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Dead Infants, Cruel Mothers, and Heroic Popes: The Visual Rhetoric of Foundling Care at the Hospital of Santo Spirito, Rome

Diana Bullen Presciutti
Renaissance Quarterly
Vol. 64, No. 3 (Fall 2011), pp. 752-799
DOI: 10.1086/662849
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/662849
Page Count: 48
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Dead Infants, Cruel Mothers, and Heroic Popes: The Visual Rhetoric of Foundling Care at the Hospital of Santo Spirito, Rome
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Abstract

The fresco cycle painted at the behest of Pope Sixtus IV in the late 1470s in the main ward of the hospital of Santo Spirito in Rome comprises an extended pictorial biography of Sixtus, prefaced by scenes representing the legendary foundation of the hospital by his predecessor Innocent III. The legend, which tells how Innocent established Santo Spirito as a foundling hospital in response to the discovery of victims of infanticide in the Tiber River, positions the pope as the savior of the city's unwanted children. This article elucidates how the construction and renovatio of the hospital is presented in the cycle as a generative product of papal will, with the care of foundlings situated as an integral part of the image of the pope as both Father of the Church and restorer of past glory to the city of Rome. While the frescoes engage with both widespread conventions for representing infanticide and commonplace notions of the social value of caring for abandoned children, I demonstrate that the ideologically potent visual rhetoric of foundling care was also flexible, and could be adapted to meet the specific needs of a particular institutional and patronal context.

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