Museum of the Innocents

Piazza della Santissima Annunziata is located merely a stone’s throw from Florence’s artistic and touristic heavyweights, such as the Galleria dell'Accademia where visitors throng to see David. However, this peaceful and unassuming piazza is home to a lesser-known yet extraordinary piece of social history.

The building to which I refer is in fact a substantial Brunelleschi-designed complex: the Museo degli Innocenti (Museum of the Innocents). Enclosed within its walls we find no less than six centuries of commitment to the protection, preservation and promotion of children’s rights.

Studies of the institute, or hospital (ospedale), and its heritage, both artistic and cultural, have resulted in this 15th century orphanage evolving into a tasteful and unique museum – one where art, architecture and the history of childhood intersect.

The institute is the oldest public institution in Italy. Its work began in earnest in the 14th century and it retains the distinction of having been the first secular healthcare facility dedicated to the care of abandoned babies and children in the world.

 A nurse looking after an abandoned baby
PHOTOGRAPH BY Museo degli Innocenti

The tour covers three floors, each focused on a particular aspect of the hospital’s long story. Let’s begin by descending to the entrance and walking through to the exhibition. This first floor recounts the history of the hospital.

Onto the second floor: architecture. The complex is a notable example of early Italian Renaissance architecture. Much of this floor is taken up by the loggia (a covered corridor) and two large courtyards, one “of the men,” one “of the women.”

The third floor is reserved for art. While small, the museum boasts some masterpieces. Brunelleschi, Botticelli and Ghirlandaio are all to be found here in an exhibition revolving around, of course, children. Adorning the external loggia are ten medallions depicting “i putti” (naked but swaddled children in Italian Renaissance art) created by Andrea della Robbia using his distinctive glazed terracotta technique.

Third floor art gallery
PHOTOGRAPH BY Museo degli Innocenti

It is, however, to the first floor that we will return for a more in-depth education. The poignancy here is palpable. It is a place where one finds it difficult to resist reflection on how fortunate many of us are.

The floor, like the entire complex, is a memorial to solidarity, social policy and poverty. It is a testament to how a community cares for its vulnerable and disadvantaged.

One of ten “putti” by Andrea della Robbia
PHOTOGRAPH BY Museo degli Innocenti

The protagonists of the institute’s story are the “nocentini.” This was the name given to the children abandoned to the hospital. The innocents.

Children were placed in a stone crib on a wheel in a small window. At either side of the window statues depicted Mary and Joseph (these are now found inside the museum). Thus, the scene is a recreation of the nativity with the abandoned child substituting for the child Christ. With a rotation and no questions asked, the innocents arrived into the hospital’s office. The very first child the hospital took in was a newborn baby girl, Agata Smeralda, in 1445. While the hospital continued to operate, the window was closed in 1875.

Most children arrived with a tiny token or “sign.” It could be half a coin or pendant, perhaps a minuscule piece of cloth or a small cross. This was done in the hope of their mothers one day being able to return, recognise and retrieve them. In an overwhelmingly sobering experience, we can see these tokens in small drawers inscribed with the names and dates of the children they were left with. Children like Tommaso, like Ninfa.

Upon arrival at the hospital, meticulous records containing the children’s personal details and their “signs” were taken and safeguarded. Multimedia presentations introduce us to the children. We can read the testimonies of some of the innocents, such as, whether they lived a brief or a longer life (mortality rates were high), stories of their wet nurses or their progression into the city’s guilds.

The window (finestra ferrata) where infants were left to the hospital
PHOTOGRAPH BY Museo degli Innocenti

Elegant, minimalistic, and above all, respectful, the museum is curated in such a way as to honour the thousands of innocents it homed over centuries.

In the present day, we find ourselves horrified by the harrowing experiences endured by children around the world. We are shocked by the inhumanity as the truth of children buried without dignity in places like Ireland and Canada comes to light (countries I do not spotlight for the sake of bestowing upon them additional scorn, but simply because they are my own).

Nelson Mandela famously said:

“The true character of society is revealed in how it treats its children.”

Long before the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Ospedale degli Innocenti did its best to adhere to what, centuries later, became known as the “General Principles” of the Convention. These are four articles that play a fundamental role in realising all the rights in the Convention for all children:

Non-discrimination (Article 2)

Best interest of the child (Article 3)

Right to life, survival and development (Article 6)

Right to be heard (Article 12)

The hospital’s legacy is alive to this day. In 1988, Italy invited UNICEF to establish a centre of research and study at the Ospedale degli Innocenti. Today, the UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti is the global organisation’s research coordination office. Its main areas of investigation concern child poverty and well-being, the impact of cash transfers on disadvantaged families in Africa, drivers of violence affecting children, child migration, adolescent well-being, parenting support, education and child rights in the digital age.

Furthermore, the Italian Committee for UNICEF was founded in 1974 and has become one of the largest donors to UNICEF programmes around the world.

The Museo degli Innocenti is a museum worthy of our time and our praise. Florence houses countless treasures, and you will not regret including this most impactful and touching experience in your itinerary.

For more information please visit: https://www.museodeglinnocenti.it/

All pictures courtesy of Museo degli Innocenti

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Maria-Assunta Lawton

Maria-Assunta Lawton is from Ireland and specialises in cultural heritage marketing. Maria graduated from the Waterford Institute of Technology with a BA(H) in Marketing (Tourism) and has been Marketing Co-ordinator at Waterford Treasures for the last three years.