The Spedale degli Innocenti, sits elegantly on the beautiful Piazza della Santissima Annunziata in Florence is certainly one of the most renowned Italian landmarks and a staple of Western architecture. I recently visited this wonderful space, shortly after its long awaited restoration.
The hospital portico
Its story is interlinked with that of the city and although changes don’t occur so drastically it is said that it is this building that started the architectural Renaissance. As I often like to remind in my blog, the late Middle Ages, what would eventually become the Renaissance, were not at all a bloody age dominated by selfish tyrants and murderers as tv shows like to portray, certainly life conditions were not as privileged as nowadays but this was also when the Church and those in power were interested in commissioning great art but also infrastructure for the needy, and often these could be combined together, the Spedale degli Innocenti is a primary example.
The Spedale degli Innocenti (Hospital of the Innocent) was founded as a foundling hospital in 1445 as a response to the rising problem of infant abandonment, a fact that was increasing mostly because of affairs between nobility and servants and also because the poorest families could not afford their offspring. The problem eventually came to the attention of the patrician families of Florence and especially the Church which was concerned about the abandoned children who often went unbaptised and died prematurely. In the first centuries the hospital was strongly supported by the reigning dynasty of Florence, the Medici family.
Detail of Corinthian capitol in the portico with Della Robbia Roundel
Construction began in 1419, Francesco Datini, a silk merchant from Prato, left a sum, for the construction of a portico by Filippo Brunelleschi, it is said that crowds would gather to admire this new building in the classical style in what was then a mostly Gothic city - the grand and harmonic portico with a series of classical arches, Corinthian columns and topped with Della Robbia roundels of swaddled babies, the symbol of this charitable foundation, was the pride of a civilised Renaissance society: beauty for good.
Madonna degli Innocenti, Domenico di Michelino, 1440
The hospital, which still operates on a smaller scale also has a rather good art gallery, with works accumulated through the centuries as donations, most reflecting the theme of the hospital's call. The gallery is found in the complex of the Spedale designed by Brunelleschi, commissioned by the Wool and the Silk Guilds of Florence: the cloisters, dormitories, refectory and rooms - a rational and elegant space despite its history. Although most artworks were sold in the 19th century, the collection still preserves some astonishing works.
Sandro Botticelli's Madonna with Child and an Angel
Among them some Madonnas of the Innocenti, an iconography created for this hospital with Our Lady protecting the innocent foundlings under her cloak, a beautiful Madonna with Child and an Angel, by Sandro Botticelli, a melancholic work inspired by a previous, similar work by Filippo Lippi, the “Lippina”, in the nearby Uffizi Gallery, an eclectic Conversation of Saints with Our Lady by Piero di Cosimo, a pupil of Filippino Lippi, one of the most fascinating and extravagant artists of High Renaissance Florence, inspired by the masterpiece of the gallery, and like that one, designed for the hospital chapel.
Piero di Cosimo's Sacred Conversation with Saints
On 28 October 1485, Francesco di Giovanni Tesori, prior of the hospital, signed a contract with the renowned artist Domenico Ghirlandaio, for an altarpiece for the hospital chapel, Santa Maria degli Innocenti, the subject being the Adoration of the Magi, a popular iconographic theme at the time. The work had to be a tempera on panel altarpiece, with approximately no intervention of the artist’s workshop, as it used to be customary, to avoid any changes on the original drawing approved by the commissioner. As agreed the altarpiece was completed after thirty months for a sum of 115 florins. In 1917 it was removed from the church and placed in the gallery where it dwells currently.
Domenico Ghirlandaio's Adoration of the Magi
The Adoration of the Magi is set in a modern composition, already experimented by Botticelli and Leonardo, the work is also very remindful of Ghirlandaio’s Tornabuoni Chapel in Santa Maria Novella, Mary is set in a pyramidal construction with the child Jesus and the other characters.
Detail of the central scene
At the base of the imaginary pyramid are two Magi kings in the act of kissing Jesus’ foot, the third is on the left offering a decorated chalice as a gift. According to Christian iconography they represent the three ages of man: youth, maturity and the old age.
Detail of Saint John the Baptist with an innocent child
Squatting at their sides are Saint John the Baptist, inviting the spectator into the scene and symbolically pointing to Jesus, and on the other side is Saint John the Evangelist, presenting a wounded child to the Virgin Mary, another child is on the opposite side with the Baptist, they are a clear reference to the Massacre of the Innocents and also to the hospital foundation.
St. Jon the Evangelist with an innocent child and a Magi king
Surrounding Our Lady are also Saint Joseph, watching the Christ vigilantly and the rather beautifully rendered ox and ass. The stable is made of an incomplete brick wall, a common 15th century rendition, symbolising the now destroyed Paganism, surrounded by four classical pilasters, decorated with grotesques and with Corinthian capitols, holding a simple roof made of straw. Above are four angels holding a banner reading the Gloria in Excelsis, representing how the scene bonds earth and heaven together and how Christ is the link between them, being adored by his people and being praised above by the company of heaven.
Detail of the angels singing the Gloria
On the left are other bystanders, among them the commissioner of the work, in black and Domenico Ghirlandaio himself looking towards the spectator. On the right instead are members of the Magi’s cortege, richly dressed, they also represent members of the Silk and Wool Guilds of Florence, great benefactors of the institute.
Detail of the commissioner and portrait of Domenico Ghirlandaio
The cortege is very long and in the background there is an ancient arch, another reference to the pagan world, reading the date of the work: MCCCCLXXXVIII (1488). It is interesting to notice that for the five horses were used the same drawings, minus minor variations. In the background it is possible to see the flying Angel announcing Christ’s birth to the shepherds.
Detail of the Magi's cortege on the right
The background, properly Renaissance, is a fascinating landscape with a lake with ploughing ships, hills, mountains and an imaginary view on Rome, symbol of classicism, with the main monuments: the Colosseum, the Trajan Column, the Milizie Tower and the Pyramid of Cestius. The attention to the detail on both jewels, dresses and the background are inspired by the influence of Flemish art.
Detail of the background
The lower predella, painted by Bartolomeo di Giovanni, from Ghirlandaio’s workshop consists of scenes from the life of Mary: the Martyrdom of Saint John the Evangelist, the Annunciation, the Marriage of the Virgin, the Presentation of Jesus to the Temple, the Deposition, the Baptism of Christ and last Saint Antoninus (one of the protectors of Florence and Bishop) consecrates the Church of Santa Maria degli Innocenti.