The tidemarks of Florence’s great flood

Published 16 December 2016

Fifty years since Florence was hit by the floods that destroyed not only lives but invaluable art treasures, Claudia Pritchard reports on the legacy.

  • From the Winter 2016 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    In the early hours of 4 November 1966, the River Arno rose over its banks and stormed into Florence, the city whose prosperity it had helped create centuries before.

    The waters that had once rinsed the finely dyed fabrics that the world desired had, within hours, sometimes minutes, penetrated medieval buildings, and saturated the artworks and manuscripts they housed. The water level reached more than six metres in the eastern Santa Croce district, where the church and national library were early victims. And almost as quickly as the floods arrived, they receded, leaving the historic heart of the city with its innumerable monuments thickly spread with a sickening impasto of mud, splintered wood, sewage and debris. At Santa Croce, the 13th-century Crucifix by Cimabue was all but destroyed. Of the millions of documents destroyed or damaged, more than one million were in the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, within a few steps of the river.

    Today, many landmarks show the high watermark of 1966 and lovers of art and architecture who are old enough to remember the floods still grieve at the memory of water coursing through the streets. Those streets were remarkably empty, though, on that day in November: mass tourism was yet to come, and Florentines were waking up to a long weekend. That Friday was a public holiday, marking victory over Austria-Hungary in November 1918. Where on any other weekday office and shop assistants would have been making their way to work, and where today streams of tourists follow the trail of the great sights, on that Friday empty vehicles bobbed and tumbled in the torrents, and householders watched terrified from apartments above street level. All told, 100 people died in Florence or further upstream, and 10,000 were made homeless.

  • The flooded Accademia Gallery in Florence, in 1966, with Michelangelo’s David at the far end

    The flooded Accademia Gallery in Florence, in 1966, with Michelangelo’s David at the far end

    Photo: David Lees/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

  • Franco Zeffirelli was among those who recorded the scenes, and his short film narrated by Richard Burton helped to raise $20 million towards the seemingly impossible task of restoration. Such generosity was among the many good things to come out of the devastation, and it manifested, in the first instance, in the selflessness of those who rushed from all over the world to the city’s aid.

    Among these were the so-called angeli del fango, the mud angels – many of them young students and artists, who in shorts and wellingtons, waded in. Professionals poured in too: conservators and specialists in the rescue and restoration of paper, parchment, fresco, panel paintings and paintings on canvas, sculpture in wood and bronze, firearms and musical instruments. The world of conservation opened up, its once secret techniques urgently shared.

    Behind the hands-on volunteers was an army of fundraisers, among them the US Committee to Rescue Italian Art, an umbrella organisation fronted by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, which focused on the restoration of frescoes. Individuals and indeed whole cities chipped in: Picasso donated a painting, which raised $100,000 for restoration; the city of Edinburgh lent a fleet of buses to fill the gap in Florence’s stricken public transport system. And the Italian artists of the day, beyond their immediate efforts, hatched a remarkable plan that did not focus solely on the restoration of works from the past. Having witnessed centuries of fine art imperilled, they were determined to lay the foundations of the heritage of the future, with a collection of contemporary art that would encourage the art of the future.

  • The world of conservation opened up, its once secret techniques urgently shared.

    Claudia Pritchard

  • The project got off to a vigorous start. Just three months after the flood, an exhibition opened in the Palazzo Vecchio to celebrate current art and as a curtain-raiser for a proposed museum of contemporary art for Florence, the Museo Internazionale di Arte Contemporanea. Exhibitors included Jean Arp, Alberto Burri, Lucio Fontana, Marino Marini and Robert Motherwell, and some of the works formed the basis of the city’s new collection of modern art. The main protagonist was the art critic Carlo Ludovico Ragghianti, minister of arts and theatre immediately after the Second World War, whose eloquent and passionate call to the world – dubbed his appello – launched a campaign for a new modern art collection in a city wedded to the Renaissance.

    The call was answered with enthusiasm, and the collection grew quickly and impressively, until there were thousands of works, among them substantial gifts by private collectors and by living artists, including the sculptor Mirko Basaldella and the painter Corrado Cagli. A major gift of works came in 1973 from the engineer and collector Alberto della Ragione; his acquisitions included still-lifes by Giorgio Morandi, portraits by Giacomo Manzù and a sculpture by Marino Marini, as well as works by Mario Sironi, Giorgio de Chirico, Carlo Carrà and Renato Guttuso.

    But while occasional shows were held, the collection was for decades without a permanent, publicly accessible home, until the opening in 2014 of the magnificent Museo Novecento. The venue is across the piazza from the church of Santa Maria Novella, where the flood had coated the base of the north nave wall housing Masaccio’s Trinity with mud, and water had with tragic irony reached Uccello’s fresco cycle Noah and the Flood. The museum houses art from 1900 onwards, but its long-awaited home is the former Ospedale di San Paolo, later known as the Spedale delle Leopoldine. This palatial institution dates from 1208 and was augmented over the centuries by Michelozzo. In 1495 Andrea della Robbia created a lunette of Saint Dominic embracing Saint Francis, who is said to have established an order there upon his return from Egypt around 1213. The historic building is in complete contrast to the 20th-century collection that has grown out of the determination to rescue Florence 50 years ago.

    An exhibition at Museo Novecento this winter, Beyond the Borders/After the Flood, retells the story of the floods and of Ragghianti’s international appello. But as before, the emphasis is on the future, and alongside the exhibition, the gallery is launching a new appello – a second call to artists and collectors and heirs worldwide to dig deep and donate works that will take the museum, and Florence, into a new era.

    Beyond the Borders/After the Flood: The Artists’ Engagement is at Museo Novecento, Florence, until 8 January

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