Just when you think you have seen it all, Florence is always ready to surprise you with something new and different. In June 2016, Tuscany’s regional capital reopened a fully renovated museum dedicated to the history of the Istituto degli Innocenti, possibly the oldest lay orphanage for abandoned children in the world, dating back to the beginning of the 15th century.
Standing in the very central Piazza della Santissima Annunziata, the Museo degli Innocenti, or Museum of the Innocents, will surprise you with its architectural grandeur and artistic treasures that delve deep into the dawn of the Renaissance. Just to give you an example, the building was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi (yes, the man who built the Cupola we all love!) and it represents one of the very first examples of the new architectural language that in the following months and years would go on to characterize the Renaissance in Florence.
For starters, you should know that the Innocenti Museum was conceived as a museum for children: descriptions and audio guides, both in Italian and in English, were written by children’s book authors. Along the corridors and the stairways, you will run into different art installations, such as “La storia nella matita”, a huge open book where kids can leave a message or a drawing. Moreover, the museum boasts the Children's workshop, a vast area that hosts family events and activities across the year. Be sure, children will love this place!
In order to illustrate the many facets of the heritage it holds, the Museo degli Innocenti offers its visitors three different theme-based routes: history, architecture and art.
The exhibition starts in the basement, which is dedicated to the history of the institution. Thanks to the videos and the interactive touch screens, you will get acquainted with the daily life of the children and nannies that inhabited the facility throughout the centuries. One thing you absolutely cannot miss at this level is the circular room with 140 small drawers all around, cherishing little identification objects (such as medals, badges and rings) documented with the date and name when the parents left the children at the institution.
The itinerary continues on the ground floor, where you will discover the architectural uniqueness of the Innocenti while wandering around its courtyards and porticoes. Needless to say, the leading role here is taken by Brunelleschi’s vision of Renaissance architecture, both in the external Loggia degli Innocenti and in the internal Cortile degli Uomini (that is, the Men Courtyard), but that’s not all! Take a moment to notice the iron window under the Loggia, used to receive the children from 1660 to 1875, and walk through the large Cortile delle Donne (the Women Courtyard) completed by Francesco della Luna in 1439 and recently renovated.
Upstairs, on the third level, you will find the large art section of the Innocenti Museum. The outstanding artistic heritage gathered by the institution throughout the years ranges from Sandro Botticelli’s “Madonna with the Child and an Angel” to Domenico Ghirlandaio’s “Adoration of the Magi”, while not forgetting Piero di Cosimo, Luca della Robbia and Neri di Bicci. Once again, let us give you some helpful advice: don’t miss the so-called Brunelleschi window, which overlooks the upper structure of the church ceiling (designed by our beloved architect, of course).
Last but not least, when visiting the museum you will have the chance to take a closer look at Andrea della Robbia’s “Putti”, or cherubs. Made of glazed terracotta, they have embellished the facade of the Innocenti since 1487. The ten artworks were recently restored and two of them are now on display in the Art section we just mentioned, while the other eight are back in their original setting.
What about that “plus one”? In 1493, a large rooftop terrace was built right above the Abituro dei Fanciulli (the actual Salone Brunelleschi) to function as a drying space. Well, today that drying space has become a rooftop cafe with astonishing views over the rooftops of Florence starring, in the distance, the beautiful Synagogue of Florence and Duomo’s Cupola! Spoiler alert, here’s a hint!
You should know that the rooftop cafe is open to the public (you don’t need to pay museum admission), although we really recommend that you do the whole Innocenti experience!
The hospital opened its doors to abandoned children in 1445 and since then, for over six centuries, the institution has been constantly evolving. From time to time it has adapted its activities and services to the needs of children and families, while always staying true to its historical mission of childcare. Today, the Istituto degli Innocenti has become a public company, focusing on social care and welfare services. Among the other things, since 1988 it has hosted the UNICEF Office Centre of Research, in support of UNICEF’s work for vulnerable children and women worldwide.
Have you had chance to visit the museum yet? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!
Cover image credit: Stefano Cannas - Visit Tuscany Social media team