Ospedale degli Innocenti

Ospedale degli Innocenti, Florence

The Ospedale degli Innocenti ('Hospital of the Innocents', also known in Italian as L' Ospedale degli Innocenti) is a historical building in Florence, central Italy. Designed by Filippo Brunelleschi,[1][2] who received the commission in 1419, it was originally a children's orphanage. It is regarded as a notable example of early Italian Renaissance architecture. The hospital, which features a nine bay loggia facing the Piazza SS. Annunziata, was built and managed by the "Arte della Seta" or Silk Guild of Florence.[3] That guild was one of the wealthiest in the city and, like most guilds, took upon itself philanthropic duties.

The façade is made up of nine semicircular arches springing from columns of the Composite order. The semicircular windows brings the building down, earthbound and is a revival of the classical style, no longer a pointed arch. In the spandrels of the arches there are glazed blue terracotta roundels with reliefs of babies suggesting the function of the building. There is an emphasis on the horizontal because the building is longer than it is tall. Above each semicircular arch is a tabernacle window (a rectangular window with a triangular pediment on the top).

The clean and clear sense of proportion is reflected in the building. The height of the columns is the same width of the intercolumniation and the width of the arcade is equal to the height of the column, making each bay a cube. The simple proportions of the building reflect a new age, of secular education and a sense of great order and clarity. Also half the height of the column is the height of the entablature, which is appropriate for a clear minded society.

Children were sometimes abandoned in a basin which was located at the front portico. However, this basin was removed in 1660 and replaced by a wheel for secret refuge.[3] There was a door with a special rotating horizontal wheel that brought the baby into the building without the parent being seen. This allowed people to leave their babies, anonymously, to be cared for by the orphanage. This system was in operation until the hospital's closure in 1875.[3] Today the building houses a small museum of Renaissance art.


Building History

The Foundling Hospital was constructed in several phases and only the first phase (1419–1427) was under Brunelleschi’s direct supervision.[3] Later phases added the attic story (1439), but omitted the pilasters that Brunelleschi seems to have envisioned, and expanded the building by one bay to the south (1430). The vaulted passageway in the bay to the left of the loggia was also added later. Since the loggia was started before the hospital was begun, the hospital was not formally opened until 1445.[4]


Brunelleschi's design was based on Classical Roman, Italian Romanesque and late Gothic architecture.[2] The loggia was a well known building type, such as the Loggia dei Lanzi. But the use of round columns with classically correct capitals, in this case of the Composite Order, in conjunction with a dosserets (or impost blocks) was novel. So too, the circular arches and the segmented spherical domes behind them.[5] The architectural elements were also all articulated in grey stone and set off against the white of the walls. This motif came to be known as pietra serena (Italian: dark stone). Also novel was the proportional logic. The heights of the columns, for example, was not arbitrary. If a horizontal line is drawn along the tops of the columns, a square is created out of the height of the column and the distance from one column to the next. This desire for regularity and geometric order was to become an important element in Renaissance architecture.[6]

The Tondi

Above each column is a ceramic tondo. These were originally meant by Brunelleschi to be blank concavities, but ca. 1490, Andrea della Robbia was commissioned to fill them in.[7] The design features a baby in swaddling clothes on a blue wheel, indicative of the horizontal wheel in the wall where babies could be rotated into the interior. A few of the tondi are still the original ones, but some are nineteenth century copies.

The insignia of the American Academy of Pediatrics is based on one of the tondi.[3]

Piazza Santissima Annunziata

The Foundling Hospital defines the eastern side of the Piazza Santissima Annunziata, the other two principle facades of which were built later to imitate the Brunelleschi’s loggia. The piazza was not designed by Brunelleschi, as is sometimes reported in guide books. The west façade, the Loggia dei Servi di Maria, was designed by Antonio da Sangallo the Elder in the 1520s. It was built for the mendicant order, the Servi di Maria, but is today a hotel. The north side of the piazza is defined by the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata, the Basilica of the Most Holy Annunciation. Though the building is much older, the facade was added in 1601 by the architect Giovanni Battista Caccini. The equestrian statue of Ferdinand I of Tuscany was made by the noted sculptor, Giambologna (pseudonym for Jean de Boulogne) and placed there in 1608. The fountain was added in 1640.

