Florence is the home of the first orphanage in the world. A structure entirely dedicated to the care and maintenance for the foundlings, or the ‘Innocents’ of the city. In the early fifteenth century two of the six hospitals  (San Gallo and Santa Maria della Scala) took care of the orphans, but only as part of the greater care that they offered to all sections of society. In the Piazza del Duomo, the Misericordia (Society of  Mercy) and the Society of the Bigallo provided hospitalization for the foundlings, but not  the raising of these numerous children of all ages abandoned in the countryside and the city. In 1410 Francesco di Marco Datini, a very wealthy merchant from Prato (the nearest town to Florence) left a considerable sum of money in his will to Santa Maria Nuova hospital in Florence in order to create a specific section for the care of orphans. He had already created a similar ‘section’ in his hometown and wanted to inspire the Florentines to do the same. After much discussion and little action over many years, it was decided to create a whole separate structure, not attached to the hospital, but an orphanage, dedicated to the care, education and well being of the Innocents of Florence and surrounding territory. Land was acquired from a wealthy family, the Albizzi, in the present Piazza Santissima Annunziata and the silk Guild (one of the seven major merchant guilds) was entrusted with the responsibility of being patrons for the entity. Filippo Brunelleschi, now hailed as the first renaissance architect, was commissioned the construction of the Ospedale in 1419. His structure is one of the first buildings built in the new Renaissance style, based on a modular design creating a structure of proportion and balance – a perfect ambiance for little ones to grow in security and safety after their traumatic beginning. 
The first orphan entered on 5th february 1445. She was called Agata Smeralda. By 1468, there were 400 orphans being fed outside the institution and 300 in the hospital. In 1553 there were 2000 mouths to feed –  the babies nursing, the weaned ones and the older boys and girls. Many of the nameless were given the surname Innocenti, a common surname in Tuscany today.

Window in loggia where babies were left

Under the famous front entrance loggia of the Ospedale, an almost iconic symbol of fifteenth century Renaissance architecture, is where the babies were left by their parents when unable to offer care. Initially they were left in a marble basin sheltered in an enclave in the wall of the loggia. Later, they were placed through an iron grated window, still visible today, built into the left side wall of the loggia. The babies were passed through the grate and placed in a basket on the other side. Some babies had distinctive objects attached to their wrist, around their neck, or a particular item of clothing, often halves of something, so that if the parents came back to retrieve their children they would be identifiable. These items (coins cut in half, particular symbols on necklaces etc.) were noted down by the head foster mother (in Italian: a soprabalia). In the museum on the second storey of theOspedale there is a little glass display case with some of these ‘markers’. 

The Madonna by Domenico del Michelino

Also in the museum are some beautiful paintings commissioned to some of the most important painters of the day for the orphanage’s church, Santa Maria degli Innocenti. The superb ‘Adoration of the Magi’ (1488) painting by Domenico Ghirlandiao was on the high altar, and a beautiful enthroned Madonna and child (1493 ca.) by Piero di Cosimo, commissioned by Piero del Pugliese, an extremely wealthy silk merchant in the city, for his private family chapel inside the same church. There is also a canvas painting by Domenico del Michelino of the Madonna (1440 ca.) holding her cloak out wide protecting the foundlings gathered around her. This, it is thought, could have been used as a processional banner.  In the foreground, the littlest ones are swaddled and in the background, the older ones are wearing the black cloth uniform of the orphanage with their badge, a swaddled child, attached to the front. The building today has medical services for children, a day-care centre and offices for UNICEF, as well as this very fascinating little museum.  Check it out!  Open Monday – Sunday, 10am-7pm, admission fee: 5euro.

Adoration of the Magi by Domenico Ghirlandiao