The “Hospital of the Innocence”, also known as Spedale degli Innocenti in Italian, was a children’s orphanage designed by Filippo Brunelleschi in 1419. The hospital, facing Santissima Annunziata square with its loggia, is one of the best examples of the Italian Renaissance architecture.
The building, elevated above the level of the piazza by a set of steps running along the entire length of the façade, was constructed in several phases of which only the first was under Brunelleschi’s direct supervision. Since the loggia was started before the hospital was begun, the hospital was not formally opened until 1445.
Brunelleschi’s design was based on Classical Roman, Italian Romanesque and late Gothic architecture, but the use of round columns with classically correct capitals, in this case of the Composite Order, in conjunction with a dosseret (or impost blocks) was novel. So too, the circular arches and the segmented spherical domes behind them. The architectural elements were also all articulated in grey stone and set off against the white of the walls. This motif came to be known as pietra serena (Italian: dark stone). Also novel was the proportional logic. The heights of the columns, for example, was not arbitrary. If a horizontal line is drawn along the tops of the columns, a square is created out of the height of the column and the distance from one column to the next. This desire for regularity and geometric order was to become an important element in Renaissance architecture.
An important feature of the building are, of course, the “Tondi”, located above each column. In Brunelleschi’s original idea, they were supposed to be blank, but later Andrea della Robbia was commissioned to fill them in.
The design features a baby in swaddling clothes on a blue wheel, indicative of the horizontal wheel in the wall where babies could be rotated into the interior. A few of the tondi are still the original ones, but some are nineteenth century copies.