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The Ospedale della Pieta: History and Structure

Antonio Vivaldi, one of the most well-known composers of the Baroque era, began his career at the Ospedale della Pieta in Venice, one of Europe's most well-known charitable institutions. This brief essay provides a summary of history and organizational structure of the Pieta. It also outlines the origins of Vivaldi's connections with the Ospedale.

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Although other European cities had well-established systems of welfare, Venice's system is noteworthy for its connections to both Church and State as well as for its breadth, especially in regards to orphans. Baldauf-Berdes argues that the city's social services "went beyond traditional almsgiving" and surpassed those found elsewhere in Italy. Venice's four ospedali grandi, like similar institutions throughout Europe, grew out of the medieval idea that almsgiving could be "a passport to eternal salvation" and therefore received much of their financial support from testators eager to buy their way into heaven.
According to legend, the Pietà  was founded in 1346 by Frà  Pietro d'Assisi. However, there are records that indicate a home for foundlings (illegitimate children) was actually begun in 1313 by women from the Consorelle di Santa Maria dell'Umilità . Though the Pietà  came under the jurisdiction of the State in 1353, it continued to be funded primarily by private donors. In 1475, the ospedale moved to its current location on the Riva degli Schiavoni, where it became associated with the Parish of San Giovanni in Bragora. Unlike the other three ospedali, which had relatively strict guidelines for who they would accept into their care, the Pietà  had only one restriction: that the infant be deposited anonymously through the ospedale's revolving drawer. From its founding, the Pietà  was divided into two sections, one to care for girls and one to care for boys. The boys' division was originally housed separately, but was moved to the girls' facility in 1515 after the building was expanded.
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