Visitors to the Museo degli Innocenti in Florence gaze on one of its stunning examples of Renaissance artwork. (Stefano Casati)

The first visitor to Florence’s Ospedale degli Innocenti in 1445 probably didn’t spend much time appreciating the view — although it’s a heck of a good one. The structure, with its grand loggia and perfectly proportioned columns, is considered to be the original example of Renaissance architecture.

But you can forgive a newborn for not being all that impressed. The baby girl was left anonymously by someone who stuck her through the iron grate over a window. And with that, she became a ward of the “Hospital of the Innocents,” a secular institution uniquely dedicated to the care of abandoned children.

As we approach the same spot this summer, I tell my toddler daughter that she has nothing to worry about. It’s quite a different experience for new arrivals today, especially since the Museo degli Innocenti opened its doors in June. The one thing that hasn’t changed: Kids still get free admission.

The museum is an ambitious undertaking a decade in the making, explains chief curator Stefano Filipponi.

There has always been something to draw people to the building, which served as an orphanage until the 20th century (and continues to be a center for early-childhood education and research). Architecture fans come to admire Filippo Brunelleschi’s pioneering design, just a few blocks north of his most famous masterpiece — the dome of the Florence Cathedral. History buffs seek out the window that infants were passed through up until 1875. And art lovers marvel at the top of the facade, which is lined with Andrea della Robbia’s beloved terra-cotta babies in swaddling clothes.

Until recently, however, all anyone could see of the inside was a small gallery devoted to the Innocenti’s most important artwork.

With the new museum, the goal is to tell a comprehensive and compelling story by intertwining the building’s layout, art collection and archives. You may think you’re only curious about one aspect, Filipponi says, “But when you walk in, you get interested in the rest.”

Visitors start off in a lower-level exhibition area with modern, gray corridors that are the result of an international design competition. That’s a nod to the place’s Renaissance roots — artists back then routinely faced off for commissions. So it’s a fitting setting for the museum’s “history trail,” which goes back 600 years to when the Arte della Seta (Silk Guild) embraced the humanist idea of providing a place exclusively for the care of children and began work on Brunelleschi’s building.


One of Andrea della Robbia’s beloved terra-cotta babies in swaddling clothes at the Ospedale degli Innocenti. (Mauro Sani)

A major challenge in presenting this past is the lack of preserved objects. “When things were old, they got rid of them,” Filipponi says. Most of what remains is artwork, which is used to introduce the individuals and beliefs that shaped the development of the institution. We see a portrait of Don Vincenzo Borghini, the hospital’s prior from 1552 until 1580, solemnly gripping a book. He’s known for encouraging boys to pursue painting and sculpture. (The girls — who were always the majority of the population — focused instead on the “domestic sciences.”) A gilded reliquary and a marble bust of the Virgin Mary help us understand changes that arose during the Counter-Reformation, when religion magnified in importance.

This kind of material doesn’t immediately lend itself to younger visitors, as I learn when I tour the place with my friend Liz, who brings along her three kids. My toddler is too young to ask questions, but her 4-year-old immediately blurts out a toughie: “Why did parents leave babies here?”

For these situations, thank goodness for the audio guide, which has separate recordings for adults and children. (Like everything in the museum, it is available in both Italian and English.) Press a button to hear a perky voice explain that the place was called a hospital because it offered “hospitality” to kids who “could not stay with their parents for one reason or another.”

Beneath each of the descriptive panels is larger, simplified text geared to kids. But the tech-savvy set probably will skip ahead to the tempting interactive touch screen highlighting the details of a 17th-century fresco by Bernardino Poccetti. The real deal is located in a part of the building that’s not accessible to tourists, so this is the only way to see the image’s many details of daily life during that period.

With the exception of the far left side, which depicts King Herod’s massacre of the innocents — the namesakes of the institution — “this is like a photo,” conservator and curator Eleonora Mazzocchi says. So the screen zooms in on each section and delivers relevant information. For instance, a group of boys in tall hats gathered around a dining table accompanies the fact that “the basic food was bread and even the children drank wine.”

Another room is devoted to the beads, coins and other objects that were left with abandoned babies. The idea was that parents could describe these “marks” to identify their offspring in the future, although reunions were rare.

