Mother of the Innocents

Filmmaker Davide Battistella on Relearning to See and “The Innocents of Florence”

His independent documentary, “The Innocents of Florence: The Quest to Save 600,000 Children”, is available on exclusively on Prime Video.

In Florence, Italy, all the important things are taken very slow. “Florentines are very very discerning,” says Davide, “They test, research and review. It’s the way things are just done in Italy. It took me many years coming from North America to get used to that kind of thing.” According to Davide Battistella, that is the vibe of the Florentine masters. “I’ve learned living and working here, things take a lot of time.”

Emigrating from Canada, Davide Battistella had to first absorb Florence itself before picking up the measured lifestyle that would allow his newest documentary to follow the restoration of Madonna degli Innocenti, a figure painted in 1446 for Florence’s Institute of the Innocenti. 

“My first four or five months here I wasn’t able to take a decent photograph,” Davide recalls. “I literally couldn’t get a good picture of anything I looked at, until I started to find the right point where the image would fall into the math of the lens, and the place I was standing, and the perspective of the imagery. I think it has something to do with mathematics. Everything was done in the golden ratio. The people who were raised here and see all the history around them, it’s literally the mathematics of the golden ratio that you’re living in and walking through.”

Neighborhood Cinematographer

After viewing “The Innocents of Florence” myself, I decided to set more of my own time aside to get to know what Battistella had truly uncovered while witnessing the restoration of the Madonna painting. Instantly I could see that both Davide and the city of Florence had patience in common.

Davide had developed his own methodical habit of packing a RED camera on his bicycle everywhere he went. It began six years back when he would record artisans around Florence in the process of their craft. When restorationist Elizabeth Wicks told him the Madonna painting restoration would be great subject to follow, Davide folded visits to the painting into his daily travels. Capturing the discoveries of the painting began this documentary, which eventually spread to encompass an institute for abandoned babies, Rennaissance archives, and the chronicled perseverance of women. 

“The whole film was literally made like this; my camera, my backpack, my tripod, maybe a couple lights, maybe a box of lenses, and really not going outside my own neighborhood. I don’t have to cram everything into days. I can shoot half days, quarter days, this event, that event, and spread things out over a long period of time” 

Alone with sparse equipment, Davide could afford the patience to catch the best of his adopted city. He studied the way the sun lit the buildings, and often waited several days to capture the perfect scene to illustrate this bittersweet film. From scene to scene, the movement of air is recorded weaving through the streets, and birds chirp and calling from nests above the loggia of the Institute degli Innocenti bring the audience directly to Florence itself.

With no overbearing time-table, Davide was able to grow relationships with the people he filmed. “I like to build a trust,” he says “and an atmosphere when the camera can fall away and we can just be with somebody while they are creating”. His style also allows for fortuitous events to unfold naturally in front of the lens.

The unforced schedule of neighborhood filming combined with regular contact to Elizabeth Wicks allowed Davide’s camera to record the most incredible moments of discovery, to the delight of his audience. One of the greatest discoveries, finding a second painting within the Madonna painting itself, which Elizabeth called “one of the most exciting moments of my career”, happens right before our eyes as we watch the film.

The Story Behind the Film

I was able to speak personally with Davide Battistella regarding his experience with the Innocenti Madonna on a December afternoon, courtesy of a presentation hosted by the Ebell Club of Los Angeles. Among a crowd of other curious women, I watched and listened as Davide walked us through the processes that brought this film together. During his 6 years of filming as well as our hour of listening, both Davide Batistella in Italy and our small group of women on Zoom discovered much more than a painting. Davide brought us through the heart of what it means to be human itself, which was a pleasant shock to me then after a long frustrating year in pandemic isolation. 

Essentially, Davide taught us that the Madonna painting was the original banner for the Institute of Innocenti, an organization which took in unwanted infants starting in the 1420’s so that they did not have to die. In order to keep these babies alive in the beginning, women around Florence donated (and later they were paid a small fee for) their breastfeeding services. Each child was documented in the Institute’s archive, and these children were given the Institute itself as a family, ‘Innocenti’ as a surname, and many of the surviving children went on to live fruitful lives and further contribute to the wonderful city that is Florence. For 600 years, the Madonna image spreading her protective cloak over children represented the power of women to give a chance at life to children who almost did not have one at all.

During our hour together within the Ebell hosting event, I could see that Davide’s calm manner was the perfect incentive for bringing the humble and industrious people behind the Institute Innocenti onto the big screen. The Florentines in his documentary are unpresuming, and diligent workers. “Everyone here is just doing their daily thing and just getting it done without a lot of complaining,” he says. 

The Archive

With his quiet spirit, Davide was able to bring his camera into the Institute’s 600 year old archive. As one of only two cinematographers to ever film within the walls of this archive, Davide’s documentary illuminates Italy’s passion for history by capturing archivist Lucia Sandri,who has spent forty years of her life, day to day, studying these documents, writing, and researching.

In an elevated documentary shot, watching Lucia comb through Renaissance era documents, the enormity of her role in history dawned on me full force.There are over 600,000 handwritten folios in this archive.”, Davide told us, “Each one of these volumes, each page represents the life of a child that was taken into this institute that the painting was painted for.”

I marveled that the Florentines recognized the need to employ Lucia to decipher hundreds of years of handwriting, to make sure that we know who is represented there. She keeps the knowledge written on those papers alive for everyone in Florence, and everyone in the world. The concept of an archivist alone seemed to me the pinnacle of civilization.

Her-Story

Through the taping of the documentary, and the personal recount of Davide Batistella in our meeting, a strong feminine glue formed to connect every piece of the story; Elizabeth Wicks and Nicholetta Fontani restoring the painting, Lucia Sandri archiving the children’s records, the scores of women who breastfed the babies, and the women of the Institute itself that rescued Florence’s babies and arranged for their lives to be saved. 

After 600 years, that nurturing spirit is still there. “When you go into the Institute, it’s still predominantly female, and you can feel that energy going through the whole place” David says. This deeply affected his view on the project, and made him attentive to continuing the theme. 

I was commited to really tell ‘her story’ in history. This really is a ‘her-story’ story.”

This thing, it struck me over the course of watching Elizabeth and Nicholetta work. As a man, I was like, I don’t think I know too many men who would like sit here and do centimeter by centimeter work on a painting. I’m not saying there are no male art conservators, but it brought me into that idea that ‘this is the job at hand, and this is what we’ll do’. I was so impressed by that, it really had an effect on me.”

In addition to the women of the Institute, there are modern women who also made all of this possible. Says Davide: 

“AWA (Advancing Women Artists) was founded by a fabulous woman who’s no longer with us, Jane Fortune, she fell in love with Florence and really wanted to bring forward the story of women artists, and has done it in the most incredible way. They’ve done amazing work, including the financing of restoring the painting that I was allowed to film, and also many other works around the city.”

Also those of present day include The Innocenti Institute and past President Alessandra Maggi, and the President of the Foundation Avv. Cristina Marsili Libelli, women who contributed their patronage and their role in honoring the film for granting the use of the images of the Institute. Former public relations director, Cecila Sandroni, has been an incredible champion of the film, too.

The Ebell Club, our online meeting host connecting this filmmaker with his audience, describes themselves as “an educational and philanthropic organization founded by women, for women”, and this was not lost on Davide either.

More importantly, the restored Madonna painting showed us the powerful loving maternal force in the world that does good things simply because good things need to be done. 

“The real undercurrent of this city is humanity, and humanism, and people caring for one another.”

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