Echoes of abandoned children from centuries past
A fascinating hospital in Florence offers a glimpse of the lives of orphans through history, writes Marie Rogers.
IF A society is valued by the way it treats its most vulnerable and innocent inhabitants, then early 15th century Florence surely must rank up there with the best.
Opened in 1444, the Ospedale di Santa Maria degli Innocenti was the first establishment in Europe entirely dedicated to the care of abandoned infants and children. Anyone even remotely interested in the history of medicine should include a tour of the hospital when visiting Florence; it is a very rewarding, yet sobering experience.
In its first year, 62 ‘foundlings’ were admitted and by the 18th century at least 1000 babies were being received each year. The hospital also gave outdoor relief to many poor families.
There were some restrictions on entry. At first, a holy water stoup, behind a barred window, only allowed access to new-born babies, thus ensuring that older, legitimate children were not being abandoned and left at the hospital.
Wet nurses in the hospital cared for the children until it was found that sending the babies to families in the countryside was less risky to their health.
Once weaned, they came back to the hospital where the boys received a rudimentary education and usually trained in a trade.
As in all societies, girls were deemed more expendable – and, because of dowry practices, more expensive – so their numbers in the hospital were far higher than boys.
Girls were often sent out, at a very young age, as servants to families in the city where it was hoped that they could save for their dowries.
We were told on a recent visit that the institute only supplied two girls a year with a dowry (it was not explained to us how the two lucky ones were chosen), quite different from the hospital in Sienna, which had a large orphanage attached and gave all girls who wished to marry a dowry.
Records kept until the final few years show that from 1445, more than 375,000 children were received at the hospital, with a death rate of about 30%.
The establishment was initially financed by the Silk Guild, but gradually, with the decline of the guilds, management was taken over by the Grand Ducal government of Tuscany.
The responsibility for constructing the institution was given to Filippo Brunelleschi, acknowledged by many as the first, true renaissance architect who was also responsible for the dome of the cathedral in Florence.
The building he designed is beautiful in its simplicity and arched elegance. The exterior walls feature small, blue plaques of a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes on a wheel, indicative of the horizontal wheel in the wall where abandoned babies could be rotated into the interior; the sculptures were the work of Andrea della Robbia.
Many wonderful works of art can be seen in the hospital’s museum and also adorning the different rooms.
One painting is particularly poignant, that of the Madonna holding her cloak out wide to protect the little children gathered around her; this was painted by Domenico di Michelino. Other beautiful works include a superb Adoration of the Magi, by Domenico Ghirlandaio.
The wonderful archives of the hospital, which are UNESCO listed, are of particular interest. They house more than 13,000 documents, which are available to families seeking ancestors as well as to scholars.
When a child was admitted to the hospital all known information was recorded and the subsequent history of the child was added; whether the child died, was claimed by the mother or relatives or grew up in the hospital.
Many children arrived at the hospital with no real identification and were given the surname Innocenti, a common name in Tuscany to this day.
Very often a ‘token’ was left with the child – half a coin or medal, a piece of material – with the mother retaining the other half.
Just how few were ever reclaimed was witnessed by the boxes and boxes we were shown. Not only must so many of the babies have died but also so many mothers.
We were privileged to see some of these precious objects and to feel, even after perhaps centuries, the hope and love that had been invested in them.
Our visit to the hospital was part of a recent tour of northern Italy and France, ending in London, which focused on the History of Medicine and Pharmacy, organised by Australians Studying Abroad in Melbourne.
Tags: , Travel