Before our last week in Florence came to an end, we visited the ‘Ospedale degli Innocenti’ or ‘Hospital of the Innocents’ which now houses the ‘Museo degli Innocenti’ or the ‘Museum of the Innocents’. The museum and hospital were built by Filippo Brunelleschi and still stand today as a major symbol in Renaissance art and architecture. During the 1400s through the late 1800s, families who were unable to care for their children or who did not want children, could anonymously leave their children at the Hospital of Innocents. A statue of the Virgin Mary pointed towards an empty manger, instructing families to place children there before turning the wheel that would allow them to go inside.
The parents and families had the option to come back for their children when they found they could care for them or the parents could choose to leave their children at the facility for the duration of their childhood. The family could tell which child theirs was by leaving a specific memento with the child. The hospital collected the mementos and cataloged them with the children’s names because this was the only way for parents to retrieve a child. The children at the Hospital of Innocents were cared for by nuns and educated by the Catholic church before being adopted or released at the age of seventeen. If the family never came back, the child was taught a trade so he or she would have a livelihood as an adult. Brunelleschi’s goal for the hospital was to provide a center for abandoned children to work, learn a skill, become educated, and feel a sense of spiritual nourishment under the roof of this religious establishment.
During our visit to the museum, we saw several boxes full of documentations about the mementos. Each document had the name of a child, the year they were left, and the memento that accompanied them. Many of the mementos were things like small buttons, pieces of jewelry, or figurines. It was thought-provoking to see each of these items and think about the children who were left with them.
Since 1444, thousands of children have called the Hospital of Innocents home and received an education in this elegant building. Currently, the building’s operations include a preschool and a facility to care for disadvantaged pregnant women. In addition, it is a research center for UNICEF. The portion we toured contains artwork and history so that the names and the stories of these children will never be forgotten.
At first, the purpose of the Hospital of Innocents seemed like a foreign concept to us, however, we remembered communities in Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania have begun to install safe haven baby drop-off boxes at fire stations and hospitals. As a last resort, these boxes are designed for mothers of newborn babies who cannot care for the child and want to leave them at a designated safe place while remaining anonymous. We believe these safe haven baby drop-off boxes should be more prevalent in the United States because they save lives and give desperate mothers a safe option for their children.