Ospedale degli Innocenti (Foundling Hospital)
Piazza della S. Annunziata, Florence, Italy




Filippo Brunelleschi (fee LEEP oh brew na LES KEE)



TEXT Beneath Illustrations

Click on illustrations for larger size -- and additional information


Terra cotta by Andrea della Robbia


Detail - loggia

Barrel arches with supporting tie rods

Wrought iron gate to inner courtyard

Inner courtyard

The portico of the Hospital of the Innocents is the first organic creation of Brunelleschi (1421-240) and it marks the birth of Renaissance architecture in Florence.

In spite of the fact that Brunelleschi knew of and much admired Roman building techniques, and even though the dome of Florence Cathedral is his most outstanding engineering achievement, his solution to this most critical structural problem was arrived at through what were essentially Gothic building principles Thus, the dome, which also had to harmonize in formal terms with the century-old building, does not really express Brunelleschi's own architectural style, which is shown for the first time in a project that he began shortly before he accepted the commission of the dome - the Hospital of the Innocents.

The universal fascination of antiquity was evidently both aesthetic and social, aesthetic in so far as the forms of Roman architecture and decoration appealed to artists and patrons of the fifteenth century, social in so far as the study of the Roman past was accessible to the educated only. So the artist and architect who until then had been satisfied with learning their craft from their masters and developing it according to tradition and their powers of imagination, now devoted their attention to the art of Antiquity, not only because it enchanted them but also because it conferred social distinction on them.

So strongly had this revival impressed the scholars from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century that they called the whole period that of rebirth, "rinascita" or Renaissance. Early writers by using this term meant the rebirth of art and letters in quite a general sense. But in the nineteenth century - a century of unlimited period revival - the emphasis was laid on the imitation of Roman forms and motifs. In re-examining the works of the Renaissance today, one must, however, ask oneself whether the new attitude towards Antiquity is really their essential innovation.

The very first building in Renaissance forms is Filippo Brunelleschi's Foundling Hospital, begun in 1421. The Foundling facade consists of a colonnade on the ground floor with delicate Corinthian columns and wide semicircular arches letting enough sun and warmt penetrate into the loggia, and a first floor with generously spaced moderately sized rectangular windows under shallow pediments corresponding exactly to the arches beneath.

Ten medallions in coloured terra cotta by Andrea della Robbia - the famous babes in swaddling clothes - are placed into the spandrels of the arcade. A subtly scaled architrave divides ground floor from first floor.

These arches appear to have been inspired either by the Baptistery of Florence Cathedral or by the church of San Miniato al Monte, both Romanesque buildings. In Brunelleschi's time, the Baptistery mistakenly was believed to be a Roman temple, but even if he had known that it was not Roman, Brunelleschi may well have mistaken it for an Early Christian building of the fourth or fifth century, constructed in a style that he associated closely with Classical Roman architecture and that had just as much authority for him.

He modified, however his probable Romanesque models in important ways - for example, by framing the round arches of the last bay at each end of the hospital's facade with pilasters, a venerable Roman motif that Brunelleschi would certainly have encountered often on his visits to Rome in such ancient monuments as the Colosseum.

The hospital also expresses quite a different style from that of the Florence Baptistery and San Miniato. The stress on horizontals, the clarity of the articulation (the height of each column is the same as the distance between the columns and also equal to the depth of each bay), and the symmetry of the design, combined with the use of Corinthian capitals and fluted pilasters, as well as second-story windows topped by Classically inspired pediments, create an impression of rationality and logic that, in spirit at least, relates the Ospedale degili Innocenti more to the architecture of Imperial Rome than to that of Romanesque Florence.

The whole building is arranged horizontally without in any way overstressing its stability. The arrangement of the slender delicate members is almost linear, forming a single apparently weightless plane

By the door in the center of the portico we enter the hospital courtyard.


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Photos and their arrangement 2002 Chuck LaChiusa
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