Slugs and snails and puppy dog’s tails – Renaissance toys for girls

Balthasar van der Ast, Still Life with Shells, Boymans-van Beuningen Museum

Household inventories from Renaissance Italy often uncover some weird and wonderful possessions. One of these is the sea snail shell (chiocciola marina) – an object that crops up now and again in Florentine inventories of objects belonging to girls and young women.

For example, there’s a sea snail shell listed in the estate inventory of Piero di Lorenzo Benintendi in 1551. The shell is marked, along with clothing and a little coral necklace, as being ‘for the baby girl’s use’.

Filippo Napoletano, Two Shells, 1618, Galleria Palatina, Florence

In 1511, the extremely well-to-do bride, Gostanza Minerbetti, had not one, but two sea snail shells in her bridal trousseau.

And in other inventories, these curious objects are squirreled away in little caskets with other small precious items such as rosaries, jewellery, belts and silver spoons or held in storage at local convents for safe-keeping.

So what on earth were these sea snail shells doing in the sticky paws of toddlers and the bridal trousseau of the rich and powerful?

If these objects appear in bridal trousseau, that’s usually a signifier that they mean something fundamental to the story of marriage and fertility. There’s a clear link between shells and fertility, which comes from their association with Venus.

Sandro Botticelli, Birth of Venus, c. 1485, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

According to one story, this lovely goddess was born out of the waves that the god Cronos had thrown his father, Uranus’s penis into, in revenge for the bad treatment of his mother. Beautiful Venus was born from this rather gory event and then blown ashore on a sea shell as Botticelli so gorgeously depicts in his Birth of Venus.

So it is possible, that girls and women were given these shells as symbols of their fertility or as amulets to bring them the fertility they would need to produce the many sons that Renaissance society required of them.

Other paintings relate sea shells to marriage. Lorenzo Lotto’s painting of Venus and Cupid shows a conch shell suspended above the naked Venus.

Lorenzo Lotto, Venus and Cupid, 1520s?, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

This painting is full of references to marriage (the ivy symbolises fidelity) and fertility – Cupid peeing into his mother’s lap being the main one (yes, really). So this link between sea shells and fertility could well explain why Gostanza Minerbetti had two of them with her on her wedding day.

But it doesn’t quite explain why baby girls were given sea snail shells so early on in their lives.

And the fertility explanation doesn’t work when we learn that some novices were given sea snail shells as part of their own ‘trousseau’ – objects they took along when they left their families and went into the convent.

For example, Gostanza Minerbetti’s little sister, Francesca, took a ‘chiocchiola’ with her to the convent of San Niccolò in 1506 when, at the tender age of just nine years old, she was placed there as a novice.

Cowrie shell

It’s fairly likely that sea snail shells held some kind of amuletic power for Renaissance Florentines, and this may be why girls and young women were given them.

Shells, such as cowrie shells have been used for thousands of years all over the world as amulets to protect the wearer against evil and harm. Interestingly, this use again comes back to a link between sea shells and sex – in many nations the cowrie shell is considered amuletic because it looks like a vulva.

A less sexual reading of sea shells as amulets might look at the scallop shell – longstanding symbol of Saint James and of pilgrimage – which was used in hat badges by pilgrims and would have held amuletic powers for the wearer from its association with the holy pilgrimage site.

Bernardino di Antonio Detti, The Madonna della Pergola (detail), 1523, Pistoia, Museo Civico

The amuletic theory would explain why little girls were given these shells and why young novices, sent away from the security of their families into the unfamiliar world of the convent, might have appreciated them.

The 1511 inventory of Carlo Seragli’s household lists a sea snail shell amongst a lot of other ‘children’s items’ including two magical charms and a dog’s tooth – another infant’s amulet.

These groups of children’s amulets were common in Florentine family inventories. A typical group of coral, cross pendant, Agnus Dei and dog’s tooth is depicted in Bernardino Detti’s Madonna della Pergola.


