Los Olvidados

The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance

by John Boswell
Pantheon, 488 pp., $24.95

One of the most popular tourist attractions of eighteenth-century Venice was the all-girl orchestra and choir of the Ospedale della Pietà, for which Antonio Vivaldi, appointed director in 1714, wrote music in such prodigious quantity that much of it lies still unpublished in the National Library in Torino. The girls were foundlings. Abandoned by their families, brought up in the charitable institutions of the Catholic Church and trained as musicians, they were eventually married off with a dowry provided by the Serenissima, or assigned to a convent. The large audiences at the concerts saw the girls only from a distance, through convent gratings, but Jean-Jacques Rousseau, secretary to the French ambassador in Venice in 1743, managed to get a closer view. A friend who was one of the governors of the Ospedale invited him to a meal with the musicians. Jean-Jacques went there full of anticipation, feeling an “amorous trembling” but was cruelly disappointed when he saw the “angels of beauty” close up. “Sophie was hideous…. Cattina…had only one eye…. Bettina…was disfigured by smallpox. Scarcely one of them was without some notable defect.” It was all too clear why their parents had abandoned such unmarriageable girls to the care of the Church.

Jean-Jacques was not unacquainted with the phenomenon of abandoned children. During his tour of duty in Venice he joined with his friend from the Spanish embassy, Carrio, in the purchase of a “little girl of eleven or twelve” to be raised as their shared mistress. Carrio, he tells us, was tired of “going to women who belonged to others and took it into his head to have one of his own.” Jean-Jacques himself had to leave Venice before the girl was, to use his word, “mature,” and in any case his feelings toward her had by that time become paternal. What happened to her after his departure we do not know, though he thought he detected similar feelings in Carrio.

By the time he came to write his Confessions (1765–1770) he had himself made a considerable contribution to the foundling population of the period. “My third child,” he tells us,

was thus deposited in a foundling home just like the first two, and I did the same with the two following: I had five in all. This arrangement seemed to me so good, so sensible, so appropriate, that if I did not boast of it publicly it was solely out of regard for their mother…. In a word, I made no secret of my action…because in fact I saw no wrong in it. All things considered, I chose what was best for my children, or what I thought was best.

This extraordinary statement is the epigraph for the introductory chapter of John Boswell’s account of the abandonment of children over a long stretch of Western history—from the classical age, through the Middle Ages, to the eighteenth century.

Until well into the nineteenth century of our era, most of the …

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