The Mud Angel series: Jo-Ann Mooy

“It was a terrifying experience”

Helen Farrell
November 5, 2015

In commemoration of the 1966 flood, The Florentine is interviewing the city’s Mud Angels, the individuals who responded to the disaster, tirelessly retrieving muddied manuscripts and soiled artworks, knee-deep in the oily aftermath. Mud Angel Jo-Ann Mooy recently returned to Florence for the first time since 1966 to celebrate her 70th birthday in the city with which she has a special relationship.

 

Helen Farrell: What brought you to Florence in 1966?

Jo-Ann Mooy: I was a student at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida, and our university decided to make a trip to Florence. We were the first group, and between faculty and students, there were about 100 of us who came to Florence. We were to be here for a year. We arrived in September 1966 and began our classes. In Florida, we studied three months of Italian—intensive Italian. We spoke it, we ate it, and we slept it so that we would have a working knowledge of Italian when we arrived here.

 

HF: What was it like arriving in Florence for the first time?

JM: I remember the first night coming into Florence, and walking into Pensione Albergo Capri. We were so eager to get out on the streets! I walked out the front door and went up via Pira, and I saw, down a side street, the Duomo. I get chills right now saying that because I felt like I’d come home. The whole time I was in Florence, it was a déjà vu experience: I would think, ‘I’ve been here before, I belong here, and this is why I’m here.’ 

The Mud Angel series: Jo-Ann Mooy

“It was a terrifying experience”

In commemoration of the 1966 flood, The Florentine is interviewing the city’s Mud Angels, the individuals who responded to the disaster, tirelessly retrieving muddied manuscripts and soiled artworks, knee-deep in
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HF: Can we describe the moment when you first became aware of the flood?

JM: As students, we were going to party whenever we could, and we were out the night before the flood began. I don’t remember the name of the nightclub by the Arno, but there must have been eight or ten of us at that time. We were dancing. The last dance I remember was a song by the Beach Boys, Sloop John B. Someone ran in from outside screaming, ‘Run, run, the Arno is flooding!’ It had been raining, but it didn’t seem possible. We were screaming. We heard noise outside. We grabbed all of our things and ran out the door. You could hear the sound of the water. It was very dark: it must have been around midnight or one o’clock. We knew we had to get to higher ground and away from the river, and we started running. We had no idea what direction to go in. Water was coming behind us as we were running. We’d turn around and see the water coming behind us, and so we’d turn down another street, and say, ‘Oh, that was okay, let’s go up that street.’ That was okay for a while, and then we turn another corner and water would be pouring down in front of us. At one point the water was up to our knees, and the student with me (who would later become my husband) said, ‘We can’t turn back, we have to go forward.’ We got back to the hotel and the news was everywhere. People were yelling out of the windows, telling people to run. It was a terrifying experience.

 

HF: Tell me about the smells and the sounds.

JM: There was a roaring sound, but the other smell was naptha—an oily smell—and sewage, and there was no escaping it. It was pervasive. It was in the air.

 

HF: What happened next?

JM: It was impossible to sleep. The power went out. There were no lights. We had candles. No one knew the extent of the damage. The mud had come up and the head professor, Professor Tansy, had been contacted right away by different museums—they needed help. They knew that precious artwork and manuscripts were submerged in the mud, and they needed every able body to help. We went out, but the first day we went out, the boots hadn’t arrived. Later, someone came into the city with a truck full of big rubber knee boots for whoever wanted them, but in those first few hours we went out in just our jeans, and it was very, very cold. We were directed to different places, some to the Uffizi, some to Santa Croce—wherever people were in trouble or artwork needed saving. And because we were all art history majors, they sent us in groups to the museums. We were directed downstairs in the Uffizi, and the most tragic part was seeing priceless manuscripts: they were dissolving in your hands, and gold leaf was floating in the mud, and the beautiful greens and blues of the painting, the tempura, was floating off in the mud, the entire manuscript just dissolving through your fingers. And you didn’t know where it was: you had to bend down with your face almost against the mud and pull up the manuscripts or the paintings. Some were able to be saved. We were told that some of the paintings could be dried out. But the manuscripts—we knew they were lost forever because of the gold. I remember looking at gold leaf falling between my fingers: the vellum, the skin of the manuscript was still there, but everything that was on it floated away like it didn’t exist anymore. It was just heartbreaking. 

 

HF: How was life during the aftermath?

JM: The tragedy of the flood was enormous. We knew that we were in the heart of the Renaissance, and we were compelled to save whatever we could, for humanity. We knew what we had to do, we knew why we were there, and there was a solidarity because there were students from other Italian universities and other American universities, and some, I believe, from Germany. We didn’t speak with them at length, but the Americans seemed to know what do. They would ask, ‘What university are you from? We’re working this section, so you go and take that section.’ It was choreographed in many ways, but there was a mission. We had to do this, whatever the cost, because there was so much at stake with what was being lost. It was a once-in-a-century event. I had no idea at the time that we were called ‘mud angels,’ but we were mud angels. We lived in the mud. There was water, but no running water. We shared water in the fountains with the ducks, moving the ducks away so we could wash our hands. We went to bed muddy. We eventually got our mud boots, but I remember a roommate, Janice Carter, with long, curly hair, saying, ‘My hair will never be the same again.’ But the boys figured out a way: they found bottles of Coca Cola and we used that to brush our teeth. There was no hot water and food was cold. And it was freezing cold in the mud. The naptha oil was on the surface of everything, so you had an oil slick. This is odd to say at this time, but as I’m remembering seeing the oil slick on the top of the mud, and seeing the gold leaf floating amidst it—I hate to say this, but—it looked like a modern painting. But at the time I didn’t think of it like that. I thought, ‘There went the gold leaf with the mud.’ 

