Today is the 50th anniversary of an important event in Italian history, the flood of Florence on November 4, 1966. The city suffered a massive flood, raising the Arno over a period of about 24 hours into a torrent that measured 22 feet deep in parts of the city near the river banks. The city of Venice suffered its deepest flood on record on that same day, even if that event is rarely spoken about. While it was a terrible tragedy that destroyed art, literature, businesses and caused a number of deaths, it also created an awareness of the need for restoration and preservation of the treasures of Italy.
November of 1966 started wet. The rains fell for days.The rivers near Florence began to swell. In the city, flood preparations were not taking place because, even if it is a city centered around its’ famous narrow river crossing at Ponte Vecchio, floods were a rare occurance. The city of Rome flooded often in history, leaving the ancient past in ruins and burying it with countless layers of mud and debris. Florence did not have troubles with the Arno, in fact the last major flood was in the 1500’s.
On November 3, the water in the river began to rise at a precipitous rate. The Arno has a strong current even on a normal day, but this was exponentially stronger. By the early morning of the 4th, basements in the city began to flood. November 4th was a holiday in Florence, Armed Forces Day which commemorated the end of World War One, so many people were out of town on holiday and shops were shuttered. As waters began to rise, far fewer people were around than normal, which meant that fewer people were able to take measures to safeguard the city. Some business owners that were in town were able to save their inventory, others who were not there were not as lucky.
By the time the city awoke, power and gas had been cut to the city, and by late morning, the piazzas were flooded. Water flowed over the riverbanks and came up through the sewers. Sewage and oil mixed in with the water and covered the city in a sludge. The water became deeper and deeper, turning the Duomo square into a river. People panicked, throwing belongings from windows and scrambling to escape. The waters crested and receded by late evening.
The scene that remained after the flood was grim. Cars strewn about the city like toys carelessly tossed aside. Broken shop windows, trees and other debris strewn about the streets. A friend and colleague who lived there at the time told me that the thing she most remembered was the thick black oil slick that covered everything, the smell of the heating fuel.
This was a disaster that would be sad in any city anywhere. 101 deaths, thousands left homeless, a city in tatters. But Florence was a particularly cruel place for such a disaster. Well known as the City of Art, Florence has always been a jewel of the Renaissance, housing some of the most precious works of art and architecture in the world. Take those precious works and drown them in 22 feet of oily, sewage-tainted water and you’ve got a disaster of tremendous proportions. Pretty gross too.
You’d think that this is simply a sad story, which it is, but it’s also a beautiful one. Sometimes the worst disasters bring forth new doors to open and new futures. The tragedy of the destruction of Florence’s art became a huge story in the media. Spotlights turned on this city, with and outpouring of help from all over the world. Within a few days, funds were being set up to help pay for clean up. Assistance small and large came from all over, for example, the city of Edinburgh sent double decker buses on loan until the transport agency could replace the ones destroyed by the flood. The Kennedy family jumped right in, sending Ted Kennedy immediately to assess the damage and Jaquiline Kennedy setting up a charitable fund to restore frescoes.
The biggest help, however, came from American students. In the days after the flood of Florence, young people from all over Europe went to the city to help clean up the mess. The American students are often spoken about, even these days, as the miraculous angels of the event, the “Mud Angels” who hauled buckets of mud and cleared debris. The work was impossible, but like an army, they did what needed to be done. Some dried manuscripts with hairdryers. Some helped to rip crumbling frescoes off of church walls using only bedsheets and glue. The work was terrible, but the locals who remember it still speak about the students with glistening eyes, the gratitude lingers even 50 years on.
For a fictionalized account of the student experience, I suggest a lovely book called “The Sixteen Pleasures” by Robert Hellenga. It’s got good info on how the triage restorations were carried out. A reader recommendation for another perspective of the flood: Dark Water, an account of the further efforts of one of the Monuments Men.
The media created a new interest throughout the world for ancient art. The Italian film director Franco Zeffirelli made a movie to publicize the plight of the Florentine and collected $20 million in aid, a staggering amount of money at the time. Italians often snicker about that movie, it was narrated by Richard Burton…in Italian!
The efforts to save the city created new techniques in art restoration that no one had ever needed to invent before. In fact, art restoration as we know it now is heavily influenced by the lessons learned from the flood, and Florence has become a major hub in the art restoration business. The concept of charitable organizations focused on art preservation was almost invented by this event. The worldwide effort was certainly a new thing.
50 years later, the flood of Florence has had a positive impact in some ways. But, believe it or not, the work isn’t finished. The major works were done long ago, but many little projects remain. Water damage still waits to be fixed in little churches all over the city. Attention turns quickly and the minor problems rarely see funding.
I’m thinking a lot about this disaster today because of the earthquakes in central Italy. We are shocked and saddened by news like that, but these little villages become forgotten almost overnight. Maybe there was no Michaelangelo in Norcia, but the smaller masterpieces that you’ve never heard about were there. Same for Amatrice. If only we had Rubble Angels who could rescue those towns. But more so, I wonder what can be done for preparation. Italy is carrying a spectacular load of history, some say up to 75% of the great works of western art and architecture. How can we reinforce ancient buildings, preserve little known works of art or even finish the job of the Mud Angels? Should it not be the responsibility of all of us in this connected world to protect our collective heritage in Italy? I think so.
Food for thought on this sunny November day. Sometimes disasters bring silver linings, but now is a good time to think about avoiding them all together.
If you’re interested in helping with the Norcia earthquake damage, you can donate here: https://en.nursia.org/donations/
I’m also fond of Friends of Florence, an organization dedicated to major art restoration projects with a great track record of getting it done: https://www.friendsofflorence.org/
For more on the flood of Florence, the English language newspaper The Florentine is covering this story all week.