On Friday February 5th, 1445, a newborn baby girl was left in a small space between the iron bars of a grated window (finestra ferrata) at the newly constructed Ospedale degli Innocenti in Florence 10 days after its opening.
Built to plans by Filippo Brunelleschi, thanks to the bequest of a local merchant and the financial support of the rich and powerful Silk Weavers' Guild, it was the first hospital devoted exclusively to foundlings, and Agata Smeralda, as she was later named, was its first intake.
Thousands were to follow in her wake, placed where babies could be left anonymously in a cavity that opened when a rotating wheel turned.
In 1842 the city commissioner Michelagnoli wrote: "Through the openings in a grate, generally very late at night, the innocents, children of sin or misery, are left on the windowsill covered by a pillow . . . and those who abandon them ring a bell, located next to the window".
Abandonment of children was nothing new but had intensified with urban population growth during the Renaissance, a period of great architectural splendour and intellectual learning but also one of extreme poverty, social deprivation and plague.
Today the recently renovated Museo degli Innocenti commemorates the hospital's foundation as the oldest orphanage in Europe, the first lay institution entirely devoted to infancy and childhood and celebrates its remarkable social, cultural and architectural history. It operated for more than 500 years, and two years before it closed in 1875 had over 2,000 children under its wing. Although the Ospedale degli Innocenti (and the finestra ferrata) closed in 1875, it continued as a public charity institution, the Instituto degli Innocenti.
On a cold February weekend when crowds gathered in their hundreds, as they do daily, to view the usual tourist haunts – the great Brunelleschi masterpiece, the Duomo, or to view the Uffizi gallery’s art treasures in central Florence – surprisingly, only a handful, including ourselves, were visiting the museum that morning.
Friends living there had urged us not to miss it. It is located in the very beautiful Piazza della Santissima Annuziata, presided over by a bronze equestrian statue of Grand Duke Ferdinando I, which was currently hosting a chocolate exhibition and market. History recounts that as soon as the newborns arrived – and the size of the opening only allowed for small infants – they were examined by nurses, their sex identified, and what they were wearing and everything found with them, little objects or signs or any other identifying marks, were documented.
Each baby was assigned an in-house wet nurse who took care of them until they could be sent to the country to be breast-fed by other women, some often remaining with these families, others adopted by childless couples while the rest returned to the hospital.
Mortality rates were high. One of the most moving aspects of the museum is an area with multiple drawers containing 140 “signs” from the 19th century showing the custom of tucking objects into the swaddling of abandoned infants.
In the historical archive there are thousands of messages and small objects, coins, medals, rings, brooches, holy pictures, little crosses and ribbons.
Some items were halved to allow parents to identify their children if they could return to retrieve them.
A visitor today can read documentary material containing information about a newly arrived child and the names of the parents or persons who abandoned them.
Equally poignant are the visual recorded testimonies and memories of previous residents of more recent times.
While the building itself with its arcades, courtyards and loggias marks the birth of Renaissance architecture, the artworks (which can be viewed up close in a room on the second floor) contain masterpieces, mostly of Madonnas with children, by Ghirlandaio, Luca della Robbia and Botticelli. Notable too is the 16th-century lifesize wooden statue of Mary Magdalene by di Polo and the beautiful glazed terracotta busts of swaddled children by Andrea della Robbia on the spandrels of the loggia’s arches.
Today the terrace, where laundry was once dried and which was later used for wet-nursing babies is now a spacious and beautiful cafe. There visitors can sit and recover and watch restful panoramic views of the Duomo right across to the Tuscan hills of Settignano.
At a time when Ireland deals with the history of unwanted and impoverished children and associated religious institutions like the Magdalene laundries, the Ospedale degli Innocenti and the ongoing work of the Instituto degli Innocenti is a salutary reminder of alternative, more compassionate humanistic views of childhood from centuries past.