Santissima Annunziata and the piazza of which it forms one side are special to me because I found them on my own, without a guidebook. One day during my sojourn last year, I walked into the center of town by a different route than usual and came upon the piazza, which is quite aesthetically pleasing. I went into the church and was astonished at its style (baroque) and beauty (a lot of gilding will do that!).
While I have visited the church and piazza several times since, until today I had not visited the Spedale degli Innocenti, another building on the piazza. This is the foundling hospital and its museum. Its function is indicated by the external decoration of della Robbia medallions depicting infants in swaddling clothes. Also on the outside is the rota, the wheel on which abandoned babies were placed for intake into the hospital. Roughly translated, the inscription below the grate reads:
“This was for four centuries until 1875 the wheel of the Innocents, secret refuge from misery and guilt for those to whom charity never shut its doors.”
Most of the public spaces are currently not accessible because the museum is being renovated. However, one room has been set up as an exhibit space. Although the information presented is necessarily brief, I came away with a sense that from the beginning, this was an organization ahead of its time.
In 1419, the Arte della Seta (the silk weavers’ guild) commissioned Filippo Brunelleschi, who was a member of the guild, to build the hospital. Similar to the public / private partnerships with which we are familiar, the Guild received concessions from the city for undertaking the building and running of the hospital. The main courtyard is decorated with symbols representing the silk guild and two hospital foundations that merged to form the new hospital.
The first baby, a girl named Agata Smeralda, was admitted in 1445 and the number of children under care increased steadily. Babies were wet-nursed and weaned. When they were old enough, the hospital prepared the children to, as we say today, become productive members of society. Boys were educated and trained for a trade. Girls were sent to wealthy women who taught them the skills then considered appropriate for women, e.g., sewing and cooking, so that the girls could earn money for a dowry for a marriage or the convent.
One of the things that impressed me about this exhibit was that not only are there six centuries of hospital archives, but that they are so detailed. The rota was closed in 1875 and the last two children received were named Ultimo Lasciati and Laudata Chiusuri in recognition of that event. After this, babies were received in a ‘conveyance office’ (actually the room in which the exhibit is housed) rather than anonymously. The first baby thus received was named Primo Riformi. See what I mean about detailed records?!
The most poignant of the exhibits was the one that showed what parents would pin to their baby’s clothes in the hopes that someday they would be able to reclaim the child. These identifiers ranged from bits of cloth to religious medals.
In looking at the website of the Instituto degli Innocenti afterwards, I realized that the commitment to children and their welfare evolved over the centuries (including establishing the first chair of Pediatrics in Italy and educating impoverished young mothers on topics such as breastfeeding and sterilizing milk) and continues today. The Institute maintains shelters for children and their mothers, provides education, and conducts child-centric research.
What a wonderful place!