Motherhood through the Wheel: The Care of Foundlings in Late Nineteenth-Century Naples



Institutionalised child abandonment was truly a mass phenomenon in modern Europe. In the nineteenth century, when the system was to reach its peak and its finale, at least ten million babies were abandoned in Europe, mainly in the Catholic regions. In Italy alone, the number of children abandoned annually was approximately 33,000.1 Over the centuries, the phenomenon became a concern of the elites, Counter-Reformation Catholicism, and many political regimes. As Jacques Donzelot has argued, foundling homes, together with female conservatories and regulated prostitution, had parallel histories and scopes: they all dealt with the ‘inevitable casualties of the family regime’.2


Breast Milk Foster Parent Foster Family Legal Recognition Reception Office 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    See David Kertzer, Sacrificed for Honor: Italian Infant Abandonment and the Politics of Reproductive Control (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1993) and Volker Hunecke, ‘Intensita e fluttuazioni degli abbandoni dal XV al XIX secolo’, in Philippe Boutry (ed.), Enfance abandonée et societe en Europe XIVe–XXe siecle (Rome: Ecole francaise de Rome, 1991), pp. 27–72.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Jacques Donzelot, The Policing of Families (London: Hutchinson, 1980), p. 22.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    See Kertzer, Sacrificed for Honor; Laura Guidi, Lonore in pericolo (Naples: Liguori, 1992); Anna-Maria Tapaninen, ‘The Wheels of Honour: Child Abandonment between Scandals and Legitimacy in 19th Century Naples’, Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society, 24 (1999), pp. 39–60.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    E.g., Pina Catalonotto, ‘Sulla soglia del disonore. Gravidanze illegittime e infanzia abbandonata nella Sicilia del Sette-Ottocento’, in Giovanna Fiume (ed.), Onore e storia nelle societa mediterranee (Palermo: La Luna, 1989), pp. 155–64; Kertzer, Sacrificed for Honor. Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    See Hunecke, ‘Intensita e fluttuazioni’; Kertzer, Sacrificed forHonor, pp. 71–102. Carl Ipsen has argued that the differences actually became more pronounced after Unification. See his ‘The Annunziata Scandal of 1897 and Foundling Care in Turn-of-the-Century Italy’, Journal of Modern Italian Studies, 4 (1999), pp. 1–29.Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    In 1870–1, there were 77 legal recognitions, and the majority were of illegitimate children, which is another peculiarity of the Annunziata. See Nicola De Crescenzio, I brefotrofi e la esposizione dei bambini (Naples: Giannini, 1873), p. 220.Google Scholar
  7. 9.
    Stephen Wilson, ‘The myth of motherhood a myth: the historical view of European child-rearing’, Social History, 9 (1984), p. 181. The thesis of parental indifference was put forward in Edward Shorter, The Making of the Modern Family (New York: Basic, 1977). Research on child abandonment has tended to focus on survival strategies in changing demographic and socio-economic contexts and on the redistribution of ‘surplus’ children. The parents and foster parents portrayed in these are, essentially, rational agents with few choices. See Rachel G. Fuchs, Abandoned Children: Foundlings and Child Welfare in NineteenthCentury France (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1984); David Ransel, Mothers ofMisery: Child Abandonment in Russia (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988); Volker Hunecke, I trovatelli di Milano. Bambini esposti e famiglie espositrici dal XVII al XIX secolo: Un indagine storico-demografica (Bologna: I1 Mulino, 1989); Louise Tilly, Rachel Fuchs, David Kertzer and David Ransel, ‘Child Abandonment in European History: A Symposium’, Journal of Family History, 17 (1992), pp. 1–24. For competing explanations of infant abandonment, see Kertzer, Sacrificed for Honor, pp. 174–81. Kertzer, an anthropologist, emphasises the roles played by Church and state in reproductive control.Google Scholar
  8. 10.
    E.g., Julian Pitt-Rivers, ‘The Kith and the Kin’, in Jack Goody (ed.), The Character of Kinship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), pp. 89–105; Janet Carsten (ed.), Cultures of Relatedness: New Approaches to the Study ofKinship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).Google Scholar
  9. 13.
    Archivio storico municipale di Napoli. Sezione ex-Real Casa Santa dell’Annunziata (hereafter ASMN, RCSA), Ramo ‘Esposti’ (hereafter RE). Filze dei proietti 1872, no. R 1719. The numbers of documents preceded by letters are the identification numbers of individual children. The letters P, Q and R refer to the years 1870, 1871 and 1872, respectively.Google Scholar
  10. 18.
    Kertzer, Sacrificed for Honor, pp. 39–43; Margherita Pelaja, ‘Segmenti orizzontali. Madri e madrine a Roma nell’Ottocento’, in Lucia Ferrante, Maura Palazzi and Gianna Pomata (eds), Ragnetela di rapporti. Patronage e reti di relazione nella storia delle donne (Turin: Rosenberg & Sellier, 1988), pp. 417–34; Hunecke, I trovatelli di Milano. Google Scholar
  11. 19.
