Before we enter the Ospedale, we will take a moment to examine the famous tondi by Antonio di Nino della Robbia: the orphans in swaddling clothes. These tondi are often erroneously attributed to Luca or Andrea Robbia.
You will find the ruota on the left-hand side of the loggia. This is a rotating stone on which women could place their unwanted babies. The woman then had to pull a cord connected to a bell, the stone would be turned and the child found a new home.
In the left corner of the colonnade, one can still observe the ancient foundling wheel, known as “la ruota dei gettatelli” by the Florentines, meaning ‘the wheel of the foundlings.’ It served as a location between 1419 and 1875 where women could discreetly abandon their unwanted infants. As the wheel featured two levels, a woman could easily deposit her baby in a compartment facing the street, while the opposite side remained sealed. Subsequently, the child would be rotated within the apparatus, allowing nurses to retrieve the infant. In this manner, the infant was promptly transferred to the comparative security of the hospital, preserving the anonymity of the parents. Although the wheel is no longer in operation, you can still discern its significance from the descriptive text situated above its former location. In this manner, the infant was promptly transferred to the comparative security of the hospital, preserving the anonymity of the parents. You can still discern its significance from the descriptive text situated above its former location.
The text reads: Pater et mater dereliquerunt nos Dominus autem assumpsit (‘Mother and father have abandoned us, but the Lord has welcomed us’ Psalm xxvi). And: Questa fu per quattro secoli fine al 1875 la ruota degli innocenti segreto rifugio di miserie e di colpe alle quali perpetua soccorre quella carità che non serra porte. Spanning four centuries until 1875, this place served as the secretive refuge for the innocent, offering continuous and unconditional compassion to those burdened by misfortune and guilt.
Behind the facade of the Ospedale degli Innocenti
What holds true for the facade, does not apply to what is hidden behind it. The facade has a strong all’antica feel, which was completely novel at the time. Apparently, the visitor’s first impression was what mattered most to Filippo. Even though it must be said that the inner courtyards were not built under Brunelleschi’s supervision.
Both the first inner courtyard and the later constructed cortile delle Donne feature characteristics that have little to do with the Renaissance and should really be considered as part of the Gothic era. The vaults in the loggias, for instance, no longer feature hemispherical domes, but groin vaults. The columns in the Cortile delle Donna are anything but all’antica. These columns have round instead of square plinths. In addition, the columns are too narrow, too high, and the capitals also differ considerably from those found on Brunelleschi’s columns.
The Ospedale degli Innocenti already shows many hallmarks of Brunelleschi’s style, such as:
- A geometric design featuring an all’antica modular system in which the two systems are integrated as well as possible.
- Uniformity of several elements, such as only one kind of capital and only one kind of fronton. A prime example thereof is the facade.
- An even lighting through clever window placement.
Museum Ospedale degli Innocenti
Florence welcomes a new museum as the Ospedale degli Innocenti’s museum (official site English) reopens following an extensive €13 million expansion and restoration, after being closed for eight years. Established in 1419, the Ospedale degli Innocenti in Florence holds the distinction of being Europe’s inaugural orphanage, providing destitute parents with a place to entrust the upbringing of their children.The recently inaugurated museum occupies four floors within the building, offering an insightful narrative about the institution’s history and the lives of those it cared for.
On the ground floor, you’ll find a fascinating room containing a collection of 140 drawers, each holding the personal belongings left with abandoned children, referred to as their “segni” or ‘marks,’ including items like pins, rags, and beads. Multimedia exhibits vividly recreate the life stories of 70 children who resided in the institution over the centuries until its closure in 1875, featuring poignant artifacts like letters sent home during World War I.
Ascending to the third floor, visitors will discover an art gallery that showcases a remarkable collection of works commissioned by the institution. These pieces include paintings by renowned artists such as Botticelli, featuring ‘Madonna and Child with an Angel,’ alongside contributions from Domenico Ghirlandaio, Bartholomeo di Giovanni, Piero di Cosimo, Neri di Bicci (or Cosimo Roselli), Luca and Andrea della Robbia, and Giovanni del Biondo.
“The Adoration of the Magi by Domenico Ghirlandaio from 1488, the date is listed at the top right, was commissioned for the main altar of the church at the hospital. Above the crib, angels hold a cartouche that says ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo‘, which is the hymn sung at the birth of Christ. As was common in those times, Ghirlandaio added a self-portrait as the man who looks towards the viewer above the crucifix staff. The man in black to his left is the donor, who at the time was the prior of the Innocenti monastery. The lavishly dressed figures to the right are the wealthy silk traders. The young man to the right of Ghirlandaio is holding a glass of medicine, after all, one of the tasks of the Ospedale was to care for the health of its inhabitants. Behind the Madonna are two boys who are laying the bricks of the Ospedale, which was constructed in the same period as the painting. To the left of the crib, we see a depiction of the murder of the innocent (the Innocenti). Two injured children at the base of the composition symbolize that slaughter and they kneel in front of the Madonna, who will protect them as if they were her own, which immediately makes clear the purpose of the Ospedale. Behind the scene of the infanticide, we see a few Roman monuments at the base of the hill: from left to right, they are the Colosseum, Trajan’s Column, the Torre delle Milizie and the Pyramid of Cestius. For the landscape that makes up the decor of the painting, Ghirlandaio relied on Flemish examples.” Translated from: Luc Verhuyck ‘Firenze Een Anekdotische reisgids’ Athenaeum-Polak&van Gennep Amsterdam 2006 p. 170
The museum has been thoughtfully designed to create a welcoming environment for children. It includes informative labels placed at a lower height on the walls, an engaging photo opportunity where youngsters can pretend to be swaddled, and a schedule of daily activities tailored specifically for children. On the museum’s highest level, in a space once reserved for drying laundry, you’ll find a brand-new rooftop cafe offering a splendid panoramic view of the city.
The Ospedale has a long history. It underwent a radical renovation between 1964 and 1975, in which it was, in as far as possible, restored to its original condition. Despite all the changes, one thing has remained constant: the building is still being used to benefit children. Today, it houses a day care centre and a paediatric institute.