Nicholas Terpstra (Toronto) 'Found and Lost: Race and Demography in Early Modern Foundling Care'

Bernardino Poccetti "Istoria degli Innocenti" | Florence: Spedale degli Innocenti

Florence’s Ospedale degli Innocenti was among the earliest and most iconic of the foundling homes that multiplied across fifteenth century Italy. All dominated major public squares and arteries as they dominated social, spiritual, and economic life.  Parents or porters dropped foundlings in a basin, laid them on a turntable, or pushed them through a grate in the middle of the night. Many of these infants were born to migrant and marginalized parents; saving their bodies and souls was as much a demographic and economic as a religious obligation.  Political authorities fashioned themselves quite deliberately as ‘fathers’ of society and looked beyond the mere survival of foundlings towards the greater good of a populous and thriving state.  This lecture will focus on something that the Medici Grand Dukes did not do.  From the late 16th century they poured extraordinary labour and capital into constructing a new port and fortress at Livorno.  While working to build its population and economy, they never opened a foundling home in what soon became Tuscany’s second largest city.  Why? If the Innocenti of the fifteenth century reflected the Florentine Republic’s preoccupation with regional, religious, and economic politics, the foundling care system of the late sixteenth century reflected the Tuscan Duchy’s Mediterranean and even global preoccupations. In that new world order, Tuscans focused as much on what they wanted to avoid as on what they wanted to achieve. 


Nicholas Terpstra is Professor of History at the University of Toronto.  He works on Renaissance and early modern social history, exploring questions at the intersection of politics, religion, gender, and charity, above all those that deal with marginalized individuals and groups.  Publications include Cultures of Charity: Women, Politics, and the Reform of Poor Relief in Renaissance Italy (Harvard: 2013) which won the Marraro Prize of the American Historical Association and the Phyllis Goodhart Gordan Prize of the Renaissance Society of America and Lost Girls: Sex and Death in Renaissance Florence (Johns Hopkins: 2010).  He is currently developing the DECIMA project, an on-line digital map tracking spatial and sensory dimensions of social life in Florence and exploring early modern cross-cultural religious encounters and the experiences of religious refugees.  Recent works include Religious Refugees in the Early Modern World: An Alternative History of the Reformation (Cambridge: 2015) and the Global Reformations essay collection and sourcebook (Routledge 2019 & 2021).