It’s been 50 years since the Arno River’s banks overflowed, bringing a raging torrent of water, mud, abandoned vehicles, and dead animals rushing through the narrow streets of Florence’s historic center—flowing at up to 45 miles per hour– inundating some of the city’s most valued Renaissance landmarks and priceless contents that included manuscripts, books, parchments and works of art. A marker near Florence’s train station notes the flood’s high point at about 10 feet above street level.
Buildings affected in the November 4, 1956, flood included the Uffizi Gallery, National Gallery, National Central Library, and the beloved Ponte Vecchio, the bridge that crosses the Arno, with its centuries old jewelry shops. In a New York Times story, Ernie Brock, who was then a student in Italy, recalls going to Florence’s Baptistery, near the Duomo, to check on a beloved Donatello sculpture. He was shocked to see that “Ghiberti’s Doors of Paradise had buckled and were stuck in the mud against the parapet.” Donatello’s Mary Magdalene sculpture inside was safe.
Damage to Art, Books and Manuscripts
Iconic works of art and frescoes were damaged – in some cases completely destroyed. It would take years for art conservators and technical experts to repair some the damage. In the case of Cimabue’s 700-year-old painting of the Crucifixion inside the Basilica of Santa Croce, the damage was virtually irreversible.
According to Giuseppe De Micheli, director of Opera di Santa Croce, the destruction was “a last manifestation of the Apocalypse.”
Thanks to highly skilled art conservators and recent technologies, Giorgio Vasari’s eight-foot-high Last Supper that hung in Santa Croce, has been restored, and has been reinstated for the public to celebrate this year’s anniversary.
Today, Ghiberti’s original gilded bronze Baptistery doors are installed inside the spectacular Opera del Duomo Museum, reopened in 2015 after a $60-million expansion project.
The Mud Angels Arrive
Early on the scene of the devastation were university students, including some 120 Americans, as well as residents, who pitched in to help retrieve hundreds of thousands of invaluable manuscripts soaked in mud. Nicknamed the Mud Angels, they were invited back this year to participate in the 50th anniversary commemoration.
Decades later, work is still underway on books and manuscripts. Recently, luxury goods manufacturer Montblanc financed the restoration of three books.
Fifty years on, Florence has taken measures to ensure that the devastating flood that breached the Arno in 1966 – a total of 56 times since the year 1177 — will not occur again. An exhibition of then-and-now photos at the Palazzo Medici Riccardi (via Cavour 4) shows the Arno flood and demonstrates what has been done to stabilize the river today. Not everyone is certain – given the vagaries of climate change and severe weather events that include flooding – that the improvements are fool-proof.
Events and exhibitions throughout the month of November are commemorating the 50th anniversary.
If you are traveling, check out these sites for a schedule
To see more photographs from the 1956 flood, go to Florence Flood (a book)