Vincenzio Borghini as Administrator of the Ospedale degli Innocenti

The Ospedale degli Innocenti was a charity institution that was responsible for the welfare of abandoned children. It represented social and humanistic views of Florence during the early Renaissance. However, it can also explain how investors used Florence’s charitable institutions as savings banks. A relationship between charity and Italian city-states can be depicted by using the Innocenti as a case study. Furthermore, the hospital still remains as a significant place with a statement of compassion and care besides its unpleasant downfalls.

In 1552, Don Vincenzio Borghini was appointed spedalingo, or superintendent, of the Innocenti. He was employed by Cosimo de' Medici, grand duke of Tuscany. Borghini’s education as a Benedictine monk molded the lives of children in the hospital.

The Innocenti was responsible for the care of abandoned children and provided them with the ability to rejoin society. The first infant abandoned was on February 5, 1445, ten days after opening.[3] Babies were received, wet nursed and weaned. Masters were hired to teach reading and writing to boys. Boys were taught various skills according to their abilities. Girls were considered to be the weaker sex, fragile and most vulnerable. They were sent to mistresses who taught them how to sew, cook and other occupations expected for women. The hospital provided dowries for the girls and they had the option of getting married or become nuns. In the late 1520s, an extension was built to the south along the Via de' Fibbiai. This was intentionally for women who did not marry or become a nun.[8]

Borghini, after five months of becoming superintendent, wanted to get hold of the hospital’s operai to eliminate wet nurses who defrauded the hospital.[8] One of the main issues was that wet nursing increased the number of pregnancy. Some would resort to feeding the infants with cow or goat’s milk. Mothers would sometimes abandon their own children to feed a child from the hospital. Others would even abandon their own children at the Innocenti, get hired as a wet nurse and end up feeding their own child with pay. There was also continuation of salary from the hospital after the death of an infant.

There were three major years of great famine, 1556–57, 67 and 1569-70.[8] This was due to an imbalance between population and agricultural capacity. It was very difficult to reduce cost while balancing high admissions. During the sixteenth century, an increase in population impacted the Innocenti as well as high wheat prices. In 1557, there were also problems with maintaining supplies of grain since flooding occurred in the Innocenti's storehouse.[8]

The hospital suffered from financial debt. The main problem was trying to balance expenses and revenues. Cosimo and Francesco had an unstable organization between private charity and finance and constantly over withdrew money. They had used the Innocenti as their personal charitable institution savings banks. The hospital’s debt increased from three hundred thousand to seven hundred thousand lire however, its annual operating expenses were minimal (one hundred thousand lire).[8] Seventy-five percent of the hospital’s debts were amounts owed to investors.[8]

The consequences of the hospital’s debt led to the dismissal of girls and boys. Borghini requested that the children be given to high status people of good reputation. Boys were dismissed at the age of eighteen. Girls were tried to be placed in noble families with increased dowries for those who wanted to marry. Women who did not become nuns nor married were trained for trade and manual labor. However, due to overcrowding, some were turned out from the hospital forcing them to become prostitutes. Additional problems such as domestic violence and abusive relationships also occurred.


  1. ^ arcade. Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. 
  2. ^ a b Brunelleschi, Filippo. Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f Kahn, Lawrence, MD; Frohna, J. G.; Wald, E. R. (July 2002). "The "Ospedale degli Innocenti" and the "Bambino" of the American Academy of Pediatrics". Pediatrics 110 (1): 175–180. doi:10.1542/peds.110.1.192. PMID 12093967. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/content/full/110/1/175. Retrieved 2007-02-16. 
  4. ^ Eugenio Battisti. Filippo Brunelleschi. (New York: Rizzoli, 1981). *See also: Howard Saalman. Filippo Brunelleschi: The Buildings. (London: Zwemmer, 1993).
  5. ^ architecture, Western:Early Renaissance in Italy (1401–95). Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. 
  6. ^ Michele Furnari. Formal Design in Renaissance Architecture: from Brunelleschi to Palladio. (New York: Rizzoli, 1995).
  7. ^ Della Robbia, Andrea. Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f Gavitt, Philip (June 1997). "Charity and State Building in Cinquecento Florence: Vincenzio Borghini as administrator of the Ospedale Degli Innocenti". The Journal of Modern History 69 (2): 230–270. doi:10.1086/245487?journalCode=jmh. 

External links

Coordinates: 43°46′34.71″N 11°15′40.37″E / 43.7763083°N 11.2612139°E / 43.7763083; 11.2612139

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