A student in Florence when the flood hit, Diana Daffner (formerly Weinberg) shares her experiences of looking down from her Arno-side apartment as the water rose and ravaged the Ponte Vecchio, leaving a torrent of fango behind.
Diana’s photos from 1966: Nov 5 (left) and September of the same year
Maggie Ryan: What brought you to Florence in 1966?
Diana Daffner: I was a student at Cornell University and wanted to go abroad for my junior year. Cornell didn’t have a program at that time, so I went with Syracuse University.I felt that I needed a change: I wasn’t really satisfied or fulfilled with college at that point. My parents encouraged me to apply for this program and try something different, rather than drop out. I didn’t know any Italian before I left. We sailed from New York City on the S.S. Independence, and I began studying Italian when we were on the week-long voyage. I had studied Latin and French, so I had some ease moving into Italian, even though it was brand new for me—as it was for almost all of us.
MR: What was your living situation?
DD: I lived with a woman who was around 50 and her mother. There were no children, there were no students, there was nobody around my age at the apartment—I remember being so disappointed when I found out. But it turned out to be a great thing. My Italian ‘mother’ claimed that she couldn’t speak English, which I’m not sure was totally true, but she would never speak English with me, so I had to speak Italian from day one. And her mother, the nonna, she definitely didn’t speak any English.
The house, via dei Bardi 33, had two huge wooden doors, and it was right next to the Arno. The river was so low when I arrived, it was a joke, almost—there are these beautiful songs about the Arno, and it was this little trickle of a river.
But it was a great place to be, a great location. My school was located in piazza Savonarola, so I had to walk across the bridge and up through Florence to get to the school. Everything was very exciting and wonderful. I loved Florence. I still love it. I remember little things, like how I’d get a gelato almost every day walking home from school because it was eight cents—the American dollar versus Italian money was amazing at that point. I used to stop and visit the statue of David. He was located in those days in a small museum that was free and on my way home. I often used to go and sit in front of him for some reason—it was like a meditation. There was nothing separating him from the viewer, there was no Plexiglas, nobody had taken a hammer to his toe yet. It was a different world.
MR: Can you describe your flood experience?
DD: In November, it started raining all the time. When I went to sleep on the night of November 3 it was raining, but it was just a normal night. I lived on the second floor—which is what in America we would call the third floor. There were grand stairs to go up to the different apartments. Ours was in the back of the building, so we didn’t look out onto the street. When I got up in the morning, at 7 or 8am, I started getting ready for school, and my Italian mamma comes in and says, ‘I don’t think you’re going anywhere.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ and she replied, ‘Come look.’ She took me across the hall to another apartment where we could look out, and we saw that the Arno was almost cresting the wall.
She said, ‘Quick, go out and get eggs, get water from the market.’ So I went out with another American student who was living in the building, but everything in the market was gone. Maybe we got some water, maybe we got a few eggs, but there was hardly anything there. When we got back to our building, the water was coming over the wall into the street. We went into the building and we pulled the big wooden doors shut and hoped they’d hold against the water. I had no concept it would go as high as it did—I thought maybe it would just come underneath the doors.
We spent that day looking out at the Arno. It was unbelievable—all we could see was this roaring river with cars and trucks, cows and bloated animals and huge tree trunks just roaring down in front of our building. And there was this smell of oil. We had the radio on and it was playing music—all day long. There was no concern, there were no reports going on: it was bizarre. We were trying to find out if it was dangerous. We didn’t know what was going on.
We knew at this point that water was in our building. I hadn’t had much, if any, relationship with the people living on the ground floor of our building, who, I later learned, were an artisan family. The artisans of Florence typically lived on the ground floor—ground floor living was apparently not considered very posh. I think I remember seeing one of the artisans early on, out in the street trying to grab his things as they were floating away.
Eventually, the water came 16 feet into the building. We weren’t that terrified yet—from the second floor, there was a door outside to the hillside behind the building, so we knew we could get out that way if we had to. We spent the whole day watching these bloated pigs and cows and huge tree trunks going by, and we knew they were slamming into the Ponte Vecchio. We could hear it; it was so loud. It was an astounding, traumatic day to watch all of that. When the water reached the first landing of the staircase, we were told that if the water went up one more step, we were all going to evacuate.
As the night wore on, people were watching the steps to see if the water would go any higher. And then all of a sudden, at maybe 2am, we heard a call from the hallway: ‘Scendi!’ All over Florence, people heard the excited cry: ‘Scendi!’The water is going down! The water is starting to go down!’ So we didn’t evacuate.
MR: Do you think your host family and the others in the building knew what was going on? Did they have any prior experiences with flooding? Did they expect it to get as high as it did?
DD: Oh absolutely not, nobody expected it to get that high, and it rose really quickly. The nonna kept moaning all day, ‘Come la guerra’ (‘It’s just like the war.’) She was quite panicked, but the rest of us were more in shock. Mostly I remember the annoyance that we couldn’t find out if what we saw in the river was toxic. We could see these swirls of oil, and we didn’t know if we should be breathing it.
Diana’s host family in 1966 and in 2007
MR: What happened after that first day?
DD: We went to sleep after the water started to go down and woke up in the morning. Anyone who was there will remember that day forever. When I went downstairs with the other American student, we saw that the big wooden doors were gone. They simply weren’t there. Both doors were eventually found: one was at the end of the street past the Ponte Vecchio, the other was found blocks away. Somehow they managed to get both doors back.
We walked outside and stepped into the fango—if I hadn’t known the word for ‘mud’ before, I certainly learned it then. The mud was thick and wet, there were cars everywhere, and everybody was walking around in shock. I walked to the Ponte Vecchio and I could see straight through the stores. The water had come through the bridge, plowed right through the stores. There’s a whole political story about that.