Italian, c. 1570, Nautilus Pitcher with pearls, rubies, and turquoise, mounted with gilt silver Galleria Palatina, Florence

It is also likely that they were treasured because they were interesting to look at and to touch. From the sixteenth century, large seashells like the nautilus were prized items, and were often mounted in silver and gold.

They also formed part of the Curiosity Cabinets that were starting to be assembled in the Renaissance and learned men seem to have been drawn to their beauty and symbolism.

This Renaissance fascination with sea shells is hardly surprising.

We’ve all enjoyed collecting sea shells in our time, especially as children. So perhaps sea snail shells were also toys for girls – pretty, natural objects that they could admire, handle and play with.

Their other functions as fertility symbols and amulets would make them ‘super toys’ – protecting girls at play and (for those girls who weren’t sent to the convent) bringing some kind of fertility luck to them as well.


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Superimposed bodies to semi-sacred players – the development of Renaissance donor portraiture

For the rich and powerful of Florence, commemoration was very important. The desire to be remembered after death was (as it still is) a major motivation behind many generous acts like founding charitable institutions, expanding churches and commissioning altarpieces.

Leon Battista Alberti, Facade of Santa Maria Novella, 1475, Florence

Look up at the façade of the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence and you’ll see the huge, Latinised name of Giovanni Rucellai – the wealthy merchant who paid for it. This commission made sure that Rucellai and his works wouldn’t be forgotten after his death. Over five centuries later his name still looms above the tourists streaming into Florence proper from the airport shuttle buses that have dropped them at the station.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni, 1488, Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Madrid

Portraiture was another solution to the problem of mortality. A kind of propaganda tool, portraiture constructed an often lofty identity of the sitter, fixed in time for all to see.

A prime example of this is the beautiful posthumous portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni by Domenico Ghirlandaio.

Giovanna had died young, in childbirth, and the portrait, commissioned by her widower, fixes her image forever – beautiful, virtuous, pious – while the beauty of her soul is described by the epigram pinned to the wall at the back of the scene.

The need to be commemorated as a doer of good things and a person of good character, found an outlet in Renaissance donor portraiture.

Donor portraits are depictions of the person/s commissioning the painting that actually feature within the painting themselves. Donor portraits are often queer, stray figures, painted at the bottom of images of the Virgin and Child or of a Crucifixion scene. They are there to tell us exactly who paid for the paint and the painting of the devotional image before us.

Lippo Memmi, Madonna and Child with Donor, c. 1335, National Gallery of Art, Washington

Advertising their role in the production of religious art, donor portraits of wealthy patrons literally put their generosity on display to the masses. The implication was that the donor was a man or woman of a particularly pious nature. One hoped for outcome was surely that, after a donor’s death, some of the viewer’s prayer power would be directed towards them, shortening their time in Purgatory and getting them up to Paradise quicker.

Donor portraits were at first painted as miniature figures superimposed onto a painting, often somewhere near the bottom. The effect is frequently quite curious, as in this fourteenth century painting of the Madonna and Child by Lippo Memmi, where the donor seems ‘stuck on’ as an afterthought in the bottom left corner.

The bodies of donors started to be painted on a larger scale in the Renaissance, becoming similar in size to the sacred personalities they shared the wall or panel with by the fifteenth century.

Masaccio’s,The Trinity fresco, painted around 1425, depicts the donors – members of the Lenzi family – on a similar size to the figures in the picture proper.

Masaccio, Trinity, 1425-28, Santa Maria Novella, Florence

Cleverly, Masaccio sets up a pictorial boundary between the Lenzi and the Trinity scene. The donors kneel on a fictional step below the fictional chapel. They are not quite within the chapel, but they’re a lot closer to it than we, the viewers, are.

Later Renaissance artists used (sometimes bizarre) techniques to allow the donor to be within the painting and yet without it.

Fra Filippo Lippi’s Virgin and Child at the Fitzwilliam Museum, shows the donor the same size as the holy characters, but he is wedged into the bottom right hand corner and only shown as far as the waist, making him look rather peculiar. Although, portrayed with the Christ Child touching his head in blessing, Lippi’s client probably didn’t mind not having any legs.