 

HF: Was it a locally or an internationally led clean-up effort?

JM: I feel that it was really a global effort. I think the truck that came in with the boots was an Austrian truck, so somehow they got a big truckload of rubber boots to the border and brought them in. And there were, as I said, students from all over. Everyone was working towards a common good. The local people were giving us food to eat, doing what they could to move the high mud, like Santa Croce. I remember these big—approximately three feet wide—brooms with wooden panels on them, and they used them to push the mud out of Santa Croce, down the stairs. It was collaborative, and yet I do not remember anyone standing up and saying, ‘This is what we need to do.’ People just stepped up and did it. When Professor Tansy said we needed to go and help, there was no question. Classes stopped—everything stopped—and there was nothing to do but go and do the work. 

 

 

HF: How long did the immediate clean-up operation last for?

JM: After the initial disaster, while we were out there, day after day after day, for approximately three weeks, and the situation, the problems in Florence began to surface. There were health problems, medical problems, and there was concern that people were going to become sick. Our university decided after three weeks that it was time to evacuate all of us. So many of us wanted to stay but they said, ‘No, you need to go,’ and somehow they arranged for transportation and took us to Rome. When we arrived in Rome we had our first showers and got clean. After a few days there, we were told that Pope Paul was going to honor us with a visit, and we were taken to the Vatican for an audience with the pope who thanked us for what we had done on behalf of Florence. The interpreter said that he said he was praying for us, that he was grateful for what we had done, and that he asked us to continue to pray for the people of Florence and for what had been lost. I remember him saying, ‘Grazie, Stati Uniti. Studenti degli Stati Uniti, grazie, grazie, grazie.’ So, ‘Thank you to the American students.’ 

 

HF: Why did you decide to come back to Florence now?

JM: It has been 50 years since the flood, and this is a significant birthday. But I didn’t connect the dots—that it would be 50 years since the flood. And then I realized it, in the planning process. So this is my birthday present to me, to be in Florence. When we arrived, it was pouring rain, and as we walked to the Ponte Vecchio in the rain I said, ‘Oh my God, I hope this is not déjà vu again!’ One of the shopkeepers came out to show me the height of where the river had flooded. It was a good 12 inches over my head (I’m 5’2"), and I looked up at that and I thought, ‘The last time I had seen the river I was running away from it.’ I didn’t realize how high the water had been. Yesterday in the Uffizi, I saw how some of the manuscripts are under glass, and they’re protected. At Santa Croce, San Marco and the Accademia, I saw manuscripts. The manuscripts have a special place in my heart because that, for me, was saving Florence. Seeing some of the manuscripts—I’m sure they weren’t the ones I pulled out of the mud—but I felt great gratitude to know they had been saved. Whoever did it, wherever it was, it has been saved. It’s very different seeing the city now. 

 

Fifty years ago, the city didn’t have all of these neon lights and big stores, like Apple and McDonald’s. It feels like a desecration. Florence is a treasure. It’s not just an Italian treasure or a European treasure, but a world treasure, and it needs to be honored as such. So seeing all the lights—we didn’t walk in streets with these lights, they were all mercury vapor lights or gas lamps—I find it so different, but no less lovable. 

 

HF: Tell me about your life since then.

JM: I was an art and an art history major. But after graduation from college I was hired by IBM and spent 32 years there. My husband, John Mooy, followed an art history profession for a while, and then he, too, joined IBM. So paths diverged, life changes, you know, and you go in different ways, but all my books from Florence, from the Uffizi, and the Botticelli books, and everything Vasari? Our daughter Harper now has those books. She’s 45 years old, and John died in 2007. Before we arrived, she said, ‘Mom, you’re going to have a sighting of daddy when you get there.’ And there have some things that have happened that made me think, ‘John Mooy is right here somewhere.’ 

 

HF: How does it feel to be called a ‘Mud Angel’?

JM:  I didn’t find out that I was a mud angel until two years ago. We did the work selflessly. We just did what we had to do. It wasn’t until two or three years ago, when we were preparing for this trip, that a tour operator said, ‘Oh, I’ll take you to Florence and I’ll show you where the Arno flooded.’ And I said, ‘I was there when the Arno flooded.’ He said, ‘You’re a mud angel? We’ve been looking for a mud angel to go on our tours and take a tour with us.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m not going on your tour, but at least I’ve learned I’m a mud angel.’ That’s the first time I heard we were even recognized this way. After the pope gave us a blessing, we said, ‘Okay, we did what we did. Now let’s go back to Florence and go to work again.’

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