Around the Piazza degli Innocenti: the Santissima Annunziata, the rotunda and the Ospedale degli Innocenti
|Piazza degli Innocenti
The Santissima Annunziata, the mother church of the Servites (servants of the Virgin), is dedicated to the Assumption of Mary.67 The church was built as early as 1234 on the site of a pre-existing monastery. Michelozzo, whose brother was prior here, carried out an extensive renovation of the church and the monastery between 1444 and 1455. The church was, and is, primarily famous for a painting of the Annunciation that was completed by an angel, but more about this painting when we visit the church on the days dedicated to the art of painting. The first inner courtyard, the chiostro dei Voti, was also designed by Michelozzo and features quite a large number of frescos.
Giovanni Battista Caccini designed the portico on the square between 1559 and 1561. Brunelleschi’s biographer, Antonio Manetti, also collaborated on the portico. His name can be found on the middle arch. If you think away the Baroque layer that was applied in later times, you will see the original work. The interior was built by Michelozzo, Pagno di Lapo Portigiani and Antonio Manetti.
|Piazza degli Innocenti, the loggia of the Santissima Annunziata
photo: Jaime Perez
The basilica with three aisles that is customary in Florence (Santa Maria Novella, Santa Croce), now becomes a church with side chapels on both sides. Each side chapel has a passageway on either side, enabling the churchgoer to walk towards the crossing along the axis on which the chapels are located (see floorplan). In this regard, the side chapels actually serve as a traditional side aisle. By no means a luxury, considering the large number of visitors who come to light candles and pray at the panel of the Annunciation. This painting was not only miraculously completed by an angel, but is thought to still perform miracles today.
|Faithful, priest and chapel
photo: Mattew Mobb
ALberti used the design of this church for his famous Sant’Andrea church in Mantua. The floorplan of the Santissima Annunziata also greatly influenced Baroque architecture. Vignola, for instance, was clearly inspired by this Florentine church when he designed Il Gesu, the first Baroque church in Rome.
The Rotonda of the Santissima Annunziata
After the nave and the crossing, the churchgoer encounters the choir and, to their surprise, discovers a round choir with a cupola, also known as a tribune or rotunda.68 Something quite different from the choir in the Santa Maria Novella or the Santa Croce. The ideal of a central design arose during the Renaissance.
photo: Richard Mortel
The construction of the choir of the Santissima Annunziata was a difficult process. Heated debates took place: exactly what form was the choir supposed to have? Michelozzo started building the choir between 1444 and 1453. His design was a round edifice with a dome near the main choir of this church. Michelozzo’s design was based on the classical round temple of Minerva Medica located in Rome.
A heated polemic broke out: the opponents said this shape was not suited for a Christian church, because in antiquity a round building with a dome was exclusively used as a tomb for emperors. A famous example is the Santa Costanza in Rome. So it was not so much the shape, but rather the link with traditional imperial customs that was used as an argument against Michelozzo’s work. In addition, the Rotunda with its dome showed structural weaknesses.
In 1569, when the work had already been halted for 15 years, Lodovico Gonzaga asked Alberti whether he would like to take on the construction of the Rotunda. Gonzaga from Mantua was the man who financed this round building. In his book ‘De re Aedificatoria’, Alberti had already made clear that a circular floorplan was highly preferable because nature has a preference for the round form: “Nature, after all, strives for absolute perfection, she is the best and divine teacher of all things.69
Alberti’s ideas on central design, just like those of later architects, were inspired by classical buildings, although hardly on temples.70 Renaissance architects believed that many ruins with circular or polygonal floorplans were classical in origin. This also applied to the San Stefano Rotunda, the Santa Costanza, the octagonal Lateran Baptistery in Rome and even the Baptistery in Florence. These were classical temples that were only later converted into Christian churches. We find but a few central floorplans among Vitruvius’ designs. And yet, Renaissance architects regarded the central design as classical. Alberti’s ideas hark back to antiquity, and also played an essential role in the design of the Pantheon. Cicero wrote about the perfect form, the circle, as the reflection of the cosmos.
Filarete, who wrote his ‘Trattato di architettura’ after Alberti’s ‘De re Aedificatoria’, explains in his book why he is such a strong proponent of circular buildings:
|‘The eye can behold the entire curve, without its view being interrupted or hindered. […] the circle has a calming influence on the human spirit.’71|
“Alberti’s kosmic – philosophical approach to the circle as the perfect form, is supplemented here by Filarete’s psychological and optical approach.”72 Alberti was enthusiastic about Michelozzo’s design: a round building all’antica. He takes charge of the construction. We know that Alberti was involved in the project until at least 1477.
De Rotunda is a round hall with a dome supported by a thick wall incorporating eight chapels. This meant the Santissima Annunziata became a church with two totally different forms: a straight and rectangular one connecting to the round form of the choir. Not everybody was enthusiastic about this. Vasari strongly disapproved, because:
|‘[…] “she [Teg: Rotunda or tribune] lacks charm, regardless of whether it concerns big things or little things, and can never be beautiful this way. And that this is true of big things is proven by the fact that the huge arch that gives access to the tribune is beautiful when seen from the outside, but when one looks at it from inside the chapel appears to be falling inward, because it had to curve round in conformity with this chapel that is also round, causing it to give an exceptionally cumbersome impression. Perhaps Leon Batista (Alberti) would not have done it this way if, in addition to theoretical knowledge, he had also had practical experience in construction […]”|
Giorgio Vasari, ‘The lives of the great painters, sculptors and architects, from Cimabue to Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, 1990 volume I page 225 (original edition 1568).
