Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Madonna of Mercy with Foundlings
  • Creator: Domenico di Michelino, painter
  • Description:

    This work, produced by Florentine painter Domenico di Michelino (1417-91), was commissioned by the city of Florence and its silk guild for the Ospedale degli Innocenti, a charitable institution providing shelter and care to orphans and foundling children. The Madonna degli Innocenti follows an archetypal model of the Madonna of Mercy which was a popular subject for Italian artists throughout the 15th century. Here under the cloak draped over her outstretched arms, the children of the hospital seek protection from the Virgin and the charitable institution she represents. These supplicants are divided into three age groups distinguished by their dress and size. The youngest, at the lowest level are swaddled tightly in white cloth according to their ability to stand. The intermediate group are dressed in short, white tunics, their hands holding up the youngest boys. One child grasps Mary's dress and looks upward toward her face. The eldest children, indicated by their black garb with the swaddled infant insignia of the Ospedale, mostly clasp their hands in prayer and look reverently upward. All are clothed in decent garments, not rags, and are well-nourished. These children, while ostensibly without parents, live comfortably thanks to the intercession and protection of the Mother of Mercy.

    The scene takes place before the portico of the hospital, a well-known architectural monument designed by Filippo Brunelleschi and completed in 1426. The arcade of rounded arches draws on the heritage of classical antiquity to confer a gravitas to the institution and its work. The roundels shown in the painting as empty were filled in 1487 with terracotta figures of swaddled infants made by Andrea della Robbia. The Ospedale was founded by the Prato merchant, Francesco Datini, with his legacy of one thousand florins in 1419. In his will he wrote: "...in order to increase the alms and devotions of citizens, rural dwellers, and others who have compassion for the boys and girls called 'throwaways' and so that these little children shall be well fed, educated and disciplined.” (Gavitt, 1990, p. 52) Though Datini and his wife raised his daughter, Ginevra, whose mother was an enslaved woman, he had no male heirs to inherit. He arranged instead to have his business enterprises dissolved in order to fund his charitable bequests. Datini in point of fact bequeathed his money for foundlings to the Florentine hospital, Santa Maria Nuova. The amount by itself was not sufficient to build a new hospital, but authorities at Santa Maria Nuova did nothing with the funds for ten years. Members of the Florentine silk guild, a powerful and well-financed group, then intervened with the Commune of Prato to take over the project.

    In January 1445, the Ospedale opened its doors for business. taking in foundlings and orphans. Three years later the administrators reported that they had more than 260 infants placed with wet nurses in the countryside and the numbers were increasing daily. While girls rather than boys were more likely to be abandoned at the Ospedale (1445-1466), their survival rates were generally lower than those of male infants. Hospital officials had to check on wet nurses regularly and records document frequent cases of inadequate care and infant deaths. When children reached the age of weaning, they went to live with foster parents. Around the age of four they returned to the Ospedale for further care and education. Some were reclaimed by a parent or adopted, while the rest, often by the age of seven or eight, were put to work, boys in apprenticeships and girls as servants or weavers. Girls received a small dowry, indicating the priority the Ospedale placed on the creation of new families and a reinforcement of the city’s population following waves of plague.

    Recent scholarship suggests that the painting may have been carried in public processions accompanied by children from the institution. In this way Florentines would connect the care of young children with the Ospedale, represented by its signature architecture. Agostino di Porto described this during a celebration of Saint John the Baptist in the city in the early 1450s:
    After I had been there a while, the procession started to move past. The first thing
    was the three [foundling] hospitals, and each one had its cross and banner: the
    first was San Gallo, and the second was the Scala, and the third was the Innocenti.
    First came the cross, then many loads of tiny children in big baskets covered all
    over with flowers and they all had garlands on their heads. Each of these hospitals
    had many loads and behind them, two by two, came all the wet nurses, and it was
    a devout and moving sight. Behind them followed the friars of each hospital with
    their rectors and priests and relics and other adornments. (Presciutti, p. 32)

    Furthermore, in the painting the love and compassion shown by the Virgin Mary, with both arms outstretched, was a promise of salvation not only to the foundlings but also to all those who supported the work of the Ospedale. The older children engaged in prayer reminded viewers of the benefits of those prayers on their behalf coming from young innocents under the protection of the Virgin.

  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Charity Children Florence- Ospedale degli Innocenti Hospitals Madonna of Mercy Mary, Virgin, Saint in Art Orphans Patronage, Ecclesiastical
  • Geographic Area: Italy
  • Century: 15
  • Date: Late 15th century and heavily restored in the first half of the 16th century
  • Related Work: Selected architecture and artworks from the Ospedale degli Innocenti in Florence.
    Portico designed by Filippo Brunelleschi for the Ospedale degli Innocenti in Florence.
    Two of Andrea della Robbia’s terracotta figures of infants from the portico of the Ospedale degli Innocenti in Florence.
    Jacopo Bedi (attributed), Madonna della Misericordia, ca. 1450, Italy, Gubbio, Museo Civico. Painting made for the hospital of Santa Maria dei Laici in Gubbio which provided care for foundlings, poor people who were sick, and pilgrims. Members of the hospital’s confraternity cover their faces to avoid taking pride in their good works.
    Benedetto, Bonfigli, Madonna della Misericordia, 1464, Italy, Perugia, Church of San Francesco al Prato. Banner made for the church in Perugia affirming the Virgin’s protection from the plague.
    Domenico di Bartolo, Care and Marriage of Foundlings, 1442-43, Italy, Siena, Ospedale di Santa Maria della Scala, Sala Pellegrinaio. Detail of Infants and wet nurses.
    Paintings by Domenico di Michelino, Wikimedia Commons.
  • Current Location: Florence, Ospedale degli Innocenti, inv. AFS 236479
  • Original Location: Florence, Italy
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images ; Paintings
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Canvas; Oil paints
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 160/100/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources:

    Asperen, Hanneke van. "The Sheltering Cloak: Images of Charity and Mercy in Fourteenth-century Italy." Textile: The Journal of Cloth and Culture 11, 3 (2013): 262-281. Available in Academia.edu: https://www.academia.edu/5228172/The_Sheltering_Cloak_Images_of_Charity_and_Mercy_in_Fourteenth_century_Italy

    Brown, Katherine T. Mary of Mercy in Medieval and Renaissance Italian Art: Devotional Image and Civic Emblem. Routledge, 2017.

    Crabb, Ann. The Merchant of Prato's Wife: Margherita Datini and Her World, 1360-1423. University of Michigan Press, 2015.

    Gavitt, Philip. Charity and Children in Renaissance Florence: The Ospedale degli Innocenti, 1410-1536. University of Michigan Press, 1990.

    Gavitt, Philip. "The Reinvention of Childhood in Everyday Life: Observations on the Recent Renovation of the Museo Degli Innocenti." Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth 11, 3 (2018): 303-323.

    Levin, William R. "Advertising Charity in the Trecento: The Public Decorations of the Misericordia in Florence." Studies in Iconography 17 (1996): 215-309.

    Presciutti, Diana Bullen. Visual Cultures of Foundling Care in Renaissance Italy. Ashgate, 2015.

    Pullan, Brian. Tolerance, Regulation and Rescue: Dishonoured Women and Abandoned Children in Italy, 1300–1800. Manchester University Press, 2016.