Because of improved archival techniques in the 19th century, more than 100 marks have been preserved. They’re stored in a sort of giant filing cabinet, with drawers labeled with the name of the child and the date he or she arrived. Pull one open, and light illuminates the object inside.

One of Liz’s 10-year-old twins spots a date she recognizes: her best friend’s birthday (albeit nearly 200 years earlier). She examines a little scrap of white cloth bound by brown string and the top half of a metal medallion with stars on the border.

Her sister has already taken a seat at the adjoining table, which offers another way to connect with the Innocenti as individuals. When babies were dropped off, staff recorded notes on the circumstances — anything known about the children’s parentage, what they were wearing, what marks had been left. As years passed, they added information on major life events and stored it all in volumes called “Balie e Bambini,” which translates as “Wet nurses and Babies.”

Each touch screen on the table offers a virtual library of these books, so visitors can read the summarized stories of 60 different babies from across the centuries. The first is, of course, that newborn who arrived the day the hospital opened, on Feb. 5, 1445. Alas, Agata Smeralda died at the hospital later that year, after having been sent to three different wet nurses.

Others were more fortunate, such as Lucia Caterina, who was left on March 23, 1446. She was adopted at age 8 by a Florentine leather merchant, who provided a dowry when she married in 1470. Not having enough money to land a husband was one of the major reasons girls were more likely to be abandoned than boys.

It’s through these examples that the museum touches on some of the more nitty-gritty issues, such as how wet nursing worked (or didn’t) and why families sometimes left legitimate children.

The 10-year-olds find it all fascinating, and so do I. That’s why I wind up on the phone a few days later with Philip Gavitt, a history professor at Saint Louis University and author of the book “Charity and Children in Renaissance Florence.”

His research helps further explain the societal conditions that led to the need for the hospital and the typical routine for babies who ended up here: Immediately after arrival, they would be tended to by in-house wet nurses until they could be placed with one located in the countryside. Once children were weaned, at about 2 years old, they would come back. Ideally, they would then be fostered by a family for a few years. The next goal was adoption or placement in a job, a much easier trick with boys than girls.

Over the centuries, living conditions were upgraded, as museum visitors can appreciate in pictures taken in 1899 that showcase that era’s latest innovations. Touch screens designed to resemble albums let us flip through images of a spick-and-span dining hall and a terrace for enjoying fresh air, as well as an isolation ward where infants with syphilis were bottle-fed sterilized cow’s milk.


A walkway inside the Ospedale. The building, designed by pioneering architect Filippo Brunelleschi, opened in 1445. (Mauro Sani)

The final part of the history exhibition doesn’t debut until the end of the year — although as a preview, the museum offers four video interviews with adults about their Innocenti memories. It’s likely that there will be at least some mention of one of the most famous 20th-century residents: director Franco Zeffirelli, who moved in at age 6 after his mother’s death. (The filmmaker referenced this in his semi­autobiographical film, “Tea with Mussolini.”)

But there’s plenty more to see, starting with an inside look at Brunelleschi’s building. Without the audio guide’s descriptions of the thinking behind the architecture, and how it fit the needs of the hospital, this is essentially a ramble through two pleasant courtyards, a nice break before heading into the art gallery.

That the collection boasts gorgeous works by famous folks, including Botticelli, is fairly standard in Florence. What makes it special, Mazzocchi explains, is that it was all made specifically for the institution.

Take the Innocenti’s most revered masterpiece, Domenico Ghirlandaio’s “Adoration of the Magi,” which awaits visitors at the end of the hallway with its eye-catching jewel tones. In the foreground are two of the babies killed by King Herod. One is beside Saint John the Baptist (patron saint of Florence), the other is next to Saint John the Evangelist (patron saint of the Arte della Seta). Just as when this painting graced the altar of the Innocenti church, it is displayed above a predella, which shows a series of scenes. The one on the far right takes place in the building’s loggia.

Finding these connections could be a nice way to engage older kids. Mine is at an age where she likes to point at babies in paintings and say “baby,” which is pretty much how we experience the gallery on our visit. We also pass by images of Mary nursing Jesus, bouncing him on her lap and taking him from an angel (that last one is the Botticelli).

