In the 1419, the hot-tempered genius Filippo Brunelleschi struck the first blow for the restoration of classical architecture in this piazza when he built the Ospedale degli Innocenti and its famous portico—-an architectural landmark, but also a monument to Renaissance Italy’s long, hard struggle towards a social consciousness.
Despite the best intentions of the Church, medieval Florence faced an endemic crisis in dealing with its poor. Think of it as an early version of the Industrial Revolution, with the wool workshops facing booms and busts and employing an underpaid industrial proletariat rife with diseases and struggling to get by. Unwanted babies, often abandoned, were a constant problem, while gangs of unruly street children troubled the public ways. The old system tried to place infants with wet nurses and foster parents, but this brought problems too; it spread diseases, and the families to whom they were given often showed little interest in their welfare.
The Church's institutions were overwhelmed, and eventually the businessmen stepped in to help. The Ospedale was financed by the wealthy Arte della Seta, the silk guild, and by a bequest from the famous merchant of Prato Francesco Datini.
It wasn't the first foundling hospital in the world, as is often claimed. Societies since ancient times have usually tried to make some humane accommodation for orphans. Hospices for their care were common in medieval Europe. What is impressive about the Innocenti is the way Florence's leaders made social welfare an integral part of the community. The Ospedale was a bold statement; they hired their best architect to build it, endowed it richly, and gave it a place right next to the city's most fashionable church, the Annunziata.
The Istituto degli Innocenti, which soon will celebrate its 500th anniversary, is still in business, though not at this address. It now runs three modern orphanages around Tuscany. Orphans raised by the Ospedale in its early days often took the surname 'Innocenti', and that remains a common name in Tuscany today.
The Ospedale was Brunelleschi’s first completed work as an architect, and it demonstrates his use of classical proportions adapted to the traditional Tuscan Romanesque, and his emphatic rejection of everything Gothic. In it he gave Florence's Renaissance architecture its style, fully formed. It would be immensely influential throughout the quattrocento.
His lovely portico is adorned with the famous blue and white glazed terracotta tondi of infants in swaddling clothes by Andrea della Robbia, added as an appeal to charity in the 1480s. At the left end of the loggia you can still see the original window grate, where babies were left anonymously until 1875.
Brunelleschi also designed the two beautiful cloisters of the convent; Cortile degli Uomini for men, and the Chiostro delle Donne, reserved for the hospital’s wet nurses, which is especially fine.
In all the centuries since its construction, the Ospedale degli Innocenti has followed its original mission, adapting to the times. Until recently, it still served as an orphanage, as well as a nursery school; since 1988, it has held the offices of UNICEF's Centre of Research, backing up the organizations international efforts for vulnerable children and women.
The Basement houses new displays on the history of the institution, a child-friendly display with videos and buttons to push. Perhaps most moving of all are the 140 small drawers containing identifying objects (rings, medals, etc) that parents would leave with a baby, in case their fortune changed some day and they could reclaim the child they had to give up.
Beautifully rearranged and reopened in mid June 2016, the Museo dello Spedale contains a number of detached frescoes from Ognissanti and other churches, among them an unusual series of red and orange prophets by Alessandro Allori.
Other works include Botticelli’s Madonna with the Child and an Angel; a Madonna and Saints by the always interesting Piero di Cosimo, a Madonna and Child by Luca della Robbia, and the brilliant Adoration of the Magi (1488) painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio for the hospital’s church, a crowded, colourful composition featuring portraits of members of the Arte della Lana, or Wool Guild.
In 1493, a rooftop terrace was added over what is now the Salone Brunelleschi for drying laundry; now coverted into a rooftop café, it has beautiful views over the rooftops of Florence.
Piazza Santissima Annunziata
Hours Apr-Oct 10am-7pm, closed Tue; Nov-Mar 10am-6pm, closed Tue
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Images by: Sailko, GNU Creative Commons License