No Worse Fate
No worse fate could befall city renown for its art and culture. In 1966, Florence experienced the almost unthinkable, when the banks of the Arno Rivers burst, bringing a torrent of water gushing through the streets of the city and reaping havoc to all in its wake. As people scampered to safety, the water engulfed the city’s most treasured buildings and took with it priceless pieces of art and history.
It all began late on the evening of the 3rd of November 1966. The city was experiencing its second day of intensive rainfall. What most didn’t realise was that the city had one-third of the region’s annual rainfall pour down in just two days. That was about 2,000 cubic metres of water per second. Nobody was prepared for what was about to come.
The first sign something was wrong was when the Florence police began receiving calls from frightened people in villages further up the Arno River, warning of rising waters.
Romeldo Cesaroni, the nightwatchman on the Ponte Vecchio, was the first to raise the alarm in Florence. He was forced to flee the bridge as the water began rising dangerously close to the many shops along its span. Romeldo jumped on his bicycle and rode through the city streets, waking the Ponte Vecchio shopkeepers. Many of the shopkeepers arrived just in time to save their stock before the bridge was engulfed in a wave of water. Unfortunately for some owners, it came with such force and speed it washed away their shops before anything could be saved. All across the city nightwatchmen were being caught off guard as the waters of the Arno rose.
In the early hours of the following morning, engineers at the Valdarno dam, fearing it would burst, had no option but to release a huge volume of water. The water sped towards Florence, at a reported 60kmph (37mph), destroying just about everything in its path. It wasn’t long before the city’s drainage system had completely failed. Water was spewing from manholes, creating muddy water fountains all over the city. Electricity began to fail, as water found the fuse boxes (mostly in basements) and they began to explode. Gas, electricity, and water supplies were cut off and hospitals began running on emergency generators.
But the worst was yet to come as the city’s worst fears were about to be realised. The banks of the Arno River burst, creating huge landslides that literally cut the city off from the rest of the world. By 8 am muddy water was rushing into the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale (National Central Library) and the Uffizi Gallery, both of which housed priceless content. One woman ran madly through the corridors of Museo di Storia della Scienza clutching the telescopes and lenses of Galileo. Like the scenes from the 2005 floods of New Orleans, people watched in disbelief as the muddy waters swept Florence’s history away in two days of chaos.
Santa Croce was the first and hardest populated area to be hit. The Cloister was completely submerged in water and the crypt penetrated. But saddest of all the Crucifix by Cimabue, located in the Museum, inside the big Franciscan refectory, was completely destroyed. Later the mud was sieved in the hopes of retrieving some of the fragments.
Water was soon flooding the Piazza del Duomo, helped along by the narrow streets which acted as a funnel. Cellars around the city were filling with water and the oil used for central heating, was adding to the water, mud and sewage gushing through the streets.
The bronze doors of the Baptistery were broken open from the power of the water, engulfing Donatello’s wooden Magdalene and taking off the doors of Paradise by Ghiberti and the doors by Andrea Pisano. The wooden Magdalene was later found covered in black oil and five panels from the doors found lying in the mud.
At its peak, the water level of the Arno reached 11m and through the city, it reached 6.7m (22ft), the highest being around Santa Croce. When the water began to reside, late in the evening, it left horrid black rings around the buildings from the oil and mud.
As news began spreading of the floodwaters, hundreds if not thousands of students and volunteers from all over the world rushed into the city. They worked long hours in the worst of conditions, trying to save as much art and treasures as they could. They formed long lines and just passed valuable books and artwork continually down the line, from hand to hand, until they were safe. Five hundred people alone stood in the mud and filthy floodwaters at the Biblioteca Nazionale, working feverishly to rescue what they could. All over Florence, great lines of volunteers began forming in a valiant attempt to save Florence’s history. These amazing people became known as the “angeli del fango” (Mud Angels) by the Florentines.
By the time the water began to ebb, the people of Florence were beginning to realise the extent of the damage. The streets were covered in an estimated 600,000 tons of mud, sewage and debris, escaped prisoners were roaming the city, and houses were collapsing around them. An estimated 30 people died, over 50,000 families made homeless and 6,000 shops went out of business.
To make matters worse Venice was also in a similar predicament and the city had to compete with them for assistance from Rome. In the end, there were mixed emotions, as the people of Florence (and the world) mourned what was lost but at the same time rejoiced in what was saved.
It is estimated over 1,400 pieces of artwork, 2 million books and numerous historic scientific and musical instruments were completely destroyed. Some of those works lost forever included frescoes by Botticelli, Pietro Lorenzetti, Simone Martini, and Paolo Uccello and Cimabue’s Crucifixion.It was of little comfort to the Florentines to discover over 14,000 pieces of art and 4 million books and manuscripts were damaged but restorable. To this day, forty years after the event, they are still working to restore each and every one of the pieces.
It must be remembered that the floods of 1966 affected not only Florence but Austria, Switzerland, Yugoslavia and many towns of Southern Italy. In the end, a total of over 150 lives were lost in southern Europe due to the floods.