The Ospedale degli Innocenti is an architectural masterpiece that combines functionality and beauty, elegance and symmetry: a “royal palace for children”, as architect Giovanni Michelucci called it.
Walking through the spaces of this ancient place of hospitality allows the visitor to immerse himself in a unique historical reality.
The guild of the Arte della Seta was commissioned to build the Hospital of Santa Maria degli Innocenti from a donation of one thousand florins, destined by the merchant Francesco Datini for the creation of a home for abandoned children. In 1419, the Arte della Seta commissioned Filippo Brunelleschi to design the building.
The hospital (also known as the Spedale at the time) was inaugurated on 5 February 1445 with the arrival of the first baby girl, who was given the name Agata Smeralda, in honour of the saint of the day.
The structure offered shelter to girls and boys who were left anonymously at the entrance. On their arrival, they were entrusted to so-called "house nannies" and then handed over to paid country nannies to nurse them. After weaning, some of them stayed with their new families, others returned to the Innocenti.
The male children received a basic education and were then sent to the workshops to learn a trade. From 1552 to 1580, Prior Vincenzo Borghini implemented an innovative educational project that included the study of music and painting, as well as the teaching of the abacus.
Read more: Historical itinerary
The girls, who barely learned to read and write, were instead taught to sew and weave. They often went to work for a family to build their dowry from their wages. In the 17th century a place equipped with looms was created to allow the girls to work inside the house.
Read more: The Choir
In 1770 the Arts were abolished and consequently the patronage of the Arte della Seta ceased.
In 1875 the anonymous entrance system was abolished.
In 1890 the Hospital became a Public Assistance and Charitable Institution (IPAB).
Currently, the residential care offered by the Innocenti consists of four communities within the historical headquarters in the centre of Florence: Casa Bambini, Casa Madri, Casa Rondini and Nuova Casa Rondini, places that offer answers to situations of distress in close connection with social services, the ordinary and juvenile courts, the judicial police, the local health authorities.
The Institute also houses three nurseries and a centre for the continuity of education for 0-6 year olds.
The Bottega dei Ragazzi, an educational section of the Museo degli Innocenti, was set up in 2006. Every year the Bottega offers creative didactic workshops whose aim is to teach the language of the arts in relation to our artistic heritage. The use of winning didactic strategies and digital supports allow learning through play, making all participants active protagonists.
Since 1988 it has been home to the UNICEF Office of Research - Innocenti and the Innocenti Library "Alfredo Carlo Moro" specialised in children and adolescents rights.
Read more: Innocenti Institute Library
Over the centuries the hospital was enriched with numerous works of art thanks to direct commissions, important donations and the amalgamation of other charitable institutions. Around the middle of the 19th century, some of the works were sold for economic recovery.
In 1890, three rooms on the ground floor were opened to the public to display the works considered most prestigious at the time. Following a gradual expansion of the museum space, the altarpieces from the Church of Santa Maria degli Innocenti, altarpieces in the art section, and documentary material relating to the history of the Hospital were also displayed.
The 1966 flood affected the ground floor rooms. The entire monumental complex is restored and the collection is moved to the gallery above the entrance porch, securing the works. The new arrangement favours the display of artefacts of artistic significance, overshadowing however the relationship between the works and the history of the institution.
The new Museo degli Innocenti was created with the aim of providing an organic description of an institution that is unique in the world. Through three paths among works of art, exhibits and multimedia experiences, it presents the art, history and architecture of the Hospital, creating an extraordinary ensemble that is today unique in the museum scene.
Together they form a single narrative that presents the documents collected in the historical archives, the spaces where the life of the children housed in the building took place, and the works of the artists who contributed to making the place beautiful and welcoming for the children.