Florence in the 1400s had a baby problem. Babies everywhere. Babies in the fields, babies in the alleyways, babies left on the pews of the Church. Florence was crawling with abandoned babies. In many ways, Florence was considered the center of the civilized world in the 1400s. Art, science, wealth, architecture, all were in bloom, ruled from behind the scenes by the wealthy Medici family.
In Medieval and Renaissance Europe, it was common for unwanted children, especially girls, to be abandoned. People abandoned children because of many factors: illegitimacy, war, famine, plague, and extreme poverty. Many were the illegitimate children of servants and enslaved people.
The responsibility for all these foundlings, as they were known, was given to the “Arte della Seta,” or Silk Guild. It was one of the richest, most powerful guilds in Florence. It was quickly decided that a new building would be established to house these children. The hospital was to be the first building erected specifically for the care of abandoned children; the first orphanage. Called the Ospedale degli Innocenti (Hospital of the Innocents), an important element was to be an official infant unloading point so that children would no longer be left willy-nilly around the city. The first child to be dropped off at the hospital was left on February 5, 1445, just 10 days after the official opening.
A sort of turnstile door was constructed so that a woman could drop off the baby without being seen. Above it a statue of Mary pointed down, indicating the appropriate drop-off point. The child would be spun around and once on the other side, began a short slide down a chute into “the basin of abandonment”. On either side of the basin knelt two terra-cotta figures of Mary and Joseph, the basin doubling as a manger. The child would then be quickly picked up and brought to be wet-nursed. Women would often split an item, such as a coin, and leave half attached to a necklace on the child who was being given up, with the idea that perhaps one day the coin could be whole again.
Abandoned children were taught life skills—boys learned to read and write, while girls learned sewing and cooking. The hospital provided dowries for the girls, who had the option of getting married or becoming nuns.
Over more than 500 years, thet Ospedale degli Innocenti cared for over 375,000 children. Today the building houses a small museum of Renaissance art and continues to help care for abandoned children today.
Know Before You Go
Open weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., and holidays from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tickets cost €4.