The piazza della Santissima Annunziata in Florence is not only the city’s most beautiful square. It’s also its most humane. The Spedale degli Innocenti, with its superb Brunelleschi designed loggia, is not only the city’s first truly renaissance building, with its pioneer use of pietra serena stone, classically proportioned arches with between them, those delightful Della Robbia terracottas of babes in swaddling clothes and its characteristic stucco facade. It’s also Europe’s first children welfare institute. Founded by Florence’s silk guild in 1400 the Innocenti’s aim, which continues today with its nurseries, family consultation clinics, child adoption and protection agencies, is to carry out Jesus’ aim to ‘suffer little children to come unto me.’
The Innocenti is what is known in italian as ‘brofotrofio’ which means a place which cares for children whose parents may be still alive and known but whose circumstances do not permit them to look after their offspring properly. This is to be distinguished from an ‘orfanotrofio’, or orphanage, where children may have lost one or both parents.
Attittudes and solutions have, of course, changed over the ages. Finding suitable adoptive families is one answer today for children who have difficulties with their biological parents. Today the situation is even more difficult, as a recent news item revealed when a girl from a strict Islamic family in Florence refused to wear the veil and be forced into a loveless arranged marriage. In other words, she wanted to live the life of just another normal italian girl in the country where she was born and educated in.
The Innocenti museum, which is not even a year old, is a wonderful example of how a museum can be recreated so that it truly reaches everyone in both mind and heart. It’s a model of how a museum can be truly made live. There is access for all and the modernism of a spectacular lift and staircase merge well with the old:
There are three sections to the museum. The first is historical and, with the help of interactive displays including archive photographs and recordings, traces the changing attitude towards what in England used to be called foundlings and which prompted Thomas Coram to found the UK equivalent of Florence’s innocenti and, again with generous munificence this time from people like Handel and Hogarth, helped improve life for children without proper families.
The drawers with the names of individual foundlings and the objects left with them, such as a coin split into two (so that if ever the day came when the child could find his/her family the other half kept by the family might prove that the child was indeed theirs) and the little biographies taken from the old records are truly touching testimonies of hard times.
In the case of Florence the benefactors included such artists as Ghirlandaio and Botticelli who donated some wonderful works to the foundation. These gorgeous paintings form part of the artistic itinerary of the museum and are one of Florence’s finest and most uncrowded picture galleries. Not surprisingly, the main subjects are the Virgin and Child, the Nativity and references to the massacre of the innocents
The third itinerary is the architectural one. With such placidly exquisite cloisters as the two for boys and girls there can be few more wonderful examples of the trancendental change renaissance architecture wrought upon Italian, indeed European, cities.
To crown the museum there’s what must be the most spectacularly placed bar in the city, equalling and perhaps surpassing the cafe at the top of London’s National Portrait gallery for its views:
While we visited this lovely place there were dads and mums taking their toddlers to the various departments the institute still manages today after almost seven hundred years continuous service to children and the community.
In the evening we were even treated to a fine concert of voci bianche (childrens voices) of the maggio Musicale fiorentino. The programme included everything from renaissance songs of springtime to Benjamin Britten. If anyone thinks there is nothing to beat an anglican children’s church choir they should have been at our concert.
It was so wonderful to feel the fluidity of Florentine history through the Renaissance as expressed through its humanity in treating innocent children, in creating new space through its architecture and in envisaging a museum, not yet a year old, that truly gives honour to the city of the lily. Indeed, the Innocenti is a place for all ages in every sense of the word.