    Enrico Cossovich, ‘La levatrice’, in Francesco de Bourcard (ed.), Usi e costumi di Napoli, Vol. II (La Spezia: Polaris, 1990 [1857]), p. 692.Google Scholar
  12. 20.
    According to De Crescenzio, I brefotrofi, p. 288, it was general knowledge that there was not a single midwife in Naples who did not have a so-called ‘convent’ at her home but the prices were high. My impression is that the unwed mothers who were signore (ladies) — like Chiara — tended to go to the midwives in Chiaia, whilst many others were forced to go to hospitals or found refuge in the ill-famed Imbrecciata district.Google Scholar
  13. 21.
    For example, there are hundreds of receipts that were clearly written before the office was opened. Furthermore, the rapid consignment of older children (up to seven years of age) to foster parents proves that they had not been squeezed through the tiny hole of the wheel. If this had been the case (with the help of oil, as urban legend had it and also according to De Crescenzio’s description in I brefotrofi, p. 209) they would have been too badly injured to leave the foundling home. Moreover, according to the documentation, this is the only case from the autumn of 1872 that seems to match the description. But, of course, the characters may still be fictional.Google Scholar
  14. 23.
    Marina D’Amelia, ‘La presenza delle madri nell’Italia medievale e moderna’, in D’Amelia (ed.), Storia della maternita (Rome-Bari: Laterza, 1997) p. 11.Google Scholar
  15. 26.
    Regole ed istruzioni della Real Santa Casa della SS. Annunziata di Napoli. Conchiuse e stabilite daSignori Governadori della medesima nellanno 1739 (Naples: Nicol• Naso, 1739). It has to be specified that the children discussed in this document were primarily grown-up daughters and that paternity denoted institutional patria potestas. The focus was on problems such as identification, virginity, surveillance, marriages and dowries.Google Scholar
  16. 27.
    De Crescenzio, I brefotroft. See also Teresa Filanghieri Raveschieri Fieschi, Storia della caritd napoletana, Vol. I (Naples: Giannini, 1875); the critical analyses of the English Garibaldist Jessie White Mario, La miseria in Napoli (Naples: Quarto Potere, 1978 [18771); and the writings of Matilde Serao, II ventre di Napoli (Naples: Luca Torre, 1992 [1884]). The contemporaneity of these works is no coincidence: they were all written at the height of the Liberal era.Google Scholar
  17. 29.
    Luciana Rollo Bancale, ‘Dentro il tempio della memoria’, in Patrizia Giordano (ed.), La Rota degli esposti (Naples: Incontri Napoletani/Altrastampa, 1999), pp. 50–64.Google Scholar
  18. 30.
    Raveschieri Fieschi, Storia della caritd napoletana, p. 191. The wording reiterates centuries-old expressions. See Marilena Modica, “Figlio di Cristo”. La “maternità spirituale” tra ortodossia ed eterodossia nella cultura cristiana post-tridentina’, in Giovanna Fiume (ed.), Madri. Storia di un ruolo sociale (Venice: Marsilio, 1995), pp. 205–19, esp. quotation on p. 216.Google Scholar
  19. 31.
    Marina Warner, Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary (London: Picador, 1985), p. 194.Google Scholar
  20. 32.
    Ibid., pp. 204–5; Luisa Accati, ‘Il padre naturale. Tra simboli dominanti e categorie scientifiche’, Memoria, 21 (1987), pp. 79–106.Google Scholar
  21. 33.
    Giovanna Da Molin, ‘Gli esposti e le loro balie all’Annunziata di Napoli nell’Ottocento’, in Da Molin (ed.), Trovatelli e balie in Italia, secc. XVI–XIX (Bari: Cacucci, 1994), p. 269.Google Scholar
  22. 34.
    Michela De Giorgio, ‘II modello cattolico’, in Genevieve Fraisse and Michelle Perrot (eds), Storia delle donne in Occidente: LOttocento (Rome-Bari: Laterza, 1995), pp. 174–5.Google Scholar
  23. 35.
    See Victor Turner, The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1967). Turner argues that all rituals focus on ambiguous or dominant symbols. These have the potential of condensing different social phenomena, and of unifying divergent meanings. They also entail a polarisation of meaning into two distinguishable poles of meaning. The ‘ideological pole’ refers to the moral and social orders of society. At the ‘sensory pole’, the references are derived from natural and physiological phenomena and processes that ‘may be expected to arouse desires and feelings’ (p. 28). The Madonna is a dominant symbol par excellence. Google Scholar
  24. 36.
    De Crescenzio, I brefotrofi, p. 210. To him, this barbarous event took place in the ‘shadows of the most vulgar of superstitions’ and was proof that the mysterious nature of the wheel was mere fantasy; yet these conceptions were not merely ‘vulgar’, for the wheel played a pivotal role in the official system, too. See Regole ed istruzioni and Regolamento generale per lo stabilimento della Real Casa Santa dellAnnunziata di Napoli (Naples: 1862).Google Scholar
  25. 37.
    See Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Chicago, IL: Aldine, 1969).Google Scholar
  26. 41.
