Gli Innocenti: progeny of the not-so-innocent Medici?

Joseph P. DeVeaugh-Geiss
December 15, 2005

Just a short walk from the hustle and bustle of the Duomo, past the Galleria dell’ Accademia where Michelangelo’s David watches triumphantly, and very nakedly, over throngs of tourists, there quietly waits another Brunelleschi masterpiece, the ‘Spedale degli Innocenti in Piazza Santissima Annunziata. With its classical columns and semi-spherical arches, the ‘Spedale is regarded as not only the first orphanage in Europe but also the building that marks the birth of Renaissance architecture. The renowned artist Andrea della Robbia decorated it with graceful, white and blue medallions of angelic babies wrapped in swaddling bands, a symbol of the abandoned children inside. For this and other reasons the orphanage is one of many important sites in the long list of great Italian monuments.

 

When talking with Italians about their cultural heritage, fact and fiction often travel side-by-side in the local folklore, and it can be near impossible to disentangle the two. But even the most outlandish tale has an element of truth, whereas facts alone may not embrace the whole story. Both fact and fiction ought to have their hearing. So when I heard a scandalous rumour involving the Medici and the orphanage, I went to the ‘Spedale to let the facts have their say.

 

Some say the Medici riddled Florence with more than just artistic masterpieces, contending that they fathered countless illegitimate babies who were abandoned to the ‘Spedale degli Innocenti and for this reason the orphanage was directly financed by the family as an early – and unconventional, to say the least – form of child support. It is from this orphanage that the last names Innocenti, or Nocenti originate. These names are so common throughout Florence and Tuscany that you probably know someone who has this family name. Moreover, unlike many other cultures where the stigma of being an orphan may be a hindrance to moving up in the world, people with these names have climbed the highest echelons of Florentine society, becoming lawyers, professors, and doctors. The rumour has it that if you know someone with this name and you probably do they may, in fact, be a Medici. Or so the story goes.

 

But let the facts be known. Official records show that the ‘Spedale degli Innocenti in Piazza Santissima Annunziata was never financed by the Medici as a home for their bastard children, but rather it was patronized by the once-powerful Florentine Silk Merchant’s Guild as a depository for the growing number of poor and malnourished children in Florence. Construction began in 1419, and for over 400 years this was home for many abandoned children, Medici and otherwise. The ‘Spedale degli Innocenti opened its ‘doors’ on St. Agatha’s Day, January 25, 1445, to the eponymous orphan Agatha Emerald. Like all of the abandoned children, Agatha was left to the hospital as a newborn. Admitting newborns only was a policy that was easily enforced by the size of the ‘entrance’ at the Northeast end of the porticoes: to be dropped off, the babies had to be small enough to fit through the tiny openings of the grate that criss-crosses the window, both of which remain intact to this day. Any tourist or curious local can walk right up to this window where so many were abandoned before. But don’t even think about leaving anything behind. The window has since been sealed off.

 

Behind the grate there was once a basin – similar to that used in a church to hold holy water – where the newborn babies were placed. A bell was then rung to inform the staff of their presence. The entire process was done anonymously and, therefore, no records were kept of the children’s parentage. In other Italian orphanages this basin was instead a ruota, or ‘lazy susan’ type of wheel, which turned to let in the newborns. As a result, throughout Italy the word ruota was used to generally refer to the window entrances of orphanages. This is why, carved into the inscription below the window of the ‘Spedale, there is a description of a “wheel” for babies, even if at this hospital no such wheel was ever present.

 

The hospital was officially secular, but statues of Madonna and Joseph later flanked the basin. The baby was placed between them, in the place of Jesus, and the basin came to be known in Florence as il presepe, or the manger. The foundlings came mostly from poor families for whom nourishment and general care were such a problem that no recourse was available other than the orphanage. Mandati alla pila – having been sent to the orphanage – the children were suckled by a wet nurse until the age of three and fed and clothed by the attendants into young adulthood. The boys could remain only until the age of 18, whereas the women, known as le nocentine, could stay for their entire lives unless they chose to marry.

 

Although no official records prove a direct Medici patronage of the orphanage itself, we do know that in the 16th century the Medici in fact had direct links to the orphanage through the patronage of its attendants. This was a period when, in Florence, the guilds’ power was decreasing and the Grand Duke was becoming more powerful. Future priors, or the monks who ran the monasteries, were occasionally selected from among the orphanage’s attendants by the Grand Duke under the leadership of such prominent Medici figures as Cosimo Primo and Francesco de Medici. In fact, Francesco de Medici is recorded as having been directly involved with the patronage of Vincenzo Borghini, famous literary humanist during the Italian Renaissance. These are the facts of the Medici connection to the orphanage. We may never know if there is some truth to the rumours, but let’s let each side have their hearing.

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