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The Innocents of Florence

The City of Florence is a prerequisite stop for those visiting Italy – Michelangelo’s sculptures and paintings, the Duomo and architecture of Filippo Brunelleschi, the Medici legacy. Yet, tucked away behind the Duomo is an institution that arguably has done more to make a difference in life for Florentines and created a structure for social assistance than the city’s remarkable legacy of art and culture. It is the Innocenti Institute, a hospital and orphanage for abandoned children.

The revival of the story of this remarkable institution, tied to the mystery behind the painting that once beautifully and proudly evoked the humanity of Florentines, has audiences flocking to local theaters in Florence to bathe in the details of a history that they scarcely knew.

“The Innocents of Florence,” the new documentary by Italian Canadian filmmaker Davide Battistella, recently opened in Florence to large audiences and wide praise. The story begins with a nearly 600-year-old painting which leads two art conservators in Florence on a journey that sheds light on the story of the hundreds of thousands of children, born in and around Florence, who were abandoned and the women who saved them.

Modern-day Florence attracts more conservators than artists. Since the Arno’s tragic flooding in 1966, it has steadily grown to be a women-dominated profession. “The Innocents of Florence” follows two conservators, Nicoletta Fontani and Elizabeth Wicks, as they set out to salvage the mysterious painting – Madonna of the Innocents, a restoration sponsored by Dr. Jane Fortune, known in Florence as ‘Indiana Jane’ for her work as founder of the organization Advancing Women Artists.

The restoration of the painting, created as the banner for the Innocenti Institute in 1446, triggered numerous discoveries and became the catalyst for this feature-length documentary that explores art, motherhood, Florentine humanism and how a progressive-thinking Renaissance society created one of the first children’s hospitals in the world.

“Women and their strength continue to amaze me,” said film director Davide Battistella. “The story of women in history has not been celebrated or told enough. I hope my film changes that by recounting, through the restoration of a masterwork of art, the story of how society in Florence took on the challenge of saving its children by building one of the first children’s hospitals on earth.”

The Innocenti offered life when death was the alternative. “The first child in the register is Agata Smeralda, accepted in 1444. Since then, the Innocenti Institute anonymously took in abandoned children, most of whom were girls. Some of these babies were born out of wedlock or they were the result of wealthy men impregnating servants, so they could eventually become wet nurses for their own children. Children abandoned to the Institute were named, given Florentine citizenship and baptized,” explained Battistella. “Even if they did not survive, this would ‘save their souls’ because, according to Renaissance thinking, unbaptized babies ended up in Limbo. Elsewhere in Italy, abandoned children were surnamed ‘Foundlings’ or worse, ‘Bastardini’ (little bastards). In Florence, they were uniquely called Innocenti, ‘Innocents’ and given a chance at life.”

“Every conservation project is a journey of discovery. It is like peeling back the layers of history,” said conservator Elizabeth Wicks. “We had no idea when we began restoring the painting “Madonna of the Innocents” just how much mystery we would find behind that face and how many discoveries we would make along the way. Paintings are not always what they seem on the surface. Only the restoration process, with its accompanying research and technical study, can provide us with the clues to really understand the image, even though sometimes the process raises more questions than it answers.”

Filmmaker Davide Battistella moved from Canada to Florence in 2011. He has made several films set in Florence covering subjects of daily work, faith, art history, photography and the work of artisans. “The Innocents of Florence” has been produced in both English and Italian. Battistella is currently negotiating distribution and festival screenings in the United States.