A reflection on The Innocents of Florence

By Shauna McGinn

Humans are hard-wired to excavate; at worst, for quick gain that becomes harmful long-term, and at best — we hope — to learn something. We toil at archaeological sites, brushing and chiseling; we pore over brittle pages of old books, finding answers to questions we never thought to ask. In the case of the documentary The Innocents of Florence: The Quest to Save 600,000 Children by David Battistella, the object in question is a centuries-old painting, its layers providing an invaluable backdrop to religion, class, shame, and love in 15th century Florence.

The public square outside of the present-day Innocenti Institute. Courtesy David Battistella.

In present day, The Innocenti Institute is the name of an organization in the Tuscan capital that provides services to women and children in need. The painting the film is centered on can be understood as the Institute’s original logo, one that evolved as its structure and profile grew.

Commissioned by the Florentine Silk Guild in 1446 to artist Domenico Di Michelino, the work is titled The Mother of the Innocents. In the film, it’s referred to colloquially by art curators and admirers as “the Mother”, “her”, or “she” interchangeably. In a biblical image reminiscent of the Virgin Mary, the mother stands with small children huddled under her sweeping cloak, relishing in the comfort of her embrace.

The Mother of the Innocents. Courtesy David Battistella.

Throughout the course of the film, we come to learn that the painting was used as both a banner and an altar piece in the church on the Institute’s property (though the organization is secular). Since it was likely stationed in a public square in all sorts of weather and frequently moved, the signs of wear make its restoration a delicate, sometimes arduous process.

It was a symbol then, and it’s a symbol now; not just of motherhood and the value of protecting children, but also of the social safety net that we like to imagine did not exist in such robust form all those hundreds of years ago.

What I couldn’t stop thinking about — and what the film addressed from multiple angles — was how revered the Mother was in a time where women, even those in the upper echelons, lived with far fewer rights than they do today. I kept imagining women hurrying into the courtyard, desperate and scared, to leave babies they were often forced to abandon because of the stringent moral code that governed their lives. The Institute — a secular one, no less — stood in direct opposition to this.

Courtesy David Battistella.

All of this was conducted under the banner of the Mother, the ethereal and perhaps aspirational image of motherhood — the mother to those who did not and could not have their own. In a time where women were the lower class, a woman was the ultimate symbol of love, care, and hope for a world in which protecting innocent children could transcend the social landscape.

I thought, too, about how shame binds together the Institute’s history; the shame that led women to abandon babies, and the shame that then forced Florentines to create a safety net to address the problem. There was the shame of being an unwed mother, of being poor, of being a woman in a society that did not always treat women kindly. And yet, in spite of it all, here was a structure to reduce that shame — here was a painting used as a banner, stationed in a courtyard, paraded around to say, Here. Here is safe.

We restore things to learn, and what I believe The Innocents of Florence teaches us is that there are no excuses. The Institute’s beginnings make up what we would now call a grassroots social movement. In a society dictated by a strict social order, the founders made a space for those excluded and left behind.

Small details stood out to me, like how an ornate stone basin was crafted so that babies could be left discretely and more anonymously — a function that would now likely be deemed harm reduction. Where are our basins, so to speak, now? There was also the splitting of a coin as a means to one day connect an abandoned child to their mother, the hope being that one day each part would find its match. It was a rudimentary method that, though mostly futile, represented the belief in reunification, even amidst the fear of being ostracized.

Art restoration experts work on the Mother of the Innocenti. Courtesy David Battistella.

There is much to be learned from The Innocents of Florence: art history, the city’s social order in the 15th century, modern methods of art restoration — and the admirable cast of characters who do it. But perhaps ultimately, it’s this: there is no excuse. If the Innocenti Institute could be created then, structures similar to it can and should be created now.

Back then, shame and stigma were made known, etched into law and spoken aloud for all to hear. Now, they exist more covertly, engrained in the ways in which women, people of colour, gender and sexual minorities, and those living in poverty or with disabilities are still denied equal opportunities.

What can we learn from restoring a painting that is hundreds of years old, a painting of a woman sheltering children under her protective cloak? I believe it’s that caring for those left behind is not something that has evolved over time. It is, like our need to excavate, fundamental to the human experience; an impulse so powerful it transcends power, social class, and moral ridicule. And so we must continue to excavate it.