Fra Filippo Lippi, Madonna and Child with Donor and Saints, c.1435, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

In another of Lippi’s donor portraits – this time of the Coronation of the Virgin – the donor, Marghini, is depicted right in the thick of the scene, just behind John the Baptist.

Fra Filippo Lippi, Coronation of the Virgin, 1441-47, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Fra Filippo Lippi, Coronation of the Virgin (detail)

Marghini is the same size as the sacred characters and he has been allowed to join them in witnessing the Virgin’s coronation in Paradise.

But again, Lippi seems to worry about showing us the donor’s legs. It seems that painting a donor’s body from head to toe is a breech of propriety.

To get around this he puts Marghini in a weird hole in the marbled floor of Paradise, so that he looms into the scene like a magician rising up from under the stage.



By the time Lippi’s son, Filippino, was painting donor portraits, the game had moved on apace.

Filippino Lippi, The Virgin and Child with Young St John and Two Saints, c.1494, Santo Spirito, Florence

Unlike his father, Filippino Lippi featured his clients well integrated in to the holy scenes they had commissioned. So Tanai de’Nerli and his wife Nanna Dina de’Capponi are pictured right inside his Virgin and Child with the Young St. John and Two Saints.

The two saints – Martin and Catherine – present the donors to the Virgin and Christ, Tanai is even privileged enough to have the back of his head cupped by Martin’s holy hand, almost pushing him physically deeper into the painting.

Filippino Lippi’s most audacious donor portrait, however, is the Carafa Annunciation, which depicts the Annunciation scene with St Thomas as intercessor to Cardinal Carafa.

Filippino places Carafa immediately next to the Virgin’s chair in the inner sanctuary of her room. He even allows his patron to interrupt the biblical scene. The Annunciation is called to a halt so that Mary, at the very point when the dove of the Holy Spirit is flying towards her, can glance towards Cardinal Carafa!

Filippino Lippi, Annunciation, 1489-91, Carafa Chapel, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome

Although the presence of a saint as intercessor would normally add decorum and designate the donor as a mortal outside the sacred scene, unfortunately here, St. Thomas seems rather pushy. He urges Carafa towards the Virgin with his left hand and seems to suggest that he is important enough to interrupt this pictorial conception of Christ.

However we look at this donor portrait, it’s certainly pushing the boundaries of propriety and one might argue that only a man as wealthy and powerful as Cardinal Carafa would attempt to get away with it.

This last painting shows the tensions that existed between the need to please a patron and the conventions of religious decorum. Whereas the ‘mini me’s discussed earlier in this post seem queer bordering on ridiculous, at least you get the feeling that the donor knew his place and was happy to stick to it – even if that meant being shrunken down or literally legless.

These later donor portraits, because of their greater realism, don’t have that same comical quality, but they don’t sit right for the viewer. Because what we’re looking at when we view a painting like the Carafa Annunciation, is more than just a nod to the patron who paid for it, it’s a serious show of ego that’s even more ridiculous to the beholder than painting him as a miniature person or as a man with no knees.

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Secrets and lies at the Florentine Foundling Hospital

Domenico di Michelino, Madonna of the Foundlings, c. 1446, Ospedale degli Innocenti di Firenze, Florence

Researching the record books of the Florentine foundling hospital reveals the many secrets that this institution kept over the centuries. Identities were often hushed up, hidden or only hinted at and the foundlings themselves were often left very little with which to reconstruct their pasts.

The archives of Florence’s foundling hospital – l’Ospedale degli Innocenti – provide often tragic accounts of parents forced to give up their children through poverty, famine and illness during the Renaissance.

However, in many cases, the circumstances leading to the abandonment of a child are shrouded in mystery. Sometimes the record books are silent regarding parentage; other times the identity of the abandoning parent is written in code, as if the institution was attempting to, at the same time, retain and conceal the secret of a foundling’s origins.

Andrea Della Robbia, Bambino (1 of 10), c.1463-6, Ospedale degli Innocenti di Firenze, Florence

The Innocenti opened its doors to the abandoned and unwanted of the city in 1445.

