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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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