An in­ter­view with film­maker DAVID BAT­TIS­TELLA

by Linda Fal­cone, Di­rec­tor, Ad­vanc­ing Women Artists Foun­da­tion

Timeless Travels Magazine - - ITALY -

AWA: Tell us about the In­no­centi In­sti­tute and what it was like to film there.

DB: We are the first non-Ital­ian film crew and only the sec­ond ever to film in­side the In­no­centi ar­chive which hosts hun­dreds of thou­sands of doc­u­ments. Through­out its 400-year his­tory, close to 600,000 chil­dren were saved. As an or­phan­age, the In­sti­tute was ac­tive un­til the 1950s. As early as 1421, the In­no­centi would anony­mously take in aban­doned chil­dren, most of whom were girls. Some of these ba­bies had been born out of wed­lock; there were also in­stances of wealthy peo­ple im­preg­nat­ing ser­vants to use as wet nurses for their own chil­dren, aban­don­ing the ser­vant’s child. Once a child was left at the In­sti­tute, he or she would be named, reg­is­tered and bap­tised al­most im­me­di­ately and given Florentine ci­ti­zen­ship.

AWA: What ben­e­fits did they get from be­ing cit­i­zens of Florence?

DB: This is im­por­tant be­cause, ac­cord­ing to the Re­nais­sance men­tal­ity, aban­doned ba­bies who were not bap­tised, ended up in Limbo, which was a fate worse than death or even Hell. It was a mys­te­ri­ous place that no one un­der­stood and ev­ery­one feared. So, not only did the In­no­centi save the child in body, they saved its soul, be­cause they made cer­tain it would no longer be des­tined for Limbo. These chil­dren were given a sur­name and, even if they didn’t sur­vive, at least they would go to Heaven (or not end up in Limbo!) In Florence, the In­sti­tute be­came their fam­ily so they took the fam­ily name, In­no­centi. Else­where in Italy at this time, these chil­dren were named ‘Foundlings’ or worse, Bas­tar­dini (lit­tle bas­tards). In Florence, they were called ‘In­no­cents’, who de­served a chance at life, even in the af­ter­life.

AWA: The In­no­centi is one of the ear­li­est or­phan­ages in the world; I’ve also heard you call it a “wet nurs­ing busi­ness”.

DB: Es­sen­tially, yes. Un­til the ad­vent of pas­teurised cow milk, breast milk was the only way to feed ba­bies, so women were of­ten hired from the coun­try­side and they would take the ba­bies to live with them. Some would live at the In­no­centi and pro­vide ser­vices to the In­sti­tute. They would have been paid 50 soldi a month. Agatha Smer­alda, the first child reg­is­tered at the In­no­centi in the mid-fif­teenth cen­tury, had three wet nurses, but she did not sur­vive to her

first birth­day. Of­ten the women would take on a child, take the money and use it to feed their own chil­dren. These women were mal­nour­ished them­selves. The in­fant sur­vival rate was very low, dur­ing some pe­ri­ods as low as ten per­cent of chil­dren sur­vived, nonethe­less they tried des­per­ately to save them.

AWA: What can you tell us about ‘Madonna of the In­no­cents’?

DB: The In­no­centi chose the fig­ure of a young mother of child-bear­ing age to rep­re­sent the in­sti­tute, and be its ban­ner or logo. For Chris­tians, this would have meant see­ing a young Madonna, as she opens her cloak to shel­ter ba­bies, but we need to re­mem­ber that her cloak was made of silk be­cause the In­no­centi was founded by Florence’s silk guild. The In­sti­tute was founded as a lay or­ga­ni­za­tion, and while she can be seen as a Bib­li­cal Madonna, rather than hold­ing the Christ Child, she is pro­tect­ing six­teen chil­dren. She is the “Madonna of the In­no­cents”. The paint­ing shows three age groups: new-born ba­bies in swad­dling clothes, older tod­dlers break­ing out of their rags, and then, young chil­dren, wear­ing smocks. So, the paint­ing rep­re­sents these chil­dren’s chance, not just to sur­vive but to thrive. The In­no­centi did not just want to save ba­bies; it wanted to feed, clothe and ed­u­cate them. That was typ­i­cal of the Hu­man­ists.

AWA: What do you want peo­ple to take away from your film The In­no­cents of Florence?

DB: I want peo­ple to un­der­stand that there are cer­tain val­ues we haven’t lost. There are ex­am­ples of real sys­tems that were put into place in the Re­nais­sance, in the wealth­i­est city in the world, Florence. I would like peo­ple to tune into the fact that wealthy Florence was con­cerned about its most frag­ile cit­i­zens, for their soul, health, well­be­ing and life. It wanted them to be part of their great so­ci­ety, so much so, that as soon as a child was given to the In­no­centi, they would re­ceive Florentine ci­ti­zen­ship. So, there was a model for this kind of so­cial as­sis­tance, and this is still some­thing we talk about in the news me­dia on a daily ba­sis. It wasn’t less com­pli­cated then, but they tried to cre­ate real so­lu­tions.

