1966 Flood of the River Arno
The 1966 Flood of the River Arno in Florence killed many people and damaged or destroyed millions of masterpieces of art and rare books in Florence. It is considered the worst flood in the city's history since 1557. With the combined effort of Italian citizens and foreign donors and committees, or angeli del fango ("Mud Angels"), many of these fine works have been restored. New methods in conservation were devised and restoration laboratories established. However, even decades later, much work remains to be done.
Located in the Tuscany region of Central Italy, the River Arno is approximately 150 miles (240 km) long. It flows from the Mount Falterona hills of the Apennine Mountains to the Ligurian Sea, just 7 miles (11 km) west of Pisa. Lush vineyards and olive groves line the river's scenic course to the west, out to sea. Principally utilized for irrigation purposes, only 20 miles (32 km) of the river is used for navigation.
The highest flows of the river generally occur in spring and autumn of every year, when rainfall in the Apennines is at its greatest. The intensity of the 1966 flood was further intensified by both the orography of the Apennines, which contributed to the high run-off rates and river discharges, and urban development. Roads, such as the Via de Calzaiuoli, served as narrow channels for floodwaters, allowing for their greater speed and destruction within the city; bridges, on the other hand, hindered river flow where it was needed, allowing water to pour over the floodplain with great force.
Timeline of events
November 3, 1966
November 4, 1966
The flood has had a lasting impact on Florence, economically and culturally. City officials and citizens were extremely unprepared for the storm and the widespread devastation that it caused. There were virtually no emergency measures in place, at least partially due to the fact that Florence is located in an area where the frequency of flooding is relatively low. In fact, approximately 90% of the city's population were completely unaware of the imminent disaster that would befall them as they were sleeping during the early hours of November 4, 1966.
Residents were set to celebrate their country's World War I victory over the Austrians on November 4, Armed Forces Day. In commemoration, businesses were closed and many of their employees were out of town for the public holiday. While many lives were likely spared as a result, the locked buildings greatly inhibited the salvaging of valuable materials from numerous institutions and shops, with the exception of a number of jewellery stores whose owners were warned by their nightwatchmen.
Tragically, 5,000 families were left homeless by the storm, and 6,000 stores were forced out of business. Approximately 600,000 tons of mud, rubble and sewage severely damaged or destroyed numerous collections of the written work and fine art for which Florence is famous. In fact, it is estimated that between 3 and 4 million books/manuscripts were damaged, as well as 14,000 movable works of art.
Artist Marco Sassone, in an 1969 interview, recalled the impact of the flood on Florence's residents: "The only thing you could do was watch and be helpless. Nature was master...the women became crazy with fear. They began throwing things from the windows and screaming 'who is going to save my children?'" It was reported that 101 people lost their lives in the flood waters.
Specific collections affected
Specific works affected
Funding and assistance
Realizing the immense wealth and importance of Florentine culture within a global context, many individuals and organizations contributed in the mission of conservation, both monetarily and with physical work. Art historian and professor Carlo Ludovico Ragghianti assembled a committee, with Mayor Piero Bargellini as chairman, to raise awareness of the needs of Florence's art and academic institutions. Members included prominent figures from around the world, representatives of their own respective institutions.
A number of other international committees were formed with the intention of sponsoring various institutions in Florence:
The work of and contributions made by these committees were supervised by a central committee in Rome.
Additional funding has come from various governments, UNESCO, and the International Committee for the Assistance of Museums, Works of Art, Libraries and Archives, among others.
Charity auctions were also organised. In a show of support for the Florentine art community, Pablo Picasso had one of his paintings, Recumbent Woman Reading, auctioned off in an internationally televised programme. He donated the $105,000 it earned to restoration efforts in Italy. Similarly, Pietro Annigoni and donated the money they earned from selling 575 colour lithographs (depicting the events surrounding the flood and its aftermath), produced from 13 of their drawings.
While many institutions from around the world financially compensated employees who travelled to Italy and aided in the restoration of Florence, many others volunteered their services for absolutely no pay. Collectively, these people have been fondly referred to as "Mud Angels," due to their commitment to working in such deplorable conditions.
The "Mud Angels"
Mario Primicerio, the mayor of Florence from 1995 to 1999, helped celebrate the Mud Angels' efforts during an anniversary celebration in 1996. Thirty years earlier, he was a professor who lent his assistance in preserving the priceless artefacts of Florence. The Angels cleaned the city of refuse, mud and oil, and retrieved works of art, books and other materials from flooded rooms; experts from around the world volunteered their time and knowledge in the conservation of the aforementioned materials.
In a 1996 interview, Primicerio offered three principal reasons as to why the Mud Angels felt compelled to help: a concern for future generations, a feeling of international unity and a pervasive sense of solidarity.
Many experts in the field of conservation, such as Peter Waters, utilised their knowledge in restoring the works of art and literature ravaged by the flood. Staff from the Central Institute of Restoration and Institute of Book Pathology, for example, volunteered their time, efforts, and expertise in this enormous undertaking. New concepts, such as "phased conservation," and methods in conservation, such as mass deacidification, were conceived during this period after the flood ravaged the city of Florence.
Books and records
Priorities were established during the process of conserving damaged books and records, the most critical of which became the retrieval of materials from flooded rooms. After they were rescued, books and records were typically washed and disinfected. In certain cases, bindings were cut and sheets treated individually. Following a thorough cleansing, the materials were then dried in Florentine libraries, space permitting, or at locations outside of the city, such as tobacco kilns and granaries. In some circumstances, large quantities of books were covered with sawdust, as a means of drawing out moisture. When not washed prior to drying, dried mud was then scraped off the exterior of the books.
