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ยป The Florentine Innocenti: Vincenzo Borghini and the Art Scene in Florence

The Florentine Innocenti: Vincenzo Borghini and the Art Scene in Florence



Portrait of Vincenzo Borghini, (1515-80)
Attributed to Francesco Morandini called Il Poppi (1544-97)


Vincenzo Borghini (1515 – 1580), a Benedictine monk, scholar and humanist, was the prior of the Foundling Hospital (Ospedale degli Innocenti) in Florence from 1552 to his death in 1580. During the late 15th and 16th centuries the Foundling Hospital was renowned as one of the most important charities in Florence. Run by the Silk Guild (Arte della Seta) it was also one of the richest. The orphaned children in its care were well looked after, so much so, that in some cases mothers deliberately gave up their infants.

Vincenzo Borghini was one of the leading intellectual figures in Florence of his time - knowledgeable on Dante and highly interested in the arts. He shaped the fate of the orphanage for almost thirty years. His talents gave him access to the ruling Medici family and he played an important role in some of their artistic commissions. This position allowed him to keep the Foundling Hospital in the minds of the great and wealthy, thus ensuring good prospects for his orphans. He also counted some of the foremost Florentine artists among his friends: Pontormo, Bronzino, Salviati and Vasari. For the latter he devised important iconographic inventions and programmes, especially for the decorations of the studiolo of Francesco I de Medici in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Several of the artistically-talented foundlings, whom he had encouraged to become artists, worked on these projects, most famous among them were Francesco Morandini, called Il Poppi (c. 1544 – 97) and Giambattista Naldini (1535 – 91).

Artistic and scientific endeavours were flourishing in the second half of the 16th century in Florence. The great inventions of the Renaissance had created an atmosphere of heightened artistic sensitivities which were now expressed in unusual compositions, vibrant colours, dramatic visual effects and bold usage of materials. The quest was not to imitate nature, but to surpass it. Nature offered the raw materials, but the artist’s role was to shape and refine them. Artists had moved up the social ladder, with creativity and invention being regarded as godlike qualities. Manifestations of this can be seen in the highly stylised and anti-naturalistic art, but also in projects like Giorgio Vasari’s (1511 – 89) pioneering book of the lives of the artist, the new drawing academy and commissions for monumental artistic schemes - like the decorations of the Palazzo Vecchio and the preparations for the celebration of the wedding between Francesco I de Medici to Giovanna of Austria (1565).

The exhibition showcases thirty-three drawings by Florentine artists with close links to Vincenzo Borghini. There are three drawings by Giorgio Vasari: a design for a portrait of Cosimo I and his family - the Medici Grand Duke who appointed Borghini to the post of prior of the Foundling Hospital, a drawing for the fresco in the Palazzo Vecchio, showing the Procession of Pope Leo X on the Piazza della Signoria in Florence and a sheet depicting Demeter nursing Demophon, a more curious topic. This image of a goddess caring for an unrelated infant could represent hope in the context of an orphanage. An impressive design for the wedding decorations of the Medici Grand Duke is Bronzino’s (1503 – 72) The Virtues and Blessings of Matrimony. Other design drawings in the exhibition are for silverware, wall decorations and other embellishments and even some sketches for cradles. A life-drawing by the interesting naturalistic artist Bacchiacca (1494 – 1557) in red chalk shows three children at play. This free and exquisite drawing is contrasted by a slightly clumsy educational study of a female figure, presumably by a young artist learning to draw.

The master whose works feature most prominently in the exhibition is Giovanni Battista (Giambattista) Naldini. His origins are not well documented, but he was adopted by Pontormo, one of the most inventive and elegant artists in Florence at the time. After Pontormo’s death Naldini went on a sojourn to Rome where he studied the antique remains. The drawings show his wide-ranging skills, from copies after antique reliefs in pen and ink to designs and inventions for his own works in red and black chalks. The only recently identified portrait of Vincenzo Borghini stands at the beginning and end of the exhibition (in the main room in the gallery). It shows the sitter holding two statuettes, personifications of Hope and Charity. These are recurring figures in the exhibition and the fact that Vincenzo Borghini chose to be depicted with them, tells us that he regarded hope and charity as the most important of the seven virtues.

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