    It has been claimed, however, that it was quite common to pass a child first through the wheel before signing in as a foster parent for this particular child: De Crescenzio, I brefotrofi, pp. 208–9. This practice was thought to legitimise the arrangements made between original parents and foster parents, and it also sometimes enabled the fostering of one’s own child. There is some evidence that this did occur and, furthermore, sometimes took place with the approval of the administration.Google Scholar
  27. 47.
    Enrico Cossovich, ‘La nutrice’, in Francesco de Bourcard (ed.), Usi e costumi di Napoli, Vol. I (Naples: Polaris, 1990 [18571) p. 397.Google Scholar
  28. 48.
    Artificial feeding was also tried out on foundlings often with fatal consequences. These experimentations — like the ones on unwed women in childbirth — underscore how little value was placed on these liminal, ephemeral lives. See Laura Guidi, ‘Parto e maternità a Napoli. Carità e solidarietà spontanee, beneficenza istituzionale (1840–1880)’, Sanita scienza e storia, 1 (1986), pp. 111–48.Google Scholar
  29. 49.
    Gianna Pomata, ‘Madri illegittime tra Ottocento e Novecento: Storie cliniche e storie di vita’, Quaderni Storici, 44 (1980), pp. 497–542.Google Scholar
  30. 50.
    Matide Serao, ‘Figli della Madonna’, Il Mattino, 27 May 1897. Cited in Wanda de Nunzio Schilardi, ‘L’infanzia abbandonata nel romanzo sociale dell’Ottocento’, in Trovatelli e balie in Italia, p. 547.Google Scholar
  31. 53.
    Giambattista D’Addosio, Origine, vicende storiche e progressi nella Real S. Casa deil Annunziata di Napoli (Naples: Antonio Cons., 1883), app. 4. After the reform, nursing fees were raised and the geographic catchment area extended. The new recruits, almost as a rule, returned the children to the Annunziata when the period of monetary compensation terminated. Moreover, here child substitution was rarely an issue: most of the women who came from Apulia, for example, had extra milk because they had recently weaned a child. The requirement that the milk should be ‘abundant, good and recent’ was dropped. See ASMN, RCSA, RE, Libro Maggiore (R) 1872 and ASMN, RCSA, RE, Verbali di Uscite 1872, Vol. II, e.g., nos 1,248–62; 1,391–414.Google Scholar
  32. 55.
    The risks connected with breast-feeding seem to have taken various forms. In the case of middle- or upper-class women, the main health hazard was the consequences of the suppression of lactation. For others, infections either prevented breast-feeding (and led to abandonment) or were treated by taking a suckling from the Annunziata. The variety is testimony to the ideological context. Consequently, various emotional and social concerns were expressed through idioms related to lactation and health. In one case, a mayor certifiedthat a wet-nurse was bedridden (and thus could not come to the Annunziata herself) because ‘of the abundance of milk’. Her two-month-old daughter had died the previous day, and there might also have been other reasons for her immobile state. ASMN, RCSA, RE, Verbali di uscite 1872, Vol. II, no. 1,332. ‘Lack’ or ‘abundance’ of milk obviously referred to complex issues.Google Scholar
  33. 56.
    ASMN, RCSA, RE, Verbali di uscite 1870, no. 921.Google Scholar
  34. 58.
    Infants and small children were taken back to the foundling home because of poor health or because of a death or conditions of poverty in the foster families. Adolescent girls were also returned ‘to be healed’, ‘for correction’, ‘because of indiscipline’ or in order ‘to be educated (in the feminine arts)’. Dowries comprised another, unmentioned, incentive. It was not uncommon for the young women to subsequently return to the original foster parents, even several years later. De Crescenzio, in I brefotrofi, pp. 256–7, describes the weekly visits of foster mothers. He also draws a parallel between foster parents and legitimate parents, who both took advantage of the privileges secured by institutional affiliation. But I would argue that these strategies, again, illuminate the liminality of the daughters of the Madonna. They were also anomalous in social terms, as both marginal and privileged. By the same token, people may have connected the mystery of esposti origins to potential noble descent: that is, the idea that they might have been abandoned for reasons of honour rather than simple poverty (at least according to present-day views).Google Scholar
  35. 61.
    Mortality rates directly reflected the number of babies farmed out. Of the 2,285 children received at the Annunziata in 1870, two-thirds had died by the end of 1872. Of these, 1,371 babies had died in the home itself: not one survived. Among those given in fosterage, conversely, only 125 deaths were registered. The figures are from De Crescenzio, I brefotrofi, pp. 231–2. For mortality rates, see Da Molin, Trovatelli e balie in Italia and Carl Ipsen, ‘Legal Infanticide: Foundling Mortality and its Measurement in Turn-of-theCentury Italy with Special Reference to the Casa dell’Annunziata of Naples’, Popolazione e storia (2000), pp. 123–49.Google Scholar
  36. 62.
    Maria Pia Casarini, ‘Il buon matrimonio. Tre casi di infanticidio nell 800’, Mernoria, 7 (1983), pp. 27–36; Giovanna Fiume, “Madri snaturate”. La mania puerperale nella letteratura medica e nella pratica clinica dell’Ottocento’, in Madri, pp. 83–118.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 2004

Authors and Affiliations

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations