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For all of the progressive humanist ideals that made Florence the birthplace of an artistic Renaissance, during the 15th century it had a serious unwanted baby problem. Illegitimate infants were born across all social classes, to poor unwed mothers as well as wealthy noblemen (who sometimes impregnated their servants and slaves to produce wet nurses for the family’s legitimate child). The frequent solution was gruesome: infanticide.
“Go to the Ponte Vecchio, there by the Arno, and put your ear to the ground and listen: you will hear a great lament,” priest San Bernardino of Siena said in a sermon in Florence during the early 15th century. “What are these cries? They are the voices of the innocent babies thrown into your Arno and your privies or buried alive in your gardens and your stables, to avoid the world’s shame.”
Babies were abandoned in the streets, or left in open fields to be devoured by wolves. Humanist and devout Christian Florentines grew concerned as infanticide became more common, especially since according to their beliefs the souls of these unbaptized infants would remain in a hellish limbo state for eternity. An entire cemetery — Piazza del Limbo — was devoted to these unfortunate young victims.
Some Florentines felt obligated to help abandoned infants before they reached the Piazza del Limbo, by offering mothers who were clearly under duress an alternative. The Istituto degli Innocenti (Institute of the Innocents) was founded in Florence, and is currently celebrating its 600th anniversary of continuous operation as the first secular institution dedicated to the care of children. The festivities have included the recent premiere of a new documentary directed by Davide Battistella, The Innocents of Florence, commemorating the history of the institute and the conservation of the first painting it ever commissioned.
The film weaves back and forth from this painting to the history of the institute that it represents, uncovering centuries of stories parallel to the layers of patina being carefully cleaned from the canvas. The Innocents of Florence transports viewers into the archives of the Istituto degli Innocenti and the conservation studio, to see both archival ledgers and X-ray imaging.
The institute was established by the wealthy Florentine silk guild, who had a track record of funding social assistance projects and adopted the cause of illegitimate babies by creating a home for abandoned and orphaned children. The guild commissioned a young Filippo Brunelleschi (the architect who later designed the famous terracotta dome of the Florence Cathedral) in 1419 to plan a building where these infants could be fed, clothed, educated, and granted Florentine citizenship.
The original building designed by Brunelleschi (his first public commission) is still fully intact, down to the semicircular basin under one of the façade windows where mothers could anonymously deposit children.
The silk guild also commissioned local artist Domenico di Michelino to paint a processional banner for the young organization, to be used as a public image in parades. This was the first painting to enter the institute’s collection, which eventually included works by masters such as Sandro Botticelli, Luca della Robbia, and Domenico Ghirlandaio as part of its educational mission. These works, and others, are now on view to the public as part of an onsite museum.
Di Michelino’s painting, “Mother of the Innocents” (1446), is a nearly life-sized image of a young Madonna holding an outstretched silk cloak that shelters 16 children of various ages. She is their protector and champion, shielding them like the purpose-built institute recently constructed to do the same.
“It is still today what they consider their iconic symbol,” explains Elizabeth Wicks, one of the two conservators tasked with restoring the painting, in The Innocents of Florence. “It’s like the poster, and also it’s very important historically, because it shows the building behind which was their brand-new building.”
On a walk through the Innocenti Institute’s museum a few years ago, the painting caught the attention of Wicks and Jane Fortune, founder of the Florence-based Advancing Women Artists Foundation (AWA), a nonprofit organization devoted to identifying, restoring, and exhibiting art by women in Italian museum storerooms. “Mother of the Innocents” needed to be cleaned, and Fortune decided to fund its conservation by Wicks and a colleague, Nicoletta Fontani, despite the fact that the painting was not by a woman artist.
“[Fortune] was deeply interested in the Innocenti’s history because it was a place run by women, as early as the Renaissance,” Linda Falcone, director of AWA, told Hyperallergic. “We believe it is important to value forgotten works that tell ‘women’s stories.’”
Without spoiling the dramatic plot twist of The Innocents of Florence, conservators Wicks and Fontani found an unexpected, hidden image underneath the painting’s surface layer during the conservation process. Their discovery reinforced the fact that even as times changed, the institute clung to an image of a heroine savior coming to the rescue of innocent children.
“I think that the value [of the painting] is actually enhanced by what we found, because it makes the story richer,” Wicks says into the camera in The Innocents of Florence. “It makes the image more powerful, to me, that it was so important that they wanted to keep it going through the centuries.”
The Madonna stood steadfast, as the institute adapted to lower infanticide rates and new sets of needs. The windowsill basin once used for anonymously leaving children in the institute’s care was closed in 1875; as of 1989 the Brunelleschi-designed building has housed UNICEF’s International Research Center. Today, the building shelters expectant mothers and children in need, and houses a museum displaying six centuries’ worth of children’s stories that would otherwise go untold.
“It’s very difficult to find artwork that does not have a small or large story to tell,” Fontani, one of the conservators who worked on the painting, notes in The Innocents of Florence. “So there is the official story of the image that you see, and then there is the story behind the actual painting.”