On the 4th Nov, Florence called for the Mud Angels of the tragic flood of 1966 to return to Florence to participate in the Anniversary commemorations. The most dramatic flood to hit Italy since 1557 with flood levels reaching 5m high. Level signs along many streets and above shop windows remind us of the drama.
A flood that no one had expected or could imagine. Santa Croce was the worst hit area and the wooden crucifix by Cimabue (c1265), while restored, still bears massive scars from the flood.
A symbol of the 50th anniversary was the restoration of another masterpiece – Last Supper by Giorgio Vasari ( 1546) only just finished in time for the local and overseas visitors to admire. Paula Deitz, now an Editor of an Arts Journal, and curiously in Florence at the time of the flood, gives details of her experience and the restoration process here.
35 people died, 17 in Florence, 18 in Province, 70 horses at the race course and a favoured dromedary from the local zoo. Around 5,000 people remained homeless and 6,000 business were damaged. Prisoners in the city prison were released and housed by locals in upper floors of buildings, most of whom returned on their own volition to local authorities after the flood subsided!
Florence was without electricity, telephones went down and the city remained isolated for 3 days. Florentines had to rely on each other for assistance and passed requests along by shouting from window to window ” in via di Fico” all the way to the Town Hall for the Mayor to respond back, ” Received Palazzo Vecchio, Over ” Emergency supplies and teams gathered in the Soccer stadium and with whatever means – rubber dinghies, fishing waders, shutters laced together with paddles, brought basic supplies to those afflicted. For months after the city was nothing but slime and sludge with a disgusting smell of naphtha and sewage.
It mobilized the biggest international volunteer movement to save the city and its artistic heritage. Mud Angels, poured in from everywhere, personalities, clergy, art lovers and thousands of young students from the rest of Europe came to clean up the sludge from books and documents, and move artworks to safer abodes. It became a catalyst for new techniques in restoration, of which Florence is now famous.
I relived the experience of the flood at a performance by an Itinerant theatre group – Teatro delle Seggiole who read from 3 diaries of the period: the Mayor of Florence, Piero Bargellini; a 16yr old lad; and the Director of a national newspaper, Enrico Matteo. It was a gripping account of the reality faced by Florentines before the arrival of outside assistance.
The Lad looks on from his window: “4.30am a crash. The course of the Arno, shortly after is in Piazza Mentana , curves right and rushes under the Ponte Vecchio. The lights of the Old Bridge are low. The current and its overflow has dragged tree trunks and rubbish which transforms the bridge into a dam. The violent water finds vent on the right, causing the collapse of the parapet and the road. Now the furious Arno pours throughout our part of town.”
The Mayor announces to his city by radio. “At this time I have been informed of the sad news that the Arno water has arrived in Piazza del Duomo. In some areas the flood reaches the first floor. And it is that area that needs our most urgent help. I invite everyone to stay calm and minimize your circulation. Any owners of rubber boats and amphibious vehicles, even in plastic, please make your way to the Palazzo Vecchio, to assist with immediate sanitary, food and rescue relief ”. In the days following he continued to protest loudly to the TV and newspapers indicating the gravity of the situation seemingly underestimated, and to the political institutions with a special plea to the Prime Minister to understand the scale of the tragedy “the damage is immense”.
The Journalist: “On arrival I found along with the Florentines who were not affected – that unforgettable night spent in mournful vigil on the edges of the another city, a city that water had separated from us, mysterious, inaccessible like a world inhabited on another planet, and that touched us with its breath, with a dank breath – a scene of total despair ” It was largely due to his reporting of the dramatic tragedy to Rome, together with the Mayor, that forced the mobilization of military and others to the aid of Florence.
Also completed just in time for the 50th Anniversary was the road alongside the Arno which had collapsed in May due to a burst water pipe, devouring a number of parked cars in the process!. The worksite was operative 24hrs a day and only asphalted in time for the President of the Republic to walk down it on 4 Nov 2016. The next day following days of rain, the Arno level rose to alarming levels again and equipment from the worksite had to be hurriedly craned up.
Which just goes to show we should never take it for granted, and keep an eye on the Arno and Mother Nature! Having been involved in the Vernazza flood of 2011, the drama of Florence 1966 seemed even more credible.