Florence today is a vastly different experience from my first visit 50 years ago. I arrived by train, from Rome, on Sunday, November 6, 1966, two days after the city’s most severe floods. The rampaging flood waters were gone, but puddles were still brimming. The muddy oil-laced water from the Arno had saturated everything up to four or five metres on the sides of buildings, especially in the narrow streets where there was nowhere else for the water to go.
The overwhelming memory of the city I was being introduced to was the lack of colour: except for the occasional clear blue Tuscan sky everything else was in monochrome. The ferocious movement of the flood waters was replaced by static scenes: cars stacked randomly in heaps, rubbish captured in corners and crevices, once white marble sculpture—now discoloured—standing wearily after battle, and everywhere the telling water marks on the walls of the buildings.
It was reminiscent of the carnage of a Mad Max film the morning after: scene after scene of unmoving, ever so still homages to the event of two days earlier. But for an odd highlight of red or yellow fabric or card amongst the clutter, all was shades of black and grey. This was my introduction to Florence.
The flood waters came with little or no warning to the inhabitants of the famous Renaissance city, and were all but gone in about 12 hours. By nightfall the waters began to recede. The loss of life and damage to the city during the daylight hours of this extraordinary day were incomparable: the most damaging flooding to hit the city prior to 1966 was four centuries earlier in the mid-16th century, when the water levels were only about half as severe as this more recent calamity. It was in 1557, the year Pontormo died.
The most severe floods in the documented history of Florence occurred early in the morning of Friday, November 4, 1966. The impact of the deluge was all the more catastrophic because the residents and visitors to Florence had no warning of the imminent danger. Most were asleep in their beds on this late autumn night when the initial force of the flood waters ravaged the city. None was prepared for the peril that advanced on Florence and struck without warning.
While flooding also affected other regions in Italy, over 30 people died in the Florence province alone. Many others were injured and many thousands were left, in the short term at least, homeless. Destruction to homes and property, and to art and books in particular, was inestimable. Many priceless art works disintegrated, or were damaged beyond repair or restoration.
Lorenzo Ghiberti’s eastern doors of the Baptistery, named by Michelangelo as the Gates of Paradise, and one the great masterpieces of 15th-century Florentine sculpture, lost five of its ten bronze panels as they were ripped from their doors by the flood waters and despatched eastward through the narrow lanes. All were later recovered, with two travelling as far as piazza Santa Croce, about 500 metres from their moorings. After the floods they were replaced by copies on the Baptistery and, following restoration, the originals were transferred to the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (Museum of the Works of the Cathedral), where they remain today. Protecting original works of art from the hazards of the weather and vandalism has little reduced the visitation rate to these famous doors: the near-perfect copies attract more visitors today than they did before 1966 and Ghiberti’s original panels are now well protected, and still readily accessible.
One of the interesting, and laudable, consequences of the fate of