The distinctive roundels on the Loggia feature white glazed terracotta infants on blue backgrounds. Set between the arches of the Loggia, the ten sculpted children have become the symbols of the Ospedale degli Innocenti. Sculpted figures in lunettes were often employed to distinguish a building’s façade from those of other similar structures in the city, but the Innocenti’s emphasis on the function of the hospital created an unprecedented level of clarity. The roundels represent the Innocenti as an institution, revealing a depth of history about the hospital’s segno, and stylistically, they speak to the mastery of Andrea della Robbia.
The infants in the roundels represent the Ospedale degli Innocenti’s segno. During the opening ceremony of the hospital in 1445 the rector Lapo di Piero Pacini wore a black robe adorned with a bambino on his chest. This insignia was also depicted on the lead reliquary box associated with the dedication of the church hospital, which was in 1451. The original version of the insignia featured a child being placed in a pila, a receptacle located under the loggia. This iconography clearly identified the child as a foundling and connected the segno with the mission of the hospital. In records in the Innocenti’s archives, an artist was paid for 104 painted bambolini on pieces of paper that could be attached to the foundlings’ chests. This repetitive imagery clearly establishes the image of the infant in the pila as a symbol of the Innocenti itself. The practice of relating the segno to the work of a specific institution was common, but the emblem of a child was unprecedented in Florence.
The image of the Innocenti’s segno changed over time, and after 1460 was represented as a standing swaddled infant, which was more easily reproduced than the infant in the pila. The recognizable symbol was found on two volumes of Ricordanze in hospital archives, paired with the symbol of the Silk Guild. This iconography can be associated with the Christian tradition of holy figures, such as Christ, the Virgin Mary, and John the Baptist being represented as swaddled infants. The tight swaddles communicate safety and security, which the hospital provides its foundlings. This is the image that is portrayed on the roundels. These swaddled infants resemble putti, which, combined with Brunelleschi’s architecture, visually connect to the putti reliefs on Donatello’s tabernacle of Sant Louis of Toulouse.
The ten roundels represent a similar segno but each contain creative differences. The first and tenth roundels depict infants with a contrapposto pose and a bent arm to accommodate the capital of the pilasters. The other infants have both of their arms out, and the even numbered roundels depict infants looking left and the odd ones looking right. Although Andrea della Robbia seems to follow this pattern, each of the infants differ in facial expression and depiction of their bodies. The second infant exposes his foot, and the ninth infant has a brown cloth under the swaddling. On the fifth roundel, the infant’s bands fall, exposing his male genitalia. On the tenth infant, the swaddling falls to his knees, perhaps indicating the growth of a child. These creative variations to the official segno and the brilliant blue background are masterful.
In his History of Florence (1423), merchant Goro Dati described the Innocenti and praised its insignia, which shaped how the Florentine people perceived the institution and its function. The swaddled infant as an emblem was unprecedented and developed over time to become a recognizable symbol. Andrea della Robbia’s roundels reflect this desire to establish an official insignia, and his work at the Innocenti became famous in its own right.
Domestici, Fiamma. Della Robbia: a Family of Artists. Florence, SCALA, 1992.
Henderson, John. The Renaissance Hospital: Healing the Body and Healing the Soul. Yale University Press, 2006, 72-77
National Gallery of Art. Della Robbia: A Closer Look. https://www.nga.gov/features/della-robbia-a-closer-look.html#item1_8
Presciutti, Diana Bullen. Visual Cultures of Foundling Care in Renaissance Italy. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd, 2015, 73-100.