Monday, August 4, 2008

Foundling Hospital

The Foundling Hospital (known in Italian as the Ospedale degli Innocenti) stands in the Piazza SS. Annunziata, Florence. As its name indicates, it was a refuge for abandoned or orphaned children. Around 1419, over a century after the foundation of the institution, the powerful Guild of Silk Merchants and Goldsmiths (Arte della Lana) funded a new building to house refectories, dormitories, infirmaries, and nurseries, all joined with cloisters and porticoes. Designed by the ubiquitous artist Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446), the new ospedale was a seminal achievement, representing a change not only in how architecture looked but also in the way in which the building industry was structured. Some scholars hail it as the first Renaissance building and its author as the sole instigator of those changes, the pioneer of a new phase in western European architecture.

The humanism of the Renaissance should never be confused with humanitarianism. Neither should accounts of urbane courtly life be thought of as accurately reflecting the entire social structure. On the contrary, the Renaissance was socially divisive at many levels, even within the family, regardless of class. Children, especially, were victims of a value system that often counted them as chattels whose sole reason for being was to perpetuate a particular dynasty or expand social and political power by strategic marriages. If they could not be put to such use, they were at best ignored; at worst, they were literally abandoned. Although little was done to overturn the attitudes that created this problem, many institutions were set up to care for foundlings. But in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, throughout Italy and most of Europe the orphanages could hardly provide for the number of rejected children. The Foundling Hospital was one such refuge that took them in, raised them, and taught them a trade.

Although he was trained as a goldsmith, a series of events in his native Florence early in the fifteenth century caused Brunelleschi to decide to go to Rome, where for about three years he made a detailed archeological study of ancient monuments. After dabbling in clock making and civil engineering, he turned toward the art of architecture. Untrained in the building profession like the contemporary mason-architect, who was the inheritor of medieval traditions and who to some degree physically built what he designed, Brunelleschi was an artist-architect, independent of long-standing trade and craft conventions. He was therefore able to devise, largely through his own intuition, different ways to build. Moreover, producing his oeuvre several decades before the formal architectural theories of the Renaissance had developed, he was also independent of the unbending “correctness” of later philosopher-architects. In the right place at the right time—the fertile intellectual seedbed of quattrocento Florence—he was free to create a beautiful amalgam, a culturally appropriate new architecture, by reinterpreting classical elements within the graceful tradition of Tuscan Romanesque.

Given the Florentines’ admiration for anything of classical Rome, it is hardly surprising that the Foundling Hospital is replete with classical motifs. The loggia, doubtless the most familiar aspect of the building, is drawn from the porticoes that surrounded the Roman forum; like most Roman temples, it stands on a platform above the general level of the piazza. Slender columns, with Brunelleschi’s version of Corinthian capitals, support a light, cross-vaulted arcade (incidentally, constructed without scaffolding). Classical moldings abound, and there is an entablature of shallow classical profile. The rectangular upper-story windows have triangular pediments, and the facade is crowned with a classical cornice. The elements of the loggia—indeed, most of the building’s exterior—are defined with the beautiful gray-green stone known as pietra serena. The round-arched loggia was a familiar element in fourteenth-century Florentine buildings, including hospitals, and Tuscan architecture had long been characterized by the emphasis of structure through the use of darker bands of stone: for example, in the Pisa Cathedral group or San Miniato al Monte in Florence itself.

The interior spatial articulation of the Foundling Hospital is based upon a porticoed courtyard. It is Roman-like, its larger apartments and service rooms symmetrically disposed about an axis. The outer loggia unites it all as well as tying the whole building to the piazza. In the spandrels between arches, Andrea della Robbia (1435–1525) later added colored faience medallions portraying babies in swaddling clothes.

Although he used a Roman architectural vocabulary, Brunelleschi’s syntax (to continue the analogy) was decidedly un-Roman. The rigor of archeologically correct classical grammar would emerge in the so-called High Renaissance, whose architects would never carry (for example) an arch on a column, because that had not been the Roman way. In fact, the delicately proportioned esthetic of the Foundling Hospital owes as much to medieval precedent as to classical models. Brunelleschi may have confused his chronology, because his contemporaries had a skewed view of history. The architecture of ancient Rome was not republican (as the Florentines wanted to believe) but imperial, and Romanesque was certainly not Roman.

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