This is hearsay, stuff I heard about because I helped work on a book about the flood called Firenze, perche. It’s a compilation of articles, and one of the contributors was my Italian professor at Syracuse, Mario Materassi, whom I helped cull newspaper articles in the weeks after the flood. There was a lot of anger towards the government because we were told that, first of all, the flood didn’t start in Florence. Those cows and trees and cars—the water was flooding way to the north, but no warning was given. Somebody had to have known it was coming, but there was no warning, no system to alert people, so when it hit Santa Croce, everyone was taken by surprise. But the people in the communities close to the river were not the only ones taken by surprise: at 8am those places were flooded, but the people who lived 10 blocks away from the river didn’t know what was happening. The floodwaters rose and took each area by surprise. People woke up having no idea that the Arno had crested the wall. I don’t know why, but as late as noon, the flood was still surprising people.
The Ponte Vecchio, with its expensive jewelry boutiques, had its own guard, and they were notified. Many owners got there in time to remove their goods before the bridge was hit. But nobody else was warned—the artisan living on the ground floor of my building wasn’t evacuated, for example. Nobody else in Florence had that luxury. It was quite a political issue afterwards.
So, the first day after the flood, I walked around to many of the famous buildings and sights, and was in shock and horror. Some of the bronze plaques on the doors of the Baptistery were missing, and we went to the David’s museum and fango was oozing out from under the door. It turned out that the floor had caved in right in front of the statue, but the David did not collapse. I came home that night and my host’s daughter, her husband and their two-year-old daughter, all of whom lived near Santa Croce, were all there. The water had gone into piazza Santa Croce and it just spiraled through that whole square, and they’d been flooded out. We had no electricity. Somehow we managed to get bottled frizzante water. And this is how we began to live.
MR: What was the clean-up process like?
DD: Out on the streets, I remember the soldiers would come and push at the mud, and it would ooze back behind the shovels. It was really a weird mess. At some point I began to help out at the National Library, and that was an amazing experience. I helped pick up books that were covered with fango: someone showed us how to clean them and separate the pages. I was working next to a volunteer who knew what the books were: first editions of famous books.
It felt like we were saving culture, and that Florence cared greatly about it. But the city didn’t seem to care about its artisans. The ground floors within blocks of the Arno were totally wiped out, and that was devastation for Florence—that it lost that part of the culture, yet little attention was paid to it, at least from my perspective at the time.
My host family eventually asked me to stop helping at the library because I would come back covered in mud and we had no water to wash with. So I had to give it up. I remember feeling very disappointed and frustrated that my family didn’t want me to help at the library because of the mud. I couldn’t believe that they cared more about the house getting muddy than saving the first editions that I was coming across. I don’t think I ever understood why; they just said ‘No, you can’t go.’ I knew there was no shower, no water, but now I’m thinking that they were concerned about disease, especially with the two-year-old in the home.
So I was not a mud angel for a very long time, perhaps a few days. And about a month later, they moved me out of the host family for the remainder of the semester—it just got too crowded.
MR: Were you able to get in touch with your family in the States?
DD: I was sure that my family was worried about me back home, but I had no way to reach them: there was no telephone service. All of Florence was shut down. According to my mother, although they heard there was a flood, there was no news coming out of Florence. She even called the Associated Press trying to find out what was going on, but she couldn’t get any information. After a couple of days, I found out that a telegraph office was open and I went. The guy had a candle and an old-fashioned telegraph machine, a manual dot-and-dash kind of thing. I had to pay for every single word in the telegram and I remember I had enough money for only four words by the time I paid for the address, so with my four words I said: ‘Don’t worry, everything’s fine.’ All of which was a lie—nothing was fine. We had no water, we had no electricity, no heat, we had nothing, but I didn’t want them to worry, because I was ok.
A couple of days later, I was finally able to make a telephone call. I couldn’t reach my parents because nobody was home, both on their way home from work. I remembered my aunt’s phone number and I put the call through to her, expecting her to be overjoyed to hear from me. The first thing she said to me was, ‘Oh, you’re a celebrity!’ And I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ She said, ‘All the papers have a headline saying “Cornell Co-ed Safe in Florence Flood.”’ My mother had gotten the telegram and she had contacted the Associated Press to say that she had heard from me, and it was one of the first communications, apparently, that had come out. There I was thinking they were worried, and instead they were celebrating because they’d received a telegram.
MR: What have you been up to you since your time studying abroad in Florence?
DD: Well, I’ve done many things. Over the last 15+ years my husband and I have been leading workshops for couples called Intimacy Retreats, teaching couples how to connect on a deep level and be present with each other, how to be in love. After I graduated from Cornell, I spent the next part of my life in California. I got my master’s in counseling about 10 years ago. I was in California in the Big Sur area and I studied a martial art called Aikido and now I do marital arts. I taught at Esalen Institute, the original human potential center. I’ve been married to my husband for 30 years. We live in Florida.
MR: You returned to Florence in 2007. Was that the first time you’d been back?
DD: It was. I came with my husband, and I found Mario Materassi, my Italian professor from that time. He helped me to locate Guendalina Prosperi, the granddaughter of my Italian host mother, who was then 42, and her parents and the restaurant they own, Osteria Antica Mescita San Niccolò. I found a hotel on the Duomo side of the Arno just above the Ponte Vecchio. From the roof of the hotel, I could see via dei Bardi 33. I could see the bridge, and I could reminisce. I just loved Florence. I still do.