The wheel of the exposed: the "soul children" of the Annunziata of Naples

by Gaia Borrelli

wheel of exhibits


Stories of difficulties, stories of despair, stories of abandonment. Hopeless souls have alternated in this place, just to find it. Hope placed in a new life, a life that cannot be sustained. It is precisely here that this life was let go, in the yearning that it might one day have a decent one: the wheel of exhibits.

From the dawn of time, babies were often abandoned, left to a sad fate; there were many cultures that considered infanticide and abandonment legal. Only with the advent of Christianity were the first laws drawn up for the help of abandoned infants and the poorest families. However, we will have to wait for the arrival of the Middle Ages as regards the birth of institutions dedicated to the rescue of abandoned children. The first "orphanage" was born in Italy, in Milan and was established by the archpriest Dateo. However, the practice of abandoning children continued to be widespread, so much so that the situation soon became unsustainable. It was therefore decided to create the so-called "wheel", to ensure that these abandoned babies could find cures.

How did this wheel work? The wheel was a cylindrical rotating mechanism, usually made of wood, divided into two parts closed by a door: one towards the inside and another towards the outside which, by matching an opening in the wall, allowed to place , without being seen from the inside, the exposed, the abandoned babies. By turning the wheel, the child was placed in the internal part where, once the door was opened, he could be picked up.

The first wheel of exhibits was born in France, in Marseille, in 1188, while shortly after they were also established in Aix en Provence and Toulon. In Italy, the first wheel was created by Pope Innocent III, who, according to tradition, had been very tried by the sight of three bodies of newborns, fished out from the Tiber. This wheel was established in 1198, in the Santo Spirito hospital in Sassia.

In Naples, a wheel of exhibits was established from 1600 in the Santa Casa dell'Annunziata, inside the Basilica of the Santissima Annunziata Maggiore. The Basilica is located near Forcella, part of a vast monumental complex originally constituted, in addition to the church, by a hospital, a convent, a hospice for foundlings and a "conservatory" for the exhibits. The institution, dedicated to the care of abandoned children, was sponsored by the Congregation of the Santissima Annunziata, founded in 1318. The congregation grew more and more, first supported by Sancha D'Aragona, then later by the noble families of Naples.

Even today, in via dell'Annunziata to the left of the sixteenth-century entrance arch, it is still possible to see the wheel, obviously no longer in operation, while the interiors have been restored and made open to visitors. In any case, the entire Annunziata complex can be visited, which boasts fourteenth-century origins, but subsequently remodeled in the sixteenth century. Following a fire in the eighteenth century, the complex was extensively renovated by Luigi Vanvitelli, who also designed a branch, to allow for mass celebrations during the works. A very suggestive environment, with a circular plan, where many sculptures that survived the flames were placed.

Naples has a particular bond with this place, precisely because the most common surname of the city originates from here: Esposito. Thanks to the discovery of some registers, it is known that the first child to bear this surname was registered on 1 January 1623. His name was Fabrizio Esposito. Those like Fabrizio were precisely the "children of the Madonna", as their parents "exposed" them to the mercy of Mary. Children were often left with a sheet of paper with their parents' names written on them, or with a necklace that identified them, in the event that one day their parents had recalled their parental authority.

The wheel of Naples became the most famous in Italy, together with that of Rome, and was definitively closed in 1875.

Even today, on March 25, many of those who bear the surname Esposito find themselves in front of the complex to commemorate that Christian goodness that allowed "the soul children of the Annunciation of Naples" to be able to grow, but above all to live!

Gaia Borrelli

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