My name is Agata Smeralda and I was born in Florence…when exactly, I don’t know, but I always wanted to believe that it was February 5, 1445, the day I was left at the Istituto degli Innocenti. Just imagine: I was the first! I’m serious—there are documents to prove it: it all began with me. And they called me Agata because it was the night of Saint Agatha, and Smeralda (emerald) because of my eyes, which, even though I didn’t live very long, continued to sparkle on in the gazes of all the children who crossed through this doorway after me. It’
It’s true that I was the first, but they only brought me here because the Institute already existed. Everything had really gotten going a few years prior to my arrival, thanks to a donation by the Pratese merchant Francesco Datini. He and his wife Margherita couldn’t have children and for that reason wanted to take care of abandoned babies—essentially, people like me. Messer Datini thought that we deserved a nice place to grow in: the donation was in fact specifically designated for the design of the Spedale, and an architect was called in whose name you’ve probably already heard thrown around: Filippo Brunelleschi. But he wasn’t yet at that point the famous architect of the Florence dome… even he had to hustle a bit to make things work, so much so that he chose less expensive materials to build with—plaster, pietra serena—despite this, when they were arranged as they were in such a sequence of arches, they became a model for the entire city: with the Spedale degli Innocenti the Renaissance was born.
Datini’s aim was to create a nice place where children could grow and, in the meantime, without even realizing he was doing it, he gave Florence the root of its own identity. In those years, strolling through the city, I saw those gray stone details pop out from so many buildings, details that seemed to signal the meeting of form and harmony. In a loggia on the via della Vigna Nuova, in the entirety of the Pazzi Chapel at Santa Croce, everywhere you turned, really; amid the naves of Santo Spirito and those of San Lorenzo… And I can even admit it: perhaps this whole Renaissance thing happened a bit by chance, but the idea to create a beauty-filled place for children out of the Spedale, that, I can tell you, was on purpose. With the eyes of my brothers and sisters I watched when the arches’ pendentives were filled with the “putti” by Andrea Della Robbia, and then the works that through the years would go on to decorate the spaces of the Institute—the paintings by Ghirlandaio, Piero di Cosimo, and even one by Botticelli…
Now nearly 600 years have passed and in all this time, the Spedale has never stopped gifting a future to children without a past, serving as an exemplary model for the whole world. I get dizzy thinking about the fact that a lay institution born for such a noble purpose has survived this long! Through the gaze of those who live there now, I still see the doors thrust open to life from here on high in this beautiful loggia. And as for me, my eyes continue to shine on in what, every evening, they’re impressed upon in the Cortile delle donne; while my spirit flutters on in the souls of those to whom the Innocenti gave new life.