In its first few years, the hospital took in an average of 200 foundlings a year. By 1540, the numbers increased to almost 1,000 foundlings a year, as more and more desperate or unwilling parents called upon the charity to give their offspring the care that they couldn’t or wouldn’t give.

Detailed records exist for many of the foundlings left during this period. They describe when the child was discovered, their age and name, as well as details of every object and piece of clothing left with them. Sometimes parents also left a note explaining who the child was and what had forced the abandonment.

Bernardino di Antonio Detti, The Madonna della Pergola (detail), 1523, Pistoia, Museo Civico

Often parents left tokens with or instead of a note, such as coins, magic charms or devotional items strung around a foundling’s neck or tucked into the folds of her nappy. Many of these items served to protect the child from harm. It was fairly common practice in Renaissance Florence to adorn infants with a combination of amuletic and religious objects to keep evil spirits, illness and death at bay.

The collection of objects in the image shown left is typical. It comprises an Agnus Dei (a devotional object with powerful amuletic qualities), a cross-pendant, a branch of coral (believed to protect from plague) and an animal tooth (a popular amulet and teething aid).

Sometimes the offerings left with a foundling were used at a later date by parents to identify and claim their children in better times. Half-coins must have served this purpose – uniting the two pieces together would have made sure that the right infant was returned to the right parent.

But often, parents didn’t return and the meagre tokens they left would be all that the child had from which to construct an identity in later life.

Perhaps the badge of a saint, such as Jerome, gave a clue to the name of a parent. Or a token from a pilgrimage site in Rome or Naples told a child that their origins lay outside the city of Florence. Or perhaps these were just precious objects that had been at hand and contained no backstory at all. These scraps of history were often little to cling to but were all that a child was granted.

So what about the detailed records kept by the Innocenti? Could a foundling get some clues from those?

In some cases the record books for the Innocenti give detailed reasons for abandonment. They tell many a sorry story. The high demand for wet-nurses among the middle and upper classes meant that some poorer women were forced to give up their own babies to the hospital in order to sell their milk. Times of hardship and famine also saw an increase in admittances to the Innocenti and notes left by parents explain that widowhood, ill health or simply too many other mouths to feed had brought the child to the hospital’s steps.

Yet there are many instances when the records tell us nothing of the foundling’s origins. For this kind of silence and these kinds of secrets were permitted by the Innocenti.

Physically, the building itself allowed parents to remain anonymous. A font or crib was placed outside the hospital where foundlings could be placed in the middle of the night, safe from the prying eyes of neighbours. (By the seventeenth century, the font had been replaced with a ruota, or wheeled hatch that allowed people to deposit children unseen by the Innocenti staff who collected the child from the other side of the wall.)

The 17th century foundling's 'ruota' or 'wheeled hatch' at the Innocenti. During the Renaissance, foundlings were left in a font or crib.

Even when an Innocenti scribe had seen the person leaving a child they often recorded simply that that person had ‘said nothing’ – implying that there was a ‘no questions asked’ policy on the side of the hospital.

Occasionally we can see that the scribe knew the precise identity of the abandoning parent, but chose to keep it a secret. In the late 1520s a type of code language was developed enabling the Innocenti to record the secret origins of a child.

When a 6-month-old girl named Vaggia was left at the Innocenti by two women in December 1529, the scribe recorded her father’s name in code: ‘di pkfrp lpttknk’. This code language substituted vowels with whichever consonant followed in the alphabet.

So the code above translates as ‘di Piero Lottini’, or ‘Piero Lottini’s child’. The same code language also appears in the record books for the 1530s. Sometimes whole sentences are written in code, explaining the identity of a mother or father, their address and family circumstances.

This scribe found a way of recording details that previously went unrecorded. We can only wonder why he did this? It would be nice to think that these secrets were passed on to the foundlings themselves when they were old enough to want to find out who they were. Like many of the secrets kept by this centuries’ old institution, this is another one we’ll probably never know the answer to.

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