Found and Lost: Race and Demography in Early Modern Foundling Care (part of the Early Modern Italian Seminar)

Florence’s Ospedale degli Innocenti was among the earliest and most iconic of the foundling homes that multiplied across fifteenth century Italy. All dominated major public squares and arteries as they dominated social, spiritual, and economic life. Parents or porters dropped foundlings in a basin, laid them on a turntable, or pushed them through a grate in the middle of the night. Many of these infants were born to migrant and marginalized parents; saving their bodies and souls was as much a demographic and economic as a religious obligation. Political authorities fashioned themselves quite deliberately as ‘fathers’ of society and looked beyond the mere survival of foundlings towards the greater good of a populous and thriving state. This lecture will focus on something that the Medici Grand Dukes did not do. From the late 16th century they poured extraordinary labour and capital into constructing a new port and fortress at Livorno. While working to build its population and economy, they never opened a foundling home in what soon became Tuscany’s second largest city. Why? If the Innocenti of the fifteenth century reflected the Florentine Republic’s preoccupation with regional, religious, and economic politics, the foundling care system of the late sixteenth century reflected the Tuscan Duchy’s Mediterranean and even global preoccupations. In that new world order, Tuscans focused as much on what they wanted to avoid as on what they wanted to achieve.

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