- Abandoned Children of the Italian Renaissance: Orphan Care in Florence and Bologna
Our modern preoccupation with ensuring that charity and welfare go only to the most deserving and most needy has early modern roots, upon which Nicholas Terpstra's book sheds much light. Comparative history can be the most difficult type of history to write, but Terpstra succeeds admirably in explaining the broader [End Page 167] implications of the similarities and differences that he finds. Florence and Bologna led the way in the development of homes for abandoned children in the sixteenth century (later called orphanages when referring to boys and consistories when referring to girls) and this book tracks these institutions into the early decades of the seventeenth century in both cities, comparing and contrasting their beginnings, their development and transformations over time. While doing so, Terpstra explains the differences between the two cities largely in terms of the different political situations in each and the different administrative structures that ran the children's homes.
The book is based on the author's own extensive research, some of which has appeared in previous articles and book chapters with a confident grasp of the broader literature Italian and European–wide on the care and education of children. It begins with a wide ranging discussion of fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century Italian responses to the plight of abandoned children whom plague, war, famine or family breakdown had rendered fatherless and sometimes motherless as well, usually leaving them down and out and on the streets. Both cities had small hospitals to care for the sick, poor and indigent in the fifteenth centuries as well as foundling hospitals – Florence's Innocenti is the most well-known and famous –, along with informal fostering arrangements through the aid of family, apprenticeships and possibly friendships. Girls could also be placed temporarily or longer term in convents as boarders. But increasing numbers of orphaned and abandoned children in the sixteenth century led to development of larger scale homes for children usually run by confraternities or groups of female tertiaries.
The first chapter discusses the opening of homes. The sixteenth century saw the opening of several homes in Florence and Bologna for abandoned or orphaned children with local confraternities as the founders. But Terpstra argues that both cities developed networks of homes designed to cater for both boys and girls of different social classes. Bologna had a larger number than Florence's and were generally smaller in size than the Florentine ones. Florence's homes grew out of its networks of hospitals and were located in previously derelict buildings or abandoned convents and the administration of them, in contrast to Bologna's, developed after the fact. Notably, unlike Bologna's three homes for boys, Florence only had one large home for boys (the Abbandonati), with the Medici dukes exercising significant influence over the network of homes in Florence, refusing to let the magistracy that oversaw them have the final say.
Homes had strict criteria regarding the type of boy or girl that could enter. Some homes whether for boys or girls. Class mattered. Some homes took only those from [End Page 168] well to do families or artisan families that had fallen on hard times (the shamefaced poor), while others, usually the larger homes, were for the poor. In any case each possible entrant was examined for their family background, character and resources. Florence sheltered its citizens and those from its wider territories, while Bologna preferred to support only it citizens. Gender mattered significantly too, with homes for girls and boys followed distinctly different rhythms. Boys were educated, sheltered and apprenticed by the home until their late teens with the goal being to gradually reintegrate them into society. For girls the emphasis instead was on protecting their sexual honour and thus keeping them enclosed only to re-emerge when a husband had...