Institute of the Innocents
For nearly six centuries the Istituto degli Innocenti (Institute of the Innocents) in Florence has been committed to the welfare of children.
The long history started in 1419 when a wealthy merchant named Francesco Datini left the sum of 1,000 florins to Silk Guild of Florence as a contribution to the building of a hospital devoted entirely to the care of abandoned children. Filippo Brunelleschi, the man behind the famous dome of the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral, was commissioned to design and built the “Spedale degli Innocenti” (Hospital of the Innocents).
With the financial support of the Silk Guild, the city of Florence, and private donations the hospital took care of abandoned and unwanted children. The first little one to be welcomed in the newly opened Spedale was baby Agata Smeralda on February 5, 1445. She was the first of hundreds of thousands of children in nearly 600 years that were welcomed and raised here.
Some children were left in a basin located at the front entrance. This was later replaced by a wheel, which offered people the possibility to leave babies anonymously. The abandoned innocents were offered a home and an education at the Spedale. The boys learned a trade in the local workshops while the girls learned the techniques of weaving and stitching. They also often worked in the service of wealthy families in the city to earn some money for a dowry.
Museum of the Innocents
After three years of renovation and restorations, the new Museum of the Innocents dedicated to the history and lives of the abandoned children will open its doors on June 24th. It covers almost 1,500 square meters of exhibition space and another 1,600 square meters for temporary events and educational activities. Inside you can also find a children’s bookshop, a cafeteria and art workshops for children and families.
Divided over three different levels, the Museo degli Innocenti pays tribute to this important institution and brings art, architecture, history and the stories of the Innocents together.
The ground floor is dedicated to the history and the architectural developments of the building over the centuries. The building is an outstanding example of early Renaissance architecture and dominates the Piazza SS. Annunziata with its arched loggia. The facade is decorated with 10 “putti”, sculptures of babies dressed in swaddled clothes created by Andrea della Robbia. The sculptures have undergone extensive restoration; right now they are inside the museum on display until November 2016, after that they will be put back in their original places.
The third floor houses a collection of over 80 works of art, including masterpieces by Luca and Andrea della Robbia, Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Piero di Cosimo.
History of the innocents
The real protagonists of the museum, however, are the children.
Through research, historians have managed to reconstruct the biographies of 100 innocents, who were received by the Institute. Their touching stories come alive through audio and video in the basement of the museum.
Furthermore, for the first time on display 140 identifying marks left by the mothers in their baby’s clothing before they entrusted them to the Institute. Not all children were unwanted, and many parents lived with the hope that one day they could be reunited with their loved one.
Unfortunately often this was not the case, and the children remained in the Institute until they married or entered a convent.
The children that were left at the Spedale were only registered under their Christian names. It wasn’t until the early 19th century that they were also given a surname. That’s why there are so many Florentines listed in the phone book with names as Innocenti, Degli Innocenti, Nocenti, and Nocentini.
Current activities of the Institute
Although the Spedale closed in 1875, the Institute of the Innocents has continued its social, educational, cultural and research activities. It continues its historic mission with several group homes for mothers and children. It also runs a research center dedicated to the issues related to childhood and adolescence; a library specialized in children’s rights and a cultural center.