The small attic apartment that Swietlan Kraczyna shared with his wife and baby daughter in Florence did not have heating, but it had a great view of the Arno river. It was nearly dawn 50 years ago on Friday, when the immense sound of water rushing through the three arches of the Ponte Santa Trinita made the artist, who usually worked at night, look out the window.
What followed – the great flood of Florence – would be remembered for decades as the worst natural disaster to lay siege to the city at the heart of the Renaissance. Dozens of lives were lost, great works of art destroyed or nearly destroyed, and a million books in the city’s low-lying Biblioteca Nazionale were submerged.
Kraczyna, who was living on a shoestring at the time and worried about having enough food for his family, grabbed his camera and headed for the streets with just 16 shots left in his roll of film.
He found shopkeepers trying to salvage what they could and recalls holding on to buildings as he made his way back home, trudging along against the current.
“Once I was home, we sat and just watched. There were various antique shops close to the Ponte Vecchio and we saw all this beautiful furniture just flowing down the river. So we knew great damage was being done, but we had no idea how terrible it was in Santa Croce, where the greatest loss took place,” Kraczyna said.
The famous Franciscan basilica, constructed in 1296, was steeped in nearly three metres of water after the Arno busted through the riverbank.
Miles away, in Pisa, Kirsten Aschengreen Piacenti, an art historian, felt honour-bound to get on a bus and head to Florence. She joined the ranks of the angeli del fango, or mud angels, who went about saving some of the world’s most treasured works, which were not only wet and muddy but in some cases – such as the marble statues in the Bargello museum – covered in slick oil that was proving difficult to remove.
As the effort to save works speeded up in the following weeks, Piacenti bumped into an old friend, a professor from the University of London who was working in the Uffizi, and described the dilemma. The meeting set off a chain of events that led to the creation of new laboratories in which chemicals would be used to treat the marble for the first time.
Help poured into the city, in the form of experts and funds. The efforts of the mud angels – Piacenti worked on the cleanup for a year and a half – were characterised by “the feeling around the world that Florence must be saved”, Piacenti said.
“It was the feeling that the Renaissance started in Florence, you know, and so it concerned all of us. Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, these were people who appealed to everyone in the art world,” she said.
On Friday, when Florence commemorates the 50th anniversary of the flood, it will also finally unveil the reinstallation of possibly the most famous work to have been severely damaged and saved, Vasari’s Last Supper. The five-panel painting had been immersed in water for 12 hours, and its restoration was only completed in late 2013. Other masterpieces that were damaged included Cimabue’s great Crucifix from Santa Croce, and Donatello’s Penitent Magdalene.
The story behind the effort to save Florence has been captured in a new documentary directed by Enrico Pacciani – Firenze 66 Dopo l’alluvione – which will air in Italy on 5 November on Sky Arte.
For all the devastation wreaked on Florence, said Donal Cooper, a university lecturer in Italian Renaissance art at Cambridge, the 1966 flood also drove profound change and innovation in conservation practice, pointing to the post-flood establishment of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure.
“In the wake of 1966, restorers learned how to save frescoes without detaching them from walls and how to preserve manuscripts using historic materials and techniques,” Cooper said. “The post-flood response stands as a great achievement of international collaboration and laid the foundations for Italian excellence in art conservation.”
Eyewitnesses including Kraczyna – whose prints would later hang in the Uffizi Gallery – remember how quickly the water receded, just a day after it spread its devastation. When it was all done, Florentines began heading to the Ponte Vecchio.
“During the second world war it was the only bridge that was not blown up by the Germans. The Ponte Vecchio had survived the war and people came to see whether it had survived the flood or not. If the bridge survived, Florence would survive,” Kraczyna said.
This year has seen plenty of seismic movement in the world, from Japan to Alaska, Colombia to Tonga. But the headlines have been dominated by recent earthquakes in Italy’s Apennine mountains. There, human tragedy and disruption are paired with a loss on a scale that cannot be measured by Richter – that of the country’s rich cultural patrimony. In August, a 13th-century town, Amatrice, was virtually erased in hours, its stone clock tower one of the only remnants of its long history. Now a defining image of the latest, and most severe, in a series of regional quakes is the collapsed cathedral of St Benedict at Norcia, in the south-eastern corner of Umbria. The 6.6 event on Sunday decimated the ancient building, hollowing its innards and thrusting its stone walls akimbo. The facade stands alone, like a misplaced stage backdrop among the rubble.
It is a cruel coincidence that this happened almost exactly half a century after one of Italy’s greatest ever natural and cultural disasters: the great flood of Florence in 1966. In one day, 50 years ago, Italy and the world nearly lost the Renaissance city, a destination for 16 million visitors a year. In a few short hours, seven centuries of European art and a population of half a million were put at risk.
The autumn of 1966 was endlessly wet – from September onward the rains barely stopped. On 2 and 3 November, Florence had a third of its average annual rainfall. Given the region’s history of severe flooding, with at least one catastrophic event each century, residents were nervous. For the superstitious, it was hard to ignore the fact that the first such flood in 1333, and the last, in 1844, both occurred on 4 November.
Just after 1am, the swollen Arno breached the levees at Rovezzano, a suburb of Florence, and claimed its first victim, an overseer at the water treatment plant. At Valdarno, engineers from Enel, the state electricity company, had become fearful that the city’s two overloaded dams would break and made a decision to discharge more than 10m tons of excess water as the “least worst” solution to the crisis. The deluge surged toward the centre, moving at almost 40 miles per hour.
