Friday, April 6, 2018

Visit to the Museum of the Innocents in Florence is a moving experience

No child ever asks to be an orphan—but accidents, illnesses and poverty happen. Epidemics of malaria, cholera, flu, bubonic plague, yellow fever and other diseases occurred
Mary is usually drawn with baby Jesus, but here she
is shown protecting innocent children. The identity
of this Florentine artist is unknown.
regularly through Europe up until recent times. Work accidents were common. Medical knowledge was primitive. Birth control was not available. Parents died or fell into extreme poverty. Italy, as did all countries, faced a steady stream of children who were left without parents—or born to parents who were without the means to support them, including unwed mothers.

However, thanks to the
Photo of the Spedale from the early 1900s.
strength of Tuscany’s economy during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, combined with the compassion of the business community, the Catholic Church and the general population, orphans and foundlings* in central Italy had a good chance to thrive. A great example of this can be seen today by visiting the Museo degli Innocenti in Firenze, which provides a thoughtful and sensitive look into the lives of Italy’s orphans and foundlings.

This museum was completely remodeled and re-opened to the public in June of 2016, and it provides a vivid and
A portion of the historical timeline of the Spedale.
emotional experience. One can rent an audio guide or simply read the well written explanations on the walls to learn the history of the institution. For more information on the history of the Spedale degli Innocenti, read Care for the ‘Innocenti’ born in Tuscany established a nurturing pattern of enduring tradition.

In one room, visitors can view 140 objects that parents left
An archival record of one of the foundlings, one who
thrived under the care of the orphanage.
behind to identify their children. These objects recorded a child’s origin, family circle, social class, village or city. Included are messages, coins, rings, hair clips, holy pictures, small crucifixes, colored beads or buttons and small pieces of fabric. The objects could be used if the parents or other family members came to reclaim their kin during better times—a hope that their family could be reunited that accompanied the orphans throughout their lives.

In another section, one can read the notes that the orphanage
Not every story ended happily, unfortunately.
made on a variety of the foundlings. One reads: On 16 March, 1706, a woman abandoned an eleven-day-old baby boy, called Pasquino in memory of his dead father, and with a blessing around his neck. He was given to Lisabetta in the neighborhood of Dicomano for suckling and he stayed with her until he was eleven. He returned to the Innocenti in 1717 and was entrusted to the “boys master.” Ten days later he was given to a new keeper, Giuseppe di San Giovanni in Petroio, near Barberino di Mugello.”

After the orphans were placed in adoptive homes, parish priests followed up with home visits to make sure the children were well looked after. I read of one instance where the priest reported that a child was living in a filthy environment, and the child was returned to the Innocenti.

One of the inner courtyards, where the orphans could play safely in the sunshine.
Many of the children had been baptized by local priests in Tuscany before they were brought to the orphanage. Some had family names, but many others only had first names, so the orphanage assigned surnames. It was common practice to give the surname “Innocenti” or “degli Innocenti” to indicate that the children were innocent of having caused their condition. The orphanage in Pisa used the same designation, and I confess to having a special interest in the care of these orphans, since I recently discovered that my fourth great grandmother was named Bibiana degli Innocenti di Pisa. Born around 1735, Bibiana married Lorenzo Petrocchi of Pescia and went on to have at least seven children.

In another section of the museum, one can select and watch videos of people who describe how their parents or grandparents were orphans and were successfully adopted after having been raised in the Spedale degli Innocenti. Also included are some photos taken inside the orphanage in the early 1900s.

On the floor above the museum, one can see the outside courtyards of the orphanage itself and enjoy the splendid
In these illuminated drawers, protected by glass, one can view
the remembrances that parents left with their children.
architecture, and above that is a bar and terrace with a great view of Florence. For those who have a descendant who came from the Innocenti, it’s also possible to make an appointment with a researcher who can provide information on a particular person recorded in the archives. All in all, the museum is a treasure and well worth the 7 euro admission fee.

Florence native Enrico Michelassi, in a Google review written in Italian, commented: “If you think this is just a museum, you would be off track. True, the environment has an architectural beauty that touches perfection, true the view of the panorama from the terrace is worth the visit alone, true that the museum is modern and absolutely adapted to the theme—but it is the historical content and humanity that make this place exceptional. It is the first orphan asylum in history, a model followed up to our time. In reading the stories of children over the centuries, you enter the life of the city and you discover how impressive is the number of those reintroduced into society, and how important this has been for the city itself.”

* The terms orphan and foundling are not synonyms. An orphan is a child whose parents have died. A foundling has been abandoned by his or her parents. Thanks to Ange Coniglio for pointing this out.


  1. This is very touching. A few years ago, while taking an adult education class in Italian, our teacher also explained the meaning of the surname, Esposito. It was often assigned to babies left on the steps of churches or convents. (I understood the name to refer to being born "outside of marriage.")

    1. I've been told that Esposito derives from esposto, or exposed (to the elements).

  2. extremely informative and an important part of history for so many as well as for Italia


Comments welcome.