THE INNOCENTS OF FLORENCE: The Quest to Save 600,000 Children

A 600-year-old painting leads two art conservators in Florence on a journey that sheds light on the story of the hundreds of thousands of children who were abandoned, and the women who saved them.

“Every life is an archive and every frame we make is a documentary. That is just how I see things” – David Battistella

A restored painting with a story to tell

Modern-day Florence attracts more art conservators than artists. Since the Arno’s tragic flooding in 1966 – when Florentine women first began wearing trousers in public – 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.

Elizabeth Wicks, Painting Restorationist

The restoration of the painting, created as the banner for the Innocenti Institute in 1446, triggered numerous discoveries. It became the catalyst for this 90-minute 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.

The Innocenti offered life; death was the alternative “As early as 1421, the Innocenti Institute would anonymously take 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 become wet nurses for their own children. Abandoned to the Institute, the child was named, given florentine citizenship and baptized,” explains Battistella. “Elsewhere in Italy, abandoned children were surnamed ‘Foundlings’ or worse, ‘Bastardini’ (little bastards). In Florence, they were called Innocenti, ‘Innocents’ and deserved a chance at life.”

Nicoletta Fontani, Painting Restorationist

In the words of the conservator “Every conservation project is a journey of discovery. It is like peeling back the layers of history,” explains Elizabeth Wicks. “We had no idea when we began restoring Madonna of the Innocents of 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 David Battistella has made several films set in Florence covering subjects of daily work, faith, art history, fine-art photography and the work of artisans. “This film project brought me into a sense of community, of compassion and the realization that “getting things right” for the greater good and “actually doing it” and setting the example, is something that Florence has always done well.”

Lucia Sandri, Archivist

Producer/Director Davide Battistella

Testimonials

“We loved it. I was so impressed that the primary restorers were women — that it was a story about women on every level, and as such, mysterious and human and of course, nuanced. i am thrilled that we had the opportunity to see it.”

Susan T. Landry, Writer

The movie was stunning! The restoration of the painting very interesting and the history of all those babies, their lives and the really extraordinary collection of tales of each child.

Prescilla Donham, Trauma Therapist

By delving into the origins of the Ospedale degli Innocenti, the filmmaker examines the humanistic instincts behind the establishment of one of the first children’s hospitals in the world, while also exposing one of the darker secrets that contributed to the necessity for such an institution.

Wayne McArdle, Lawyer

Responses

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