I touched on the important architectural background of this compound in a previous review but its function is just as interesting. When it was built in the 15th century, Ospedale degli Innocenti was one of the very first foundling homes in the world and a reflection of Renaissance humanist principles as applied to the individual/community as well as it was to art and architecture. It was financed by the Silk Guild and a large bequest from a wealthy Prato merchant, and for over 400 years (1445 - 1875) the charitable organization housed, fed, educated and arranged occupational/domestic training for thousands of children abandoned due to poverty, illness, orphaning or prostitution.
It was not without its problems: venereal and other diseases were passed along from infected wetnurses, and poor women would sometimes purposely become pregnant - and abandon their babies - to become paid nursers at the facility. But times being what they were, an infant stood a better chance of survival here as opposed to the previous practice of leaving them exposed to the elements anywhere at all - or worse. Children arriving without any identification were often given the surname of ‘Innocenti’ or ‘Innocente’ and so it became a common family name in the Tuscan region.
On the lefthand wall (as you’re facing the building) is small grated window with a plaque and fresco of chubby putti. A basin originally set into one of the walls to receive the babies was replaced by a rotating wheel on which an infant could be anonymously placed and turned so that the child would be safely and immediately transferred to the warm, dry interior of the facility. The plaque is inscribed:
"For 4 centuries this was the wheel of the Innocents,
secret refuge from misery and shame for those to whom charity never closed its door”
The banner held by the putti reads:
“Our father and mother have forsaken us, the Lord has taken us in”
Breaks your heart, doesn’t it? The grated window was relocated here from another part of the porch and babies had been passed through that as well. Enhancing the gentleness of sentiment and Brunelleschi’s lovely design are Andrea Della Robbia’s sweet tondos of swaddled bambini against bright blue ‘wheels’. The bambino with his feet uncovered is illustrated in the logo of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
While the facility officially closed in the 19th century, the Institute of the Innocents (Istituto degli Innocenti) is very much alive and actively promoting the welfare of children worldwide. There is a small museum (fee) on the second floor of the building with a small collection of Renaissance art that was not yet open when we were by; something for our next visit!
Before you leave the piazza by the Ospedale degli Innocenti, take a look at the equestrian statue of Grand Duke Ferdinando I by Giambologna from 1608. The story goes that Ferdinando rode into the piazza and met the eyes of a young bride in the window of the red brick building in the square. They fell in love but never consummated this love. Later they each memorialized each other – Ferdinando in the form this statue and the lady in a della Robbia bust that sits on a window sill on the top floor (look for the window with the shutters half open in the red brick building opposite the church that currently houses the photo archives of the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florence).
On one side of the piazza with the statue of Grand Duke Ferdinando I is the Church of Santissima Annunziata, which contains some nice Renaissance and Mannerist frescoes in the foyer and some better works on the inside. Let’s go in for a quick look in between prayers.
Just a short walk from the Cathedral you will find the Piazza Santissima Annunziata (find the entrance to the Dome climb and turn around – the road you want to take is by this door – follow the road until you come to the piazza with the equestrian statue in the middle of it).
As you enter the Piazza, you don’t really realize that you are looking at some revolutionary architecture for the Renaissance. The buildings are fairly plain looking – straight ahead is the church SS Annunziata, to the left is a hotel, and to the right is the building we want to focus on – the hospital of the innocents.
This façade was designed by Brunelleschi (the same guy that designed the Cathedral’s dome) in 1517, commissioned by the silk guild. He has traveled to Rome and studied classical buildings; then he returned to Florence and brought those classical ideas with him. After all, Renaissance means a rebirth of the classical. Look at the front of the orphanage – notice its simple columns and classic style? You could see something like this in Rome in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.
Brunelleschi’s architecture was all about clarity – so simple and clear that someone could literally draw the plans from just looking at it.
There are nine arches on the façade of the building supported by monolithic columns. At the top of each of these columns you will see a round design of a medallion of some sort. These tondi were designed by Andrea della Robbia and represent a baby in swaddling clothes. Originally Brunelleschi wanted these to be plain, but at some point his plans were thwarted and della Robbia got the commission.
Of historical note – this is the first building that saw the use of paper plans – Brunelleschi drew up the plans on paper along with a wooden model and left them with the builders before he left town to head to Rome again.
