At the north end of the loggia of the Ospedale degli Innocenti (Hospital of the Innocents), stands a poignant reminder of what was once an all too common practise in Florence.
This is the spot where, for more than 200 years, babies were abandoned by their parents to the care of the hospital. The fresco above the grated window depicts two foundlings and a telling quotation from the Book of Psalms, "Our father and mother have abandoned us, but the Lord has taken us in." (Psalm XXVI).
When it was opened, in the middle of the 15th century, the Ospedale degli Innocenti was the world's first purpose-built hospital for abandoned babies, the so-called innocenti or nocentini.
The hospital, which was dedicated to Santa Maria degli Innocenti, took in its first baby (a girl) on February 5th, 1445. As February 5th is the feast day of Saint Agatha, the baby was given the name Aghata. She was also given a second name, Smeralda (emerald), for good luck.
Abandoned babies were passed (often anonymously) through a grated window and placed on a cushion. It is thought that the cushion may have been flanked by statues of Mary and Joseph so that the abandoned baby would have resembled Jesus in the crib at the nativity. A bell would then have been rung to attract the attention of the duty-officer.
A message or a token of some kind was often left with the baby, which would enable someone to prove that he or she had left the child, should they ever wish to reclaim it. This information was always carefully noted down in the hospital's records. The archives contain thousands of messages and small items such as coins, rings, hair clips, crucifixes, rosary beads, buttons, pieces of fabric, etc.
In 1465 the yearly intake of foundlings stood at 200, but twenty years later it had reached 1,000.
In 1660 the grated window, which was originally positioned elsewhere in the loggia, was moved to the north end, where it remained in use until June 30th 1875, by which time the yearly intake was in excess of 2,000 babies.
The last two innocenti (a boy and a girl) to pass through the window were given the names Ultimo Lasciati and Laudata Chiusuri. Both babies had been left with half a medal and a note to say they had been christened.
The Ospedale degli Innocenti houses a fascinating museum, which provides a graphic insight into the workings of an institution which, for centuries, played such an important role in the city of Florence.