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UNICEF enjoys the unique privilege of maintaining a global research centre for children based at the nearly 600-year-old Ospedale degli Innocenti in Florence, Italy. Established in 1419 by the influential Silk workers Guild, Innocenti can be viewed as one of the earliest efforts by secular authorities to elevate the concerns of the most vulnerable children to the level of civic priority.

While UNICEF is a very recent arrival at Innocenti, in many ways leading innovations in care, protection and the rights of children can be seen as emanating from this institution beginning in the Renaissance and continuing till today.

Six Hundred Years of Care for Children at Innocenti

Ospedale degli Innocenti, the building which houses both the Office of Research – Innocenti and its host organization the Istituto degli Innocenti, is arguably the oldest continuously operating children’s care institution in the world.

The building was commissioned in 1419 specifically to house and care for the city’s orphans and abandoned children. It was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, considered by many the most important architect of the Renaissance, having designed and engineered the imposing dome of the city’s cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore. The Spedale was in fact Brunelleschi’s first architectural commission.

The Spedale is one of the first great architectural creations of the Renaissance. It represented a completely new concept in hospital design. Based on the architecture of a palazzo, with a grand façade, loggia and graceful courtyards more in the style of an aristocratic residence rather than a public institution for the care of abandoned infants and children.

Before the end of the 1400s, the Spedale was accepting hundreds of children annually, for the most part illegitimate offspring of noble or wealthy citizens or the children of families too poor to care for them adequately. To ensure that people would not hesitate to bring children to the hospital for care and lodging, a practice of anonymity was instituted from the very beginning. Thus, initially, infants could be left in the pila, a basin near the main entrance. In 1660, the pila was replaced by the rota, a circular, revolving container positioned in an opening in the wall near the entrance in such a way that an abandoned infant could be placed in it outside the building. The rota was permanently closed in 1875.

Children were immediately baptized and then breastfed by resident wet nurses; many were later sent to wet nurses in the countryside and then placed in foster care until about 7 years of age, when they would be returned to the Spedale. The boys were taught to read and write and, after two more years, were put up for adoption, usually as apprentices to craftsmen. The girls were placed as household servants or set to work in silk or wool production, washing and weaving cloth.

A child in care at the Spedale in the 1400s might have spent as few as two years actually on the premises as the hospital officials attempted from the moment of admission, to provide children with a family setting. Adoption and apprenticeship contracts, drawn up when children were older, stipulated that the children must be treated as if they had been the adoptive parents’ own sons or daughters. In their record-keeping, the personnel often referred to the institution as the ‘famiglia’ (family) or the ‘casa’ (home). At the height of its activity, the Spedale had more than 3,000 children in its care.

The Spedale continued to take in orphans during the first half of the 1900s. It was particularly active during both World Wars, offering shelter not only to orphaned children, but also to refugee families. Its function as a large residential care institution was terminated in the early 1980’s.

The Istituto degli Innocenti now provides temporary shelter for local women and children at risk. It hosts a nursery school, a children’s crèche and pre-natal service. The Istituto is developing new approaches to the provision of day care, basic education and assistance for children and families in distress. It serves the Tuscany Regional Government in an advisory capacity on these subjects. A vast archive contains records for all children cared for from the arrival of the first foundling in 1445. UNICEF and the Istituto degli Innocenti collaborate on a number of research projects and maintain a joint research library facility.

Arrival of UNICEF at Innocenti

Inaugurated by Executive Director James Grant in 1988 as the UNICEF International Child Development Centre, with a broad mandate to contribute to an “emerging global ethic for children,” research quickly became a defining mission and the institution’s name soon evolved to Innocenti Research Centre, and finally to the UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti.

Following ratification of the Convention of the Rights of the Child in 1989, a range of research projects at Innocenti contributed significantly in shaping UNICEF’s adoption of the human rights-based approach to development. Innocenti pioneered much early work on child protection as UNICEF’s mandate expanded in this area. Numerous Innocenti studies in the 1990’s focused on what were deemed “emerging issues” such as child trafficking, children in conflict with the law and child labour.

Innocenti today plays a critical evidence gathering and knowledge building role for UNICEF and its key partners on a wide range of cutting-edge children’s issues. In recent years Innocenti has played a leading role in improving social and economic policy for vulnerable children in both poor and rich countries. It is a leading centre on impact evaluations of cash transfer programmes in Africa. It coordinates multi-country research on the drivers of violence affecting children. It plays a central role in adolescent well-being, child rights and the internet, child rights implementation, family and parenting support policy and multi-dimensional child poverty analysis.

UNICEF at Innocenti Today

Today the Office of Research – Innocenti is the dedicated research centre for UNICEF. It exercises a leadership role on research and related activities across the organisation, with a mandate to develop a research agenda that focuses on knowledge gaps relevant to the strategic goals of UNICEF and its key partners. It undertakes research that is forward-looking in order to identify upcoming challenges and opportunities for the global community working on issues affecting children. It also undertakes research on sensitive and emerging issues, testing and proposing alternative policies and solutions, and thus advancing existing knowledge.

If you are interested in a detailed look at the development of UNICEF’s research and knowledge work at Innocenti the recent publication Children and Research at Innocenti: 25 years of UNICEF commitment provides a wealth of information.