It was a public holiday, so Florentines did not have to rise early, which may have saved thousands of lives. They slept on, oblivious to the fact that gas and electricity sources were shutting down, landslides were making roads in and out of the city impassable, and rainwater was advancing through their sewers like a guerrilla army. The banks of the river held until 5am and then collapsed, the overflow combining with the oily effluence pushing up manhole covers to create instant acqua alta, or high water.
The first cultural institution to be breached was the Biblioteca Nazionale, housing 8m documents and books. Standing on low ground facing the Arno, the library was defenceless. The basement held some of the most precious manuscripts of all, moved there for safety during the second world war; they were immersed in minutes.
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In nearby Piazza Santa Croce, the imposing statue of Dante stood marooned, gazing down his nose at the swirling soup of cars, debris and sewage now lapping at his stone slippers. Inside the basilica, water rose to a depth of 9ft, threatening dozens of artworks, including fresco cycles of the lives of the saints by Giotto, the “father of the Renaissance”. Marble tombs of some of Florence’s greatest citizens, from Machiavelli to Michelangelo, were submerged. In the nearby streets, home to hundreds of poor workers and artisans, floodwaters would reach 20ft.
Church bells rang out across the city in belated warning, and people scrambled from their beds, rushing to shift their families and their belongings to the higher floors of their buildings. One American tourist described how her hotelier begged the guests’ forgiveness for the lack of fresh bread, before herding them upstairs, where they perched anxiously on their trunks and watched the water mount the staircase.
Some people dared to clamber out on to slippery rooftops to survey the scene below. A chorus of desperation arose, with people shouting window to window for aid and information. News spread quickly, not all of it accurate: “The Uffizi is destroyed!” “The Ponte Vecchio has fallen!” The death toll began to rise.
The popular mayor of Florence, Piero Bargellini, lived in the Santa Croce neighbourhood and was unable to get to his office or contact the authorities in Rome. His daughter, a teenager at the time, recently recalled her father’s challenge that day, in a city with no emergency measures in place, trapped inside with his young family. “There were corpses floating past our second-floor window, along with cars and dogs flailing and barking and telephone masts and doors and metal and glass, lethal sharp-edged debris … It was horrific.”
Gushing through the city’s narrow streets, the water had a power that one witness likened to “an enormous fire hose”. In Piazza del Duomo, it broke the locks of Ghiberti’s Baptistery doors, the “Gates of Paradise”, ripping five of the carved bronze panels from their frames.
At last, as night fell, the waters began to ebb almost as fast as they had risen, leaving behind a noxious mess of sewage, debris, oil and silt – a ton of “flood mud” for every man, woman, and child in the city.
Emergency services were slow to arrive, but an unorthodox troupe of first responders stepped forward immediately: hundreds of young people, many of them students of art from abroad. They volunteered for days without heat, water or adequate sanitation, forming human chains to retrieve manuscripts and carry artworks from the mire. Grateful Florentines dubbed them the “Mud Angels”.
The civic cost soon became apparent. In the city and surrounding areas, at least 100 people lost their lives; 20,000 were made homeless. In an economy built on tourism, the city centre’s ruined shops, restaurants and hotels made prospects of recovery look bleak.
The floods are part of what makes Florentines who they areRobert Clark
Alongside all of this was the cultural tragedy. The state archives were devastated, almost half of their records lost. In 30 churches, museums and libraries, 14,000 works of art and more than 3m books were damaged or destroyed. The most famous artistic casualty was a large wooden crucifix by Cimabue (the 13th-century master who taught Giotto his craft), rescued from Santa Croce after more than 12 hours under water. “Fatally wounded,” as one historian mourned, the painted Christ was left almost without face and body. It became an emblem of the near-erasure of Florence itself. As the cross was trundled through the streets in the back of an open van, the stricken Christ looked as vulnerable and hopeless as many onlookers felt.
But hope – and tourism – would return. A tremendous outpouring of international aid brought vital funds and expertise to restoration efforts, and the resilient citizens worked together to reopen Florence for business. At Christmas, Pope Paul VI came from Rome to celebrate midnight mass at the Duomo and predicted the resurrection of the city and its artworks. By the following summer, many hotels and restaurants had reopened. Within 10 years Cimabue’s masterpiece was partially restored and returned to Santa Croce. Within 20, two-thirds of all the damaged art had been repaired. Even now, philanthropic donations continue for the remaining artistic casualties of 1966. It is hoped that the centrepiece of the city’s 50th-anniversary commemorations this November will be Vasari’s panel painting The Last Supper, which has finally been restored with the recent assistance of the Getty Foundation and the fashion house Prada.
Today in Florence, priceless artworks or manuscripts are not kept at street level or underground. Higher flood barriers are in place near the Uffizi gallery; new reservoirs and another dam were built. Regular flood drills are conducted in the city, and advance warning systems are in place, yet some experts question whether enough has been done to prevent disaster next time the Arno bursts its banks.
Cimabue’s crucifix is now fixed on a high wall in the Museum of Santa Croce, with an electrical pulley designed to haul it up to safety in the event of another deluge. But what happens if, as in most natural disasters, the electricity is cut off? Perhaps returning the cross to its home was more important, the potent symbolism of recovery and resurrection outweighing other considerations.
Author Robert Clark writes that “the floods are part of what makes Florentines who they are”, suggesting that the benefits of living in such a place outbalance the risks. The prospect of losing lives, homes and art treasures to the Arno’s dark water once a century has not daunted them but made them stubborn and resilient. The repeated rebirth of the beloved city on the river is a triumph of tenacity over experience.
• Eileen Horne’s Zola and the Victorians: Censorship in the Age of Hypocrisy is published by MacLehose, price £9.99.