Two of Florence’s oldest museums have recently re-opened after undergoing renovations. Jane Fortune visited them to see the new improvements and finds that they capture all that is best of Florence’s art heritage
Left, clockwise from top right: Inside the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo; Donaltello’s Penitent Magdalene; The Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore Musuem (Image: Sailko, CC BYSA 3.0); Detail of Michaelangelo’s
Florence Pieta; The restored Medieval facade; (All images: Antonio Quattrone, Courtesy of the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo); Brunelleschi’s Dome (Image: Claudio Giovannini, Courtesy of the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo)
An idea forged in 13th-century Florence continues to inspire wonder today. In 1296, the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore was established by the Florentine Republic to supervise the construction of the Cathedral (the Duomo). It is the fourth largest cathedral in the world and contains the world’s largest masonry dome, consisting of four million terracotta bricks. Brunelleschi’s dome is 180 feet above ground, it weighs 37,000 metric tons and one must climb 463 steps to reach it. The dome, whose interior recalls the Sistine Chapel, has no supporting framework and is an architectural masterpiece, and to many - a miracle.
Florence’s ‘New’ Duomo Museum
The recently revamped Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore Museum, reopened in February 2016, is located on the eastern side of the Piazza Duomo and spans over 6,000 square yards. The museum, located in an ancient palazzo that once housed the headquarters and workshop of the Cathedral Works, now consists of twenty-five rooms, on three floors. It is truly an exceptional treasure-trove of art, spiritual inspiration and history. One of the museum’s most interesting new features is its fourstory life-size reconstruction of the Cathedral’s medieval facade, which was torn down in 1586.
The museum itinerary begins at the Teatro Niccolini, the first “modern” theatre in the city, founded in 1648; there, visitors can watch an introductory film featuring museum highlights as well as other monuments within the Santa Maria del Fiore Complex, including Giotto’s Bell Tower, the Baptistery of San Giovanni and the Crypt of Santa Reparata. The museum opens onto a space that was once the courtyard where Cathedral Works sculptors worked. Indeed, it was where Michelangelo carved his celebrated David, now housed in the Academia.
The original museum, inaugurated on May 3, 1891, was comprised mainly of sculptures. It now provides an incredible glimpse of over 750 statues, including such Renaissance masters as Luca Della Robbia, Verrocchio, Cennini, Michelozzo, Donatello and Brunelleschi. The venue’s stateof-the-art lighting dazzles and illuminates each artist’s works, so that the statues look as if they were stepping out of the shadows!
Other masterpieces viewable are the recently restored gaunt and emaciated wooden statue of the Penitent Magdalene (1453-1455) by Donatello, and Michelangelo’s Florence Pietà, an unfinished marble group that the artist, according to Vasari,
had intended as his own funeral monument. Michelangelo was 72 years old when he began working on this piece. The face of Nicodemus (under the hood) is considered a self-portrait.
After twenty-seven years of restoration, one can also see the ten breathtaking Renaissance relief panels, from what Michelangelo first dubbed ‘Gates of Paradise’, as he likened the gilded bronze doors to the gates of Heaven. Lorenzo Ghiberti created the panels for the east Baptistery doors between 1425 and 1452. Six of the ten panels were ripped off the 17-foot bronze doors by the ferocious force of the Arno River as it ravaged Florence on November 4, 1966. The octagonal baptistery, with its magnificent mosaic ceiling (1225) is one of the oldest buildings in Florence and was constructed between 1059 and 1128. Visiting this ‘new’ museum should be on everyone’s bucket list.
The Museum of ‘The Innocents’
Now a fascinating museum, the Ospedale degli Innocenti was the first foundling hospital in Europe that would care for abandoned infants from Florence and the surrounding countryside for more than five centuries. Opened in 1445, it is the oldest public institution in Italy.
This historical ‘ospedale’ was built in 1419 by Filippo Brunelleschi, the architect who also created the famed dome for Florence’s cathedral. It was initially funded with 1,000 florins, bequeathed by Francesco di Marco Datini (1335-1410), a wealthy merchant from Prato. He selected Arte della Seta, Florence’s Silk Guild, to supervise its construction and the administration. The silk guild was one of the wealthiest in the city and took on many philanthropic endeavours, the Innocenti being one of them. It was the guild that gave Brunelleschi the commission and he directly supervised the first phase of its construction from 1419-1427.
Brunelleschi intended his portico to represent an opening onto the city, which was both welcoming and protective and would symbolically recall ‘the family’. The portico is one of the first examples of early Renaissance architecture and a ‘must see’ for tourists, for Piazza Annununziata is one of the most beautiful squares in Italy. The Basilica della Santissima Annunziata, founded in 1250, stands on the north-eastern side of the square. The church’s facade, added in 1601, imitates Brunelleschi’s facade of the founding hospital.