AWA: Do you feel your film ‘re­stores’ his­tory?

DB: I’ve sim­ply re­alised that we can look at an ex­am­ple from the past and it can be use­ful to us. It is a tragedy to watch a build­ing crum­ble or to see art­work de­cay, but the great­est tragedy is to lose a phi­los­o­phy of an en­tire pop­u­la­tion. We need to pre­serve their way of think­ing, the idea of run­ning a so­ci­ety, based on a hu­man­ist phi­los­o­phy cen­tred around what it meant to be a cit­i­zen and how they ex­pe­ri­enced so­ci­ety through beauty… the beauty of the city scape, the beauty of its art. I do not look at the past for the past’s sake. I look at it in con­nec­tion to the mod­ern

con­text and what it has meant to have mod­ern women con­serv­ing this piece. So, I wouldn’t say I want au­di­ences to come away with one thing. This film sim­ply opens up a kind of thought process, of what it means for all of us to be hu­man and to oc­cupy this planet to­gether. For the hu­man­ists, be­ing a hu­man be­ing was of ut­most im­por­tance; a fun­da­men­tal value.

AWA: What was it like to make this movie?

DB: It was a pro­found ex­pe­ri­ence. We were look­ing at a his­tor­i­cal con­text where women gave up their chil­dren, where or­phans fought for sur­vival, and women have truly been at the fore­front of this restora­tion, just like they were at the fore­front of the In­no­centi In­sti­tute. I learned a lot from watch­ing the restora­tion, see­ing these con­ser­va­tors go­ing over a can­vas inch by inch, to make sure that it was cleaned and re­stored. It was like a par­al­lel process, the in­sti­tute was do­ing what the re­stor­ers were do­ing. And these par­tic­u­lar con­ser­va­tors showed such gen­tle­ness and pa­tience. I don’t know of too many men who can do that kind of de­tailed daily work. But women are will­ing to do that, to care for a piece like that. And the men say: ‘Let the women do that’. As I man, I don’t know if I could go over that can­vas in such painstak­ing de­tail. I would never call con­ser­va­tion ‘women’s work’, but I do recog­nise that it takes a spe­cial brand of pa­tience, that these women, in par­tic­u­lar have taught me and I cre­ated the film with those lessons learned.

AWA: How has the project en­riched you as a doc­u­men­tary maker?

DB: My cam­era was there to film El­iz­a­beth Wicks and Ni­co­letta Fon­tani as they found the big­gest high­light of their ca­reer, with a rolling cam­era pointed right at them. That’s what doc­u­ment­ing is, that is why I am a doc­u­men­tary maker… El­iz­a­beth told me that, when she was restor­ing a work by Michelan­gelo, she found a thumbprint in­side the piece! Then she said that find­ing the se­crets be­hind the In­no­centi Madonna was even more mem­o­rable than that. Es­sen­tially, the two re­stor­ers found an­other work be­hind the Madonna’s painted sur­face. Their restora­tion changed the paint­ing’s at­tri­bu­tion, and there­fore, changed its life. But I don’t think it changed the im­pact of the image. Ni­co­letta says that to work a mas­ter­piece that’s beau­ti­ful and fa­mous is a won­der­ful ex­pe­ri­ence, but that to be in­volved in a process like this one, means they have to delve deeper and find new things.

Left: It was the gaze that cap­tured them. Con­ser­va­tor El­iz­a­beth Wicks and AWA Founder Jane For­tune looked into this Madonna’s eyes and felt she was hid­ing a se­cret. In­deed she was... At Florence’s In­no­centi Mu­seum, The Madonna of the In­no­cents was adopted as a fullscale restora­tion, and now the project’s dis­cov­er­ies have been re­vealed in a full-length fea­ture film by David Bat­tis­tella, pre­mier­ing in Florence (and around the world) this Spring Be­low: El­iz­a­beth Wicks and Ni­co­letta Fon­tani work­ing on the paint­ing

Left: The re­stored paint­ing, Madonna of the In­no­cents

Be­low: David Bat­tis­tella

Be­low, bot­tom: Each baby was left with some­thing to iden­tify the mother. These are now part of the mu­seum dis­play. (All im­ages by David Bat­tis­tella)

Be­low, mid­dle: A reg­is­ter of the ba­bies handed in to the con­vent from 1465-1469

Be­low, top: An early paint­ing of the In­no­centi

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