The Ospedale degli Innocenti
The foundling hospital, the Ospedale degli Innocenti, is named for the innocent children that Herod had killed after he learned that a new king had been born.73
The 13th century saw the rise of the spedali, these were orphanages, hospitals or hospices for the homeless, the most important of which was the Santa Maria Nuova. The spedali were based on monasteries. They were surrounded by walls and featured a porta del martello, a door with a heavy knocker where the visitor could announce his arrival. During the 14th century, it became customary to build an open loggia facing the street or the side of a square. This is where visitor and patient would often meet, or the patient in the loggia could look at the world outside. The oldest surviving spedale is San Matteo, the present-day Academia: the museum housing Michelangelo’s famous David. The construction of a spedale was a public affair. The silk guild, the Arte della Seta, already owned two spedali: Spedale di Santa Maria della Scala and the Spedale di Santa Maria a San Gallo. Both were too small and too far removed from the city. So the decision was made to build a new, and bigger spedale. The San Gallo was to be integrated into the new spedale. You can still see evidence of this today in the inner courtyard, the Chiostro degli Uomini, where the symbols of San Gallo, such as a ladder and a cock can still be found.
| Ospedale degli Innocenti
Youtube Brunelleschi Ospedale degli Innocenti and Cosimo de Medici (6.18 minutes)
The construction history of the foundling hospital
One Francesco di Marco Datini bequeathed a thousand florins for a ‘spedale gittadelli bambini’.74 The money was really intended for the Santa Maria della Scala, but the silk guild received permission to use the money for the construction of a new spedale for children. With this money and an additional 700 florins, the Arte della Seta busy a large parcel of land with a garden on the east side of the Via dei Servi. The silk guild decided that the total construction costs for the new orphanage were not to exceed 20,000 florins.
Florence’s rapid growth during the 14th and 15th century leads to a growing need for spedali. In 1419, the Arte della Seta decided that a new spedale was to be built: the Ospedale degli Innocenti. Apparently, the stone model for the cupola of the Duomo that Brunelleschi had created together with Donatello and Nanni di Banco in a competition with Lorenzo Ghiberti had greatly impressed the silk guild. Brunelleschi worked on the plans for the foundling hospital from 1419 up to 1427. Brunelleschi’s original plan was eventually drastically altered after his departure in January 1427.75 According to the original plan, the logia comprised nine cubes with hemispherical domes on top. The loggia featured three doors. The middle one led to the inner courtyard and the offices. On the left is the door to the church and on the right the door to the hospital. Brunelleschi had planned only two adjoining bays (one on each side), but two more were added later. When the arches of the loggia had been completed, a temporary roof was installed in 1426 for protection. We know from historical sources that Brunelleschi received his ‘per resto’ salary, his final payment, on 29 January 1427. He would not work on the Ospedale again after that date.76 He was probably extremely busy with other assignments. Despite initial scepticism, the design for the cupola had made a strong impression and assignments were pouring in.
The expansion of the Ospedale degli Innocenti after Brunelleschi’s departure
The executive of the silk guild met in the summer of the year 1427. We know how much the executive paid for its meals, and that the painter Gherardo di Giovanni received money for his design.77 Unfortunately, the sketch on parchment was lost. At the meeting, it was decided to substantially extend Brunelleschi’s somewhat limited plan. The limited layout that Brunelleschi had made, presumably to minimize costs, proved to have substantial disadvantages. It lacked a separate kitchen, dining hall and laundry. These were probably to be housed in the cellars. A separate space for women was required and therefore also a second inner courtyard: a cortile delle Donne.
|inner courtyard woman
Also needed were washing accommodations, a refectory for men, and kitchens. These additions were realised between 1437 and 1439. After these extensions, the facade received another facelift. Strangely enough, the cellars were only dug out and vaulted in 1441. Between 1444 and 1445, the loggias in the central courtyard receive their groin vaults. After 30 years, the complex is completed in 1449. The first children come to live at the spedale on 25 January 1445. The outermost left bay was opened up in 1599, allowing visitors to reach the square via the Via della Colonna as well. The annex to the far left next to the passageway on the Via della Collona dates from 1843. An additional floor, an attic, was added to the facade in the 19th century. The ruota was built in 1875. A turning table allowed mothers to anonymously abandon their child. The complex was, in as far as possible, returned to its original state in a major restoration carried out in the 1960s under the supervision of Morozzi. The attic was removed during the restoration.
photo: Ludo Prinzen, Marc de Rooij and Thijs Wichers
Ospedale degli innocenti
The 1427 decision to substantially extend the complex had serious consequences for the facade and the floorplan. The original symmetric layout could no longer be preserved. Brunelleschi had designed the complex on a west-to-east axis (click here for the eventual floorplan). This axis starts at the main entrance in the middle of the facade and continues along the centre of the inner courtyard. The two wings, church and hospital, lend additional emphasis to this west-to-east axis. Directly across from the main entrance in the outermost eastern wall, there was a door that led to the garden. This garden extended all the way to the Via della Pergola and was used as a vegetable garden and vineyard.
|Ospedael degli Innocenti
front and back
The symmetrical floorplan with its axis effect in combination with the well-thought-out relationship with the square in front of it was completely novel. The guild executive’s decision to substantially extend the complex under construction meant this symmetry was being compromised. Also, the extension at the southside of the facade meant another bay had to be added, causing the facade to become imbalanced.