On the left end is where the turning box used to be – this is where parents could anonymously drop off their children to the orphanage without being identified. It was used until 1875 to accept unwanted babies. Typically the babies were kept at the orphanage for several years before being sent out to monasteries, convents, or workhouses.
The building was used as an orphanage until 2000 when it became a shelter for children and families in need. It also contains a UNICEF research center.
Inside the building is a museum that has some very nice Renaissance pieces, including Ghirlandaio’s Adoration of the Magi and an early Botticelli that he copied from his master Filippo Lippi, Madonna and Child with an Angel.
Those two round fountains in the piazza are Mannerist works that have monsters and symmetrical marine decorations.
Open weekdays 8.30 am - 7 pm; the ticket office closes 30 minutes before the museum closing time. Holidays: 8.30 am - 2 pm; the ticket office closes 30 minutes before the museum closing time. Closed on: December 25, Easter, May 1.
Entrance: € 4,00
While standing in the piazza in front of the Ospedale, have a look at the statue of Grand Duke Ferdinando I.
The Ospedale degli Innocenti, or Foundlings Hospital, was from 1445 to 1875, the main orphanage is Florence. The structure itself is a fine example of early Renaissance architecture, or even Mannerist architecture. It contrasts the flamboyancy of the Duomo and Baptistry as well as the weight of the Palazzo Vecchio.
The Ospedale is a structure based on a simple and organised horizontal plan. The front is made up of a nine bay loggia supported by nine semicircular arches. Commissioned in 1419, Filippo Brunelleschi, in his design of the rounded arches, was breaking with his recent past by rejecting the pointed arches of the medieval period thereby reviving the classical order which was to be embraced by the Renaissance. The upper facade of the front of the building is characterised by two elements: firstly, the 'tondi' or roundels in the 'spandrels' (the space between two arches or between an arch and a rectangular enclosure) of glazed blue terra cotta containing reliefs of babies symbolising the function of the building, and; a rectangular window above each arch crowned by a triangular pediment.
The history of the Foundling Hospital is a very interesting one. Built and managed first by the Silk Guild of Florence, it is an example of how charitable institutions were run during the Renaissance era, characterising the emphasis on philanthropy and humanism. Only ten days after its opening, the hospital received its first abandoned baby on 05 February 1445. As stated above, it was finally closed more than 400 years later and its legacy of ensuring the welfare of abandoned children or children in need is still continuing through the foundation which bears its name.
A trip to the gallery and the interior of the building is worth your while if you have a little extra time in Florence. The Piazza della SS. Annunziata (named after the beautiful basilica on its northern side) is also a wonderful stop on your walking tour of the Duomo quarter, close to the Piazza San Marco where Fra Angelico's famous frescoed monastery is located.
The Gallery is open from 8.30am to 7.00pm - Sunday 8.30am– 2.00pm; the admission ticket costs 4.00 Euro (the reduced ticket 2.50 Euro).
The Ospedale degli Innocenti, or Hospital of the Innocents, was a childrens orphanage designed by Brunelleschi in 1419, before he won the commision to work on the dome of the Duomo. The decorative Tondo above each column in front of the building were designed by Andrea della Robbia and feature an infant in swaddling.
The hospital cared for abandoned children who were wet-nursed and weaned. Boys were taight reading and writing and various skills depending on their abilities. Girls were taught how to cook and sew and do other female duties.
The hospital is open to the public and a small admission fee is charged.
Spedale degli Innocenti was designed by Brunelleschi but the building was finished by Francesco Luna in 1445. It has probably the most beautiful portico in Firenze, which runs al along the facade. The Founding Home used to gave hospitality to the orphans. The nine arcades of the building are decorated with polychrome terra-cotta roundels, by Andrea della Robbia.
Galleria di Spedale degli Innocenti is right opposite to the Spedale housing small museum with important works of the 15th and 16th centuries, just to mentioned: Ghirlandaio, Luca della Robbia, Botticelli and Pietro di Cosimo.
In front of this two buildings there are two fountains by Tacca.
The Spedale degli Innocenti is designed by Filippo Brunelleschi in 1419. In this building they housed orfans from 1445 to 1875.
Today it is a museum that houses frescos from the 14th to the 19th century.
The museum is open tuesday- thursday: 8:30-14:00
This is the first orphanage built in Europe. It opened in 1444 and part of the building is still used for its original purpose today. UNICEF also has offices here.