The foundling hospital, the Ospedale degli Innocenti, is named for the innocent children that Herod had killed after he learned that a new king had been born.
The 13th century saw the rise of the spedali, these were orphanages, hospitals or hospices for the homeless, the most important of which was the Santa Maria Nuova. The spedali were based on monasteries. They were surrounded by walls and featured a porta del martello, a door with a heavy knocker where the visitor could announce his arrival. During the 14th century, it became customary to build an open loggia facing the street or the side of a square. This is where visitor and patient would often meet, or the patient in the loggia could look at the world outside. The oldest surviving spedale is San Matteo, the present-day Accademia: the museum housing Michelangelo’s famous David.
The construction of a spedale was a public affair. The silk guild, the Arte della Seta, already owned two spedali: Spedale di Santa Maria della Scala and the Spedale di Santa Maria a San Gallo. Both were too small and too far removed from the city. So the decision was made to build a new, and bigger spedale. The San Gallo was to be integrated into the new spedale. You can still see evidence of this today in the inner courtyard, the Chiostro degli Uomini, where the symbols of San Gallo, such as a ladder and a cock can still be found and the coat of arms of the Arte della Seta can also be seen in various places.
One Francesco di Marco Datini bequeathed a thousand florins for a ‘spedale gittadelli bambini’. The money was really intended for the Santa Maria della Scala, but the silk guild received permission to use the money for the construction of a new spedale for children. With this money and an additional 700 florins, the Arte della Seta busy a large parcel of land with a garden on the east side of the Via dei Servi. The silk guild decided that the total construction costs for the new orphanage were not to exceed 20,000 florins.
The construction history of the foundling hospital
Florence’s rapid growth during the 14th and 15th century leads to a growing need for spedali. In 1419, the Arte della Seta decided that a new spedale was to be built: the Ospedale degli Innocenti. Apparently, the stone model for the cupola of the Duomo that Brunelleschi had created together with Donatello and Nanni di Banco in a competition with Lorenzo Ghiberti had greatly impressed the silk guild. Brunelleschi worked on the plans for the foundling hospital from 1419 up to 1427. Brunelleschi’s original plan was eventually drastically altered after his departure in January 1427. According to the original plan, the loggia comprised nine cubes with hemispherical domes on top. The loggia featured three doors. The middle one led to the inner courtyard and the offices. On the left is the door to the church and on the right the door to the hospital.
Brunelleschi had planned only two adjoining bays (one on each side), but two more were added later. When the arches of the loggia had been completed, a temporary roof was installed in 1426 for protection. We know from historical sources that Brunelleschi received his ‘per resto’ salary, his final payment, on 29 January 1427. He would not work on the Ospedale again after that date. He was probably extremely busy with other assignments. Despite initial scepticism, the design for the cupola had made a strong impression and assignments were pouring in.
The expansion of the Ospedale degli Innocenti after Brunelleschi’s departure
The executive of the silk guild met in the summer of the year 1427. We know how much the executive paid for its meals, and that the painter Gherardo di Giovanni received money for his design. Unfortunately, the sketch on parchment was lost. At the meeting, it was decided to substantially extend Brunelleschi’s somewhat limited plan. The limited layout that Brunelleschi had made, presumably to minimize costs, proved to have substantial disadvantages. It lacked a separate kitchen, dining hall and laundry. These were probably to be housed in the cellars. A separate space for women was required and therefore also a second inner courtyard: a cortile delle Donne.
Also needed were washing accommodations, a refectory for men, and kitchens. These additions were realised between 1437 and 1439. After these extensions, the facade received another facelift. Strangely enough, the cellars were only dug out and vaulted in 1441. Between 1444 and 1445, the loggias in the central courtyard receive their groin vaults. After 30 years, the complex is completed in 1449. The first children come to live at the spedale on 25 January 1445. The outermost left bay was opened up in 1599, allowing visitors to reach the square via the Via della Colonna as well. The annex to the far left next to the passageway on the Via della Collona dates from 1843. In the same year, the columns of the loggia had to be replaced. An additional floor, an attic, was added to the facade in the 19th century. A turning table allowed mothers to anonymously abandon their child. In 1875 the ruota was closed and a fence was placed in front of it. The complex was, in as far as possible, returned to its original state in a major restoration carried out in the 1960s under the supervision of Morozzi. The attic was removed during the restoration.
The consequences of the extension of the Ospedale degli Innocenti
The 1427 decision to substantially extend the complex had serious consequences for the facade and the floorplan. The original symmetric layout could no longer be preserved. Brunelleschi had designed the complex on a west-to-east axis (click here for the eventual floorplan). This axis starts at the main entrance in the middle of the facade and continues along the centre of the inner courtyard. The two wings, church and hospital, lend additional emphasis to this west-to-east axis. Directly across from the main entrance in the outermost eastern wall, there was a door that led to the garden. This garden (view of garden) extended all the way to the Via della Pergola and was used as a vegetable garden and vineyard.
The symmetrical floor plan with its axis effect in combination with the well-thought-out relationship with the square in front of it was completely novel. The guild executive’s decision to substantially extend the complex under construction meant this symmetry was being compromised. Also, the extension at the southside of the facade meant another bay had to be added, causing the facade to become imbalanced.