The Legacy of Foundlings in the Countryside Surrounding Italian Cities
Keywords:foundlings, countryside, Italy
Abandonment of unwanted infants was a mass phenomenon throughout recent centuries of European history, and in Italy it is estimated to have applied to around 3% of 19th century births. The children were handed over to care establishments using an instrument known as the “ruota” (wheel), or directly, especially when the mother was guaranteed anonymity. The establishments then took care of their upbringing, entrusting them to wet nurses who first breast-fed them and then in many cases brought them up with their own children. The present study highlights through the analysis of surnames that in many municipalities even today there still exists the genetic inheritance left by foundlings, first entrusted to the care of rural families and who then became integrated in the host populations through marriage.
The abandonment of unwanted infants certainly caused a direct gene flow from the town centres to the adjacent hilly and low mountain areas. In general, however, the flow does not appear to have been so high as to change remarkably the genetic structure of the populations involved in the reception of the infants, regardless that not all the foundlings were born in the cities, as is well-known; a percentage of them were taken to the foundling hospitals from the countryside. In addition, many of those effectively born in the cities were children of people whose genetic pool did not differ substantially from that of the residents of the surrounding countryside.
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