The showstopper is Luca della Robbia’s “Madonna and Child,” one of the first sculptures created in glazed terra cotta, which is a medium that della Robbia invented. The figures, both depicted in a pure white that appears to glow, gaze out with soulful expressions. This was once in the altar of the women’s church, Mazzocchi says, where wet nurses and female foundlings prayed before it.

Luca’s nephew Andrea later used this same glazed terra-cotta technique to create the 10 swaddled babies that were added to the building’s facade in 1487 and instantly became the symbols of the Innocenti. They still are — the museum offers a booth for visitors to pose for photos as a swaddled infant.

These sculptures have been enormously influential, explains my friend Rachel Boyd, who is writing her PhD dissertation on the della Robbia workshop. They quickly inspired similar decorations on buildings across Florence, which you can’t miss while walking around the city. And they’ve been reproduced not just on touristy souvenirs in Italy, but also all over the world. In the United States, check out the seal of the American Academy of Pediatrics for an example.

What captures everyone’s attention, she thinks, is that they almost seem real, with distinct poses and expressions that people fall in love with. That’s despite the fact that for centuries, the only way to admire these “putti” — as they’re called in Italian — has been to stand beneath the loggia and crane your neck to the sky.

That’s why one of the coolest things about the opening of the museum is that the putti are putting in an appearance at eye level. It’s just a temporary exhibit located off the art gallery. In November, they’re slated to return to their usual perch, so there’s only a brief opportunity to get a look at the details, such as the modeling of their hair and the lines in the palms of their hands.

You already know my daughter’s reaction to all of this: “Baby! Baby! Baby!” In this case, it feels appropriate.

We climb up one more floor to the Verone, an upscale, sit-down-only cafe on a roof deck, in a space that was once used for drying swaddling clothes. The laundry had an excellent view — the Duomo rises up on one side, the hills of Fiesole on the other.

And there’s chocolate cake on the menu. Apparently, the Museo degli Innocenti knows something about taking care of children.

Hallett is a freelance writer living in Florence.

If you go
Where to stay

Four Seasons Hotel Firenze

Borgo Pinti, 99

011-39-055-26261

fourseasons.com/Florence

For an Annie Warbucks-style night, take a short walk up the street from the museum to this urban resort that sits beside its own sprawling, private garden. Inside is Florence’s most pristine playground, complete with miniature animal topiaries. Rates start at around $440.

Florence Dome Hotel

Via Cavour, 21

011-39-055-0881480

florencedomehotel.com

Comfortable, spacious rooms and an impressive breakfast spread sets this budget option apart. And the location is a kid’s dream: It’s next to a huge toy store. Rates start at around $70.

Where to eat

Due Sorsi & Un Boccone

Via degli Alfani, 105/r

011-39-334-2640931

duesorsieunboccone.it

Just around the corner is this cute-as-a-button shop where massive sandwiches cost about $5 each. Customize your own from its selection of quality ingredients, or opt for the daily special when you can’t make up your mind. If you grab your food to go, you can enjoy your picnic in Piazza della Santissima Annunziata.

Fuoco Matto

Via Ventisette Aprile, 16

011-39-055-495140

fuocomatto.it

This modern eatery known for its tasty pizza boasts an ideal setup for families with young kids. Toward the back, there’s an indoor playroom with a slide, a rocking horse and an assortment of other toys — so parents can enjoy their prosecco in peace. Expect to pay $9 to $11 for a pizza or pasta, and up to $22 for a second course.

What to do

Museo degli Innocenti (Institute of the Innocents)

Piazza della Santissima Annunziata, 13

011-39-055-2037308

Istitutodeglinnocenti.it

The museum is open seven days a week, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. The cafe, which you can visit without a ticket, has the same hours. Regular admission is around $8, or around $6 for people over 65 or between the ages of 12 and 18, and free for kids age 11 and younger. A ticket that includes the audio guide is around $11 (or around $9 for seniors and teens). Family tickets and other group discounts are also available. An elevator makes most of the museum stroller- and wheelchair-accessible. The lower-level bathroom has a changing table.

Information

firenzeturismo.it/en

— V.H.