The Ospedale degli Innocenti (Italian pronunciation: [ospe'da:le de inno'tnti]; 'Hospital of the Innocents', also known in old Tuscan dialect as the Spedale degli Innocenti) is a historic building in Florence, Italy. It was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, who received the commission in 1419 from the Arte della Seta. It was originally a children's orphanage. It is regarded as a notable example of early Italian Renaissance architecture. The hospital, which features a nine bay loggia facing the Piazza SS. Annunziata, was built and managed by the "Arte della Seta" or Silk Guild of Florence. That guild was one of the wealthiest in the city and, like most guilds, took upon itself philanthropic duties. Today the building houses a small museum of Renaissance art with works by Luca della Robbia, Sandro Botticelli, Piero di Cosimo and an Adoration of the Magi by Domenico Ghirlandaio.
The façade is made up of nine semicircular arches springing from columns of the Composite order. The semicircular windows bring the building down, earthbound and is a revival of the classical style, no longer a pointed arch. In the spandrels of the arches there are glazed blue terracotta roundels with reliefs of babies designed by Andrea della Robbia suggesting the function of the building. There is an emphasis on the horizontal because the building is longer than it is tall. Above each semicircular arch is a tabernacle window (a rectangular window with a triangular pediment on the top).
The building reveals a clean and clear sense of proportion. The height of the columns is the same as the width of the intercolumniation and the width of the arcade, making each bay a cube. The building's simple proportions reflect a new age, one of secular education, and a sense of great order and clarity. Similarly, the height of the entablature is half the column height, as is appropriate for a clear-minded society.
Children were sometimes abandoned in a basin which was located at the front portico. However, this basin was removed in 1660 and replaced by a wheel for secret refuge. There was a door with a special rotating horizontal wheel that brought the baby into the building without the parent being seen. This allowed people to leave their babies, anonymously, to be cared for by the orphanage. This system was in operation until the hospital's closure in 1875.
The Foundling Hospital was constructed in several phases and only the first phase (1419-1427) was under Brunelleschi's direct supervision. Under Brunelleschi's supervision he managed to lay the foundations, raise the main walls, finish off the basement with a cryptoporticus beneath the cloister walks, and the lower part of the front facing loggia. Later phases added the attic story (1439), but omitted the pilasters that Brunelleschi seems to have envisioned, and expanded the building by one bay to the south (1430). Colored terracotta medallions by Andrea della Robbia can be seen in the spandrels of the arches, the so-called "Infants", which were put up in 1485. Despite the popularity today of these medallions, they were not the original intentions of Brunelleschi. If it had been up to Brunelleschi, the medallions would have remained empty. The vaulted passageway in the bay to the left of the loggia was also added later. Since the loggia was started before the hospital was begun, the hospital was not formally opened until 1445.
Brunelleschi's design was based on Classical Roman, Italian Romanesque and late Gothic architecture. The loggia was a well known building type, such as the Loggia dei Lanzi. But the use of round columns with classically correct capitals, in this case of the Composite Order, in conjunction with a dosserets (or impost blocks) was novel. So too, the circular arches and the segmented spherical domes behind them. The architectural elements were also all articulated in grey stone and set off against the white of the walls. This motif came to be known as pietra serena (Italian: serene stone). Also novel was the proportional logic. The heights of the columns, for example, was not arbitrary. If a horizontal line is drawn along the tops of the columns, a square is created out of the height of the column and the distance from one column to the next. This desire for regularity and geometric order was to become an important element in Renaissance architecture.
Above each column is a ceramic tondo. These were originally meant by Brunelleschi to be blank concavities, but around 1490 Andrea della Robbia was commissioned to fill them in. The design features a baby in swaddling clothes. A few of the tondi are still the original ones, but some are nineteenth century copies.
The Foundling Hospital defines the eastern side of the Piazza Santissima Annunziata, the other two principal facades of which were built later to imitate Brunelleschi's loggia. The piazza was not designed by Brunelleschi, as is sometimes reported in guide books. The west façade, the Loggia dei Servi di Maria, was designed by Antonio da Sangallo the Elder in the 1520s. It was built for the mendicant order, the Servi di Maria, but is today a hotel. The north side of the piazza is defined by the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata, the Basilica of the Most Holy Annunciation. Though the building is much older, the facade was added in 1601 by the architect Giovanni Battista Caccini. The equestrian statue of Ferdinand I of Tuscany was made by the noted sculptor Giambologna and placed there in 1608. The fountain was added in 1640.
The Ospedale degli Innocenti was a charity institution that was responsible for the welfare of abandoned children. It represented social and humanistic views of Florence during the early Renaissance. It can also explain how investors used Florence's charitable institutions as savings banks: A relationship between charity and Italian city-states can be depicted by using the Innocenti as a case study. Furthermore, the hospital remains as a significant place with a statement of compassion and care besides its unpleasant downfalls.
The Innocenti was responsible for the care of abandoned children and provided them with the ability to rejoin society. The first infant abandoned was on February 5, 1445, ten days after opening. Babies were received, wet nursed and weaned. Masters were hired to teach reading and writing to boys. Boys were taught skills according to their abilities while girls were sent to mistresses who taught them how to sew, cook and other such occupations. The hospital provided dowries for the girls, and they had the option of getting married or become nuns. In the late 1520s, an extension was built to the south along the Via de' Fibbiai. This was intentionally for women who did not marry or become a nun.
In 1552, Vincenzo Borghini was appointed spedalingo (superintendent) of the Innocenti. He was employed by Cosimo de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. Borghini's education as a Benedictine monk molded the lives of children in the hospital. Borghini, after five months of becoming superintendent, wanted to get hold of the hospital's operai to eliminate wet nurses who defrauded the hospital. One of the main issues was that wet nursing increased the number of pregnancy. Some would resort to feeding the infants with cow or goat's milk. Mothers would sometimes abandon their own children to feed a child from the hospital. Others would even abandon their own children at the Innocenti, get hired as a wet nurse, and end up feeding their own child with pay. There was also continuation of salary from the hospital after the death of an infant.
There were three major years of great famine, 1556-57, 1567 and 1569-70. This was due to an imbalance between population and agricultural capacity. It was very difficult to reduce cost while balancing high admissions. During the sixteenth century, an increase in population impacted the Innocenti as well as high wheat prices. In 1557, there were also problems with maintaining supplies of grain since flooding occurred in the Innocenti's storehouse.
The hospital suffered from financial debt. The main problem was trying to balance expenses and revenues. Cosimo and Francesco had an unstable organization between private charity and finance and constantly over withdrew money. They had used the Innocenti as their personal charitable institution savings banks. The hospital's debt increased from 300,000 to 700,000 lire, however, its annual operating expenses were minimal (100,000 lire). Seventy-five percent of the hospital's debts were amounts owed to investors.
The consequences of the debt led to the dismissal of girls and boys. Borghini requested that the children be given to high status people of good reputation. Boys were dismissed at the age of eighteen. Girls were tried to be placed in noble families with increased dowries for those who wanted to marry. Women who did not become nuns nor married were trained for trade and manual labor.
According to one scholar (c. 1961), the building "is considered to be the first pure Early Renaissance structure."
In E. M. Forster's 1908 novel A Room with a View, Lucy expresses her preference for "the Della Robbia babies" over Giotto in Chapter 2, and she later purchases several photographs of "some Della Robbia Babies" in Chapter Four.