The babies were originally left in a marble basin, in the loggia’s front portico. The basin was removed in 1660 and replaced with a door with a rotating wheel (ruota), very much like a lazy Susan. When it swivelled around, this mechanism brought the baby into the building, so the parent
could safely leave the child without revealing his or her identity. Once removed from the wheel, the child was swaddled and placed in a manger-scene crib and set between life-size ceramic statues of Mary and Joseph, in adoration. The children were raised at the institute, as a family, until the age of 18. (In modern-day Italy, those with the common surname ‘Innocenti’ are thought to have ancestors raised at the ‘ospedale’).
The ruota is on the left side of the building at the end of the Loggia. This system lasted until the hospital closed in 1875. The epigraph below
its window states: “For four centuries this was the Wheel of the Innocents, a secret refuge from misery and shame for those to whom charity never closed its door.”
The Innocenti was responsible for the care of the abandoned children and for providing them with the ability to contribute to society. Often, they were entrusted to foster families, and returned to the institute upon turning seven. Boys were taught reading and writing and frequently became tradesmen in local bottegas. The girls were more likely to remain at the institute their whole lives, running the institute or working for the silk guild. The hospital did provide dowries for the girls if they wanted to marry or become nuns.
After three years of restoration, the new Museum of the Innocents reopened its doors in June 2016. Housed within the centuries-old Institute degli Innocenti, the public can now glimpse into six centuries of the institute’s history. The new museum, consisting of four floors, is now over 15,000 square feet, and has 4,800 square feet of exhibition space. The old gallery, located above the cloisters, was composed of two separate cloisters, one for men and one for women who worked in the hospital. The gallery consisted of only a few rooms on the top floor, which was originally used for drying the children’s clothes. The top floor is now an outdoor cafe, which has a fantastic view of the city! Visitors can appreciate the building’s Brunelleschi-designed architectural spaces and view such masterpieces as Botticelli’s superb
Madonna and Child with an Angel, painted when the artist was 20; Domenico Ghirlandaio’s richlydetailed and colourful Adoration of the Magi; Piero di Cosimo’s beautiful Enthroned Madonna
Brunelleschi intended his portico to represent an opening onto the city, which was both welcoming and protective and would symbolically recall ‘the family’. The portico is one of the first examples of early Renaissance architecture and a ‘must see’ for tourists
and Child and Andrea Della Robbia’s exquisitely glazed terracotta reliefs of swaddled babies against blue backgrounds, which were commissioned in 1490. The ceramic medallions were removed from their roundels on the portico’s facade and are now in a room within the museum where they can be seen ‘up close and personal’, before they are returned to the roundels later this year. Some medallions are copies while others are originals.
The Innocenti’s Historical Archive kept records of all of the children who lived at the institute. Through years of archival research, historians have reconstructed stories of seventy of the more recently abandoned children and brought their stories ‘to life’ through video-documentaries. Many of the abandoned children had distinct objects attached to their clothing or body, such as a necklace, so if the parents ever returned, they could identify and claim their child. Coins or charms, often cut in half, were frequently left with the babies. In the new museum, 140 of these “identity markers” are stored in individual drawers, which can be opened and viewed. The museum is very child-friendly. For example, the labels describing all the works are placed at a height that allows a child to read them.
Though the orphanage has been closed for over 140 years, the Innocenti Institute continues to be a point of reference for youngsters. It offers services to children, pregnant mothers in difficult situations and mothers with young children. It also helps promote the rights of children, providing them with medical services in addition to a daycare centre and library. The Innocenti Institute and UNICEF’s Global Office of Research, which has been housed there since 1988, have coestablished a research library on childhood. Since 1997, the institute has been Italy’s national centre for documentation and analysis of childhood and adolescence and it advises the Italian government on relevant policies, both for healthcare and for education. This exquisitely beautiful building is truly an institution of hospitality and love.
Don’t miss Mother of Mercy, a painting on the ground floor, where Mary is shown holding her cloak out wide to protect the orphans surrounding her. This precious painting, recently restored, was used as the institution’s professional banner in processions. The youngest children in the front are swaddled in white, while the older ones in the back wear the orphanage’s black cloth uniform, with a badge of a swaddled child, attached to their lapels.
Above, left: Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise (Image: Ricardo André Frantz, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Above, right: Panel with the story of Abraham from the Gates of Paradise (Image: Sailko, CC BY 2.5) Right, top: The Male Cloister at the Ospedale degli Innocenti (Image: Joanbanjo, CC BY-SA 3.0) Right,middle: Inside the newly opened museum (Image: Antonio Quattrone, Courtesy of the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo) Right, bottom: Exterior of the Ospedale degli Innocenti (Image: Warburg, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Left, top: Mother of Mercy (Image: Giancarlo Barzagli, Courtesy of the Museo Innocenti)
Left, below: The Adoration of the Magi by Domenico Ghirlandaio. (Image: Giancarlo Barzagli, Courtesy of the Museo Innocenti)