of the Annunziata
Neapolitan folk tradition says that the origin of the surname "Esposito" is to be found in the past participle of the verb "esporre", that is, "esposto", meaning "exposed" or "put out for display". Thus, originally, so the story goes, abandoned children —left perhaps in a church— were "exposed" and those with that surname can be traced back to a foundling at some point.
Generally, infants who were abandoned in Naples were left on the premises of the Church of the Annunziata (photo) in the old section of town, not too far from today's Piazza Garibaldi and the main train station. Indeed, there are also a great number of people in the Naples phone book with the surname "Annunziata," so that, too, may have a similar etymology. I have also heard the strange, quaint (?) —definitely weird— tale that on the premises of the Church of the Annunziata, which included a large orphanage, there was at one time a small, revolving Ferris-wheel-type affair with basket-cribs in place around the perimeter that each held a child. Periodically, the wheel would be put out and if you wanted a child, you could "spin the wheel," so to speak, and look at what was available. (I don't know if that is a true story, but that is the way I heard it).
[As a matter of fact —this written some time later— that is not true, but the real story is just as fascinating. See #2, below.]
The Annunziata, itself, goes back to the early 1300s and has always been, in one form or another, an orphanage. By the mid 1600s, it was a full-fledged home, church, hospital, and school for such children. In the 1750s, under Charles III, the entire premises were completely remodeled by a team of architects that included Ferdinando Fuga, who built the giant Royal Hospice for the Poor, and Luigi Vanvitelli. The façade of the church is by Vanvitelli, as is the dome. The church interior is highly ornamental and includes works, for example, by Giuseppe Sanmartino, the sculptor of the famed Veiled Christ within the Sansevero Chapel in Naples.
Traditionally, children raised by the Annunziata, surviving the staggering infant mortality rate of earlier times, were called "children of the Madonna" and, in a sense, there attached to them a certain aura of privilege —as if they lived in a state of grace. I have read that the Annunziata continued to function as an orphanage until the 1950s, at which time state social services took over the task.
Above, I refer to the Church of the Annunziata and a "revolving Ferris-wheel-type affair with basket-cribs in place around the perimeter that each held a child"—well, that was wrong. Close, but wrong.
I went to the Church of the Annunziata this morning and was happy to note that it is now the site of a quasi-permanent historical display sponsored by the cultural powers-that-be in the city government. As well, the church and premises have been "adopted" by enthusiastic and diligent pupils of two local elementary school. (This is not uncommon in Naples. The Church of the Incoronata is another such example.) The children have filled the entrance to the Annunziata with large displays boards of snapshots, drawings, poetry, handwritten stories of the church, explanations of the traditions surrounding the long history of the church, papier maché models of the façade, and even one almost life-sized cardboard replica of the item I misdescribed earlier, called la ruota—the wheel.
The "wheel" (photo) in question is actually a revolving single-basket contraption —somewhat like a "lazy Susan"— contained within a wooden frame about the size of a large chest of drawers. It was embedded in the wall of the front of the church with one side open to the street and the other within the church, like an automatic teller machine (to make an utterly inappropriate comparison!) Women who wanted to leave a child could open, from the street side, the compartment with the revolving basket, then put the infant inside and turn the device so that the basket moved around to the inside of the church where a nun was waiting. The current display in the room inside the church shows the "wheel," a small wash basin where the new arrivals were bathed, and a register, a book open to pages from the 1600s, the entries of which note the arrival and the sex and general physical condition of the infant. This unusual set-up guaranteed the anonymity of the woman since there was a wall between her and whoever accepted the infant on the other side. It was also, presumably, a kinder way to abandon a newborn child —that is, directly into the hands of someone who would care for it.