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'The Innocents of Florence'

An interview with David Battistella

A 600-year-old painting leads two art conservators in Florence on a journey uncovering the city's forgotten children and the women who saved them. The Innocents of Florence, a Florence-based documentary by Italian Canadian filmmaker David Battistella spotlights the Renaissance quest to save 600,000 children.

Ph. David Battistella, Detail, Madonna of the Innocents

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.

Detail, Madonna of Innocents created as the banner for the Innocenti Institute in 1446

Ph. David Battistella

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.

The painting's restoration became the catalyst for Battistella's feature-length documentary

Ph. David Battistella

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.

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.

Restorer Elizabeth Wicks restoring the Innocenti Museum's Madonna of the Innocents

Photo: David Battistella

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.

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 centered around what it meant to be a citizen and how they experienced society through beauty… the beauty of the cityscape, 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.

'The Innocents of Florence, film poster, 2019

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.

How has the project enriched you as a documentary maker?

DB: My camera was there to film Elizabeth Wicks and Nicoletta Fontana 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.


David Battistella has made Florence his home since arriving from Canada in 2011. He has made several films set in Florence covering subjects of daily work, faith, art history, and photography, as well as the work of Florentine artisans and contemporary artists. Pictured here at the Florence premiere of 'The Innocents of Florence' (Teatro della Compagnia, 2019).

This article, by L. Falcone, was originally published in

Inside AWA magazine, Spring edition, 2019.


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