Just over fifty years ago a third major disaster affected Florence’s unique cultural heritage. After the misguided and speculative ‘sventramento’ (disembowelment) of the city’s centre, the old market and the former ghetto in the nineteenth century,
(Florence’s old ghetto before its shameful demolition in the 1880’s)
and after the blowing up of the mediaeval houses north and south of the Ponte Vecchio during WWII (see my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/01/13/a-squalid-square-in-florence/) came the disastrous flood of 4th November 1966. This did not so much destroy historic buildings as damage their precious contents.
Santa Croce’s Cimabue crucifix, with its moving fragmented appearance, stands as a symbol to the time when there was no organized civil defence, no excess water drainage channels and when the interests of a few goldsmiths on the Ponte Vecchio were placed before the population of the city (these received warnings to evacuate much later…).
(Cimabue’s Crucifixion in Santa Croce before and after the 1966 flood).
I was a very young lad at the time of Florence’s inundation. Yet I was already a member of London’s Italian Institute of Culture and made aware of the catastrophe that had occurred. My future father-in-law, secretary general of the Institute and a Florentine, was instrumental in the coordination of assistance to the beleaguered cradle of the renaissance. He organized the transport of pumps and helped in the requests for volunteers to salvage what remained among the detritus of mud, sewer water and petrol.
The ‘angels of the mud’ were largely young enthusiastic people who came to Florence to save everything from paintings to manuscripts, from sculptures to musical instruments. It was truly a fantastic call to European solidarity and unity at a time when more people than ever felt what significance Florence had for them. I wish the UK had a similar sentiment towards the continent of which it’s a part today…..
In many sectors the work of clearing up the flood mess, begun by the angels, continues today. Manuscripts are still being dried out, frescoes reconstructed, sculptures salvaged and archaeological items pieced together. The exhibition at Florence’s Medici-Riccardi palace, inaugurated last year, gives us an overview of the whole tragic event with archive footage and continues to emphasise the positive aspects of Florence’s 1966 calamity. For the flood gave an impetus to the development of more effective restoration techniques, laid down the basis of the city’s present civil defence system and began work on outflow channels for the excess waters of the Arno, a river described by Italy’s supreme poet and native of Florence, Dante, as a ‘maledetta e sventurata fossa’ (‘accursed and unfortunate ditch’).
Indeed, with global warming conservation and restoration is needed now more than ever as water levels rise. This was the Arno last November when alarm bells were again rung:
The exhibition is well-organised and explained. First there’s a map showing Florence and the levels of flood water which reached over 35 (!) feet in some areas. You can see that it was the Santa Croce area with the darkest blue (Florence’s ‘East End’) which was worst affected, with 34 dead and over 10,000 families made homeless.
At the exhibition there are examples of paintings restored as far as possible to their original glory:
Books and scrolls have fared less well
As have musical instruments.
(A saved mandolin and a lost lute)
Here are further objects which have had to be restored. I was particularly taken by the Etruscan bronze with lion heads which, I feel, could have been an incense burner, rrather like those we saw around the Jokhang during our trip to Lhasa last year.
This seventeenth century model of San Firenze church with at least six different type of wood used, has only recently been salvaged as far as it is possible (wood swells up to five times its original size when immersed in water and since so many old pictures are painted on wooden panels it presents almost insurmountable problems.)
As with everything in life ‘pazienza’ (patience) is the keyword. Who knows how long we will have to wait for such other places, this time devastated by the hands of men, to be restored to as far as their primal glory as is possible? Palmyra, Aleppo and Nimrud come to mind…
Talking about which, I had to negotiate a migrant/refugee protest outside the palace which is also the seat of the regional government of Tuscany. But that demands another post. Suffice it to say that even in the very heart of cultural delight, the world’s calamities have their sovereign shrine.
Incidentally, the Palazzo-Medici Riccardi has plenty more going for it.
- The delightful Benozzo Gozzoli frescoes in the chapel illustrating the journey of the three wise men with portraits of members of the Medici family as the retinue. I’ve described these at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/01/11/a-cold-coming-we-had-of-it/ and included the colourful procession of the Three Wise Men which takes place in Florence at Epiphany with the participants’ costumes directly inspired by the Medici fresco. There’s also my account at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/04/20/dali-magi-vietnam-and-earthquakes-in-florence/
- The state rooms including that fabulous golden hall painted by Luca ‘fa Presto’ (‘works quickly’) Giordano.
- The ancient statues gallery in the basement.
- The garden with orange trees in winter – so delightful!