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The Florence flood of 1966

What happened?

On the night of 3/4 November 1966, on the eve of Armed Forces Day, a public holiday, the police in the beautiful Tuscan city of Florence began receiving requests for help from villages further up the valley of the River Arno. After receiving a third of the region’s annual rainfall in just two days, the condition of the river was giving cause for concern. More than 2,000 cubic metres of water were pouring down towards Florence every second.

By 2.30pm, the city drains were unable to cope with the weight of the water, and powerful jets spewed from manholes. Cellars were already flooded in the Santa Croce and San Frediano areas. The first electricity failures were reported as fuses began to blow, and there were fears for the safety of the still-functioning Roman aqueduct.

A 52-year-old workman was the first victim – his body was found two days later in a tunnel choked with mud. There might have been many more if it hadn’t been a public holiday and many of the residents were away. However, the fact that it was meant that public buildings were locked and their staff out of town, leaving magnificent works of art and treasured books to their fate.

Night watchmen employed by the jewellery shops on the Ponte Vecchio raised the first alarm. A few of their bosses managed to save some precious items, but when the waters burst through the bridge, the vast majority of the stock sailed downstream. The watchmen in the various museums and libraries were caught completely by surprise and had no time to save anything.

At about 4am, engineers afraid that the Valdarno dam would burst discharged a huge volume of water. Travelling at more than 37mph, most of it reached Florence. It swept away cars and trees, burst into churches, penetrated steel-lined strong rooms and ancient palaces, carrying objects along and hurling them about. And while the water rose, Florence slept.

Gas, electricity and water supplies were cut off, adding to the chaos. The city’s electric clocks came to a stop at 7.26am. Emergency generators in the hospitals supplied the only electric power, and by 9am, they, too, had been halted by the water.

As part of the Arno embankment gave way, disaster overtook Florence. Huge landslides blocked roads leading to it, and the autostrada was severed in the north and the south. The city was cut in two and isolated from the rest of the world, unreachable by land or air and from the government in Rome.

By 8am, the army barracks had been flooded. Doctors and nurses, working by candlelight in the city’s hospitals, carried their patients up to higher floors. In at least one hospital, the entire stock of food disappeared under water, oil and mud. On the banks of the river, the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale (National Central Library) and the Uffizi Gallery – containing a plethora of priceless works of art, including Botticelli's La Primavera – were hit hard.

By 9.45am, the flood had thundered into the Piazza del Duomo. The narrow streets acted as funnels, increasing the speed and height of the water. Its great force also compressed air into basements and, in some cases, caused the floors above to burst. In all parts of the city, water was filling cellars and damaging central heating oil tanks, and soon vast quantities of oil joined the flow of mud and water. It would later leave a black tidemark across the façades of buildings throughout the city.

Officials slowly arrived; many could not get further than the Piazzale Michelangelo high above the city. Outsiders came to help, but by nightfall, people were still stranded in upper floors and on roofs. At its highest, the water reached over 22ft (6.7m) in areas around Santa Croce. It didn’t begin to go down until about 8pm.

In the first two days after the flood, the city was full of fear – of disease, of escaped prisoners armed with stolen weapons, of explosions, of houses collapsing – and it took a while for the state to create some kind of order. It had been hard for the city government to get across to Rome that there was an estimated 600,000 tons of mud, sewage and rubble smothering a city that had been both a huge modern centre and a treasure house of great art. And the Florentines had to compete with the Venetians: Venice had been flooded on the same night.

As well as personnel from the Italian government and military, art conservation experts rushed to Florence to try to save as many works of art as they could. They were helped immeasurably by an army of students from all over the world. Dubbed the ‘mud angels’ by the Florentines, they enthusiastically endured all manner of hardships to labour long and hard in the mire to rescue what they could.

What was the cost?

At least 30 people died, and 50,000 families were made homeless. There was a food shortage, 15,000 wrecked cars were strewn about the streets and 6,000 shops went out of business.

Estimates suggest that 14,000 movable works of art were damaged, plus three or four million books and manuscripts.

When the muddy waters entered the Piazza del Duomo, they tore Ghiberti’s bronze and gold Doors of Paradise from their hinges, knocking off five panels of the original ten; today, the restored doors have been moved into the Duomo Museum and replaced by replicas. A wooden Magdalene by Donatello was later found with half her body covered in black oil. Perhaps the greatest artistic loss was the 13th-century painted wooden Crucifix by Giovanni Cimabue, which had been in the church of Santa Croce – it was so badly damaged that, today, it has become a symbol of the tragedy.

In the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale alone, the flood damaged about one million books, including hundreds of thousands of old and rare tomes. Although all the books had been dried by early 1967, the American book conservator Richard F Young estimated that it would take a staff of about 100 working on book restoration at the library for another 20 years just to undo the worst of what the Arno had done in minutes. By 1993, more than 20 years after the flood, 25% of the 80,000 or so damaged volumes from the BNC’s Magliabecchi and Palatino rare book collections had still not been restored. Today only about a dozen restorers are at work at the BNC – a tenth of the number who toiled there after the flood – yet 35,000 damaged books remain to be dealt with.

What was the disaster’s legacy?

Since 1966, thousands of paintings, frescoes and rare books have been restored, but thousands more still await their turn. However, in conservation terms, the disaster proved invaluable. Restoration practices were re-evaluated and a new approach called ‘phased conservation’ was instituted.

Ironically the disaster was the first time that a large number of books received ‘deacidification’ treatment – the flood water contained a high percentage of calcite, which neutralises harmful acid. Although the paper benefited from such an exposure, no one would  recommend exposing library collections to such an aggressive one-shot treatment!