One or both of two drying techniques was applied: interleaving by hand and/or drying with the aid of domestic heaters or other mechanical equipment. Interleaving involved the placement of blotting papers within the text-block of a book and replacing them once they were fully soaked; a variety of papers were used, including mimeograph paper and green blotting paper (the latter of which ultimately caused more damage). In kilns, the humidity level was slowly lowered from ninety to forty degrees. If deemed necessary, bindings were removed and dried separately. Removed pages were hung out to dry on an apparatus similar to a clothes line.
Fearing the spread of mold, workers completed these tasks with the greatest speed possible. After they were disinfected and dried, the items were then reassembled, restored and, if necessary, rebound. Card catalogs and in some cases, the actual books and documents were reproduced by reprinting on early presses, photocopying, or copying by hand.
The National Library Centers of Florence: a case study
Within six months of the flood, the National Library of Florence had 144 workers on hand: three binders, eight binder trainees, two librarians, forty-two workmen, eighty-one student volunteers and eight other library staff members.
Together they devised a logical and efficient method in book repair, involving nine separate and clearly defined steps:
This methodical nine-part system enabled workers to process between seventy and a hundred books a day.
After the Florence flood, the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale was not allowed to put books back into the lower levels. This was a step towards disaster prevention in the future.
Many panel paintings were critically damaged as a result of water saturating their wood, causing the glue and gesso, which compose the priming layer, to dissolve. Consequently, the paintings' colours dissolved as well. In addition, the moisture caused paintings to buckle and crack or develop blisters, and the paint to chip and fall. Actions were taken to stabilize the problem by applying rice paper to the affected paintings and storing them in cool, stable environments where humidity was slowly decreased. In extreme cases, the paint layer was extracted from the wood and gesso and then reapplied to a new support. Nystatin, an antifungal, was sprayed on the wood in order to prevent mold from growing. Treatment facilities were established at locations such as the Boboli Garden Lemon-House, where over two hundred of these panel paintings were restored.
Similar measures were necessary in conserving canvas paintings. First, an original canvas was relined and gauze applied to the painted surface, which was then ironed. This process is referred to as the rintelatura, or "new canvas" method. Relatively minor surface work was often completed with a variety of solvents and/or types of resin.
Frescoes demanded more complicated treatment. Normally water, once it evaporates, will leave a layer of residual salt on the surface of the wall that absorbed it. In some instances, the resultant efflorescence obscured painted images. In other cases, the impermeability of the fresco plaster caused the salt to become trapped beneath the surface, causing bubbles to form and erupt, and the paint to fall. The adhesion of the plaster to the wall was often also seriously compromised. A fresco could only be detached when fully dry. To dry a fresco, workers cut narrow tunnels beneath it, in which heaters were placed to draw out moisture from below (instead of outwards, which would have further damaged the paintings). Within a few days, the fresco was ready to be detached.
Fuel oil, which coated many painted works of art, was removed by using Japanese tissue paper to apply a solvent, which dissolved the tar. An absorbent, such as talcum powder, was then distributed on the tissue paper.
Sculpture and other objects
It became imperative to clean sculpture immediately, before it fully absorbed the oil. Flaking sculpture was sprayed with a silicate mixture, while wooden pieces were treated with insecticides and toxic gases to kill insects and prevent future infestation. Weaponry, like firearms and swords, were taken apart, cleaned with paraffin, and finally lubricated in order to prevent future rusting.
Bronze objects were kept in dehumidification chambers for a few weeks and cleaned with distilled water or polished. For more severely damaged pieces, experts completed "depth cleaning," which entailed the use of small drills and vacuuming. Similar measures were taken with gold. Broken objects were reassembled using photographs and other retrieved documentation.
The disastrous results of the flood established an international awareness of the need for preservation and conservation education and facilities. In the United States, for example, it is no coincidence that the National Historic Preservation Act was passed in 1966. During the next twenty years:
The National Library Centers of Florence
Yet sadly, even forty years later, a significant amount of restorative work remains to be done in Florence. Due to a lack of awareness, funding, and manpower, a great number of works of art and books lie in storage, dirty and damaged. Christopher Clarkson, noted conservator, calls attention to this problem in a 2007 letter, stating that the National Library still has a "warehouse" full of books to be repaired and bound; many others need cleaning or reassembling. According to a 1993 report, approximately 25% of the 80,000 items belonging to the Magliabecchi and Palatino collections had not been fully restored in the nearly thirty years since the flood. The number of conservators that work at the library presently is only about a tenth of the amount that worked there immediately after the flood. The BNCF was one of over 100 libraries and archives affected, and yet many of the other institutions received no aid whatsoever.
Regional officials in Tuscany are responsible for organizing a massive project, the purpose of which is to not only protect the area from future flooding but to maintain high water quality and effectively utilize water resources.
Work commenced in 1984, with the construction of the Bilancino Dam, near Florence. The Sieve tributary and spillway at Pontedera are among other developments. The national government has funded a majority of these various subprojects, with the city of Florence being the primary recipient of the money.
- Taylor, Kathrine Kressman (1969). Diary of Florence in Flood. New York: Simon and Schuster
- Media related to 1966 Flood of Florence at Wikimedia Commons
- Speciale Alluvione Images of the flood and interviews with notable figures regarding its impact
- The Florence Flood News, archives, and photos for the Florence flood of 1966
- Cities and Disaster: The Florence Flood of 1966 A summary of events surrounding the flood.
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