias were by no means novel, the rounded arches certainly were, contrasting with the then largely fashionable pointed arches of the Gothic style.

Central to Brunelleschi’s design was a sense of proportion, intended to symbolise order and clarity. Above each column was placed a tondo, a circular ceramic sculpture which Brunelleschi designed to be left blank. In 1490, Andrea della Robbia was commissioned to decorate them, and his designs featured glazed blue terracotta roundels with babies in swaddling clothes. In 1660, the pila, which had received thousands of children since it was first installed, was removed. It was replaced with a system that enabled mothers and fathers to leave their babies anonymously. A door with a wheel was installed that allowed the baby to be placed on it and brought into the building via rotation. This system stayed in place until the Ospedale closed in 1875.

Today, the building is home to a small museum which charts its history and displays works of art that have a close relationship with the Ospedale. Some of these, such as masterpieces by Luca della Robbia and Piero de Cosimo were commissioned by the Ospedale, whilst others were painted by artists who grew up in the orphanage, including Vincenzo Ulivieri and Giovanni Battista Naldini. One of the most important pieces in the collection is an early work by Sandro Botticelli, the Madonna and Child with an Angel, which depicts the Virgin Mary lifting the Christ child out of the arms of an angel, who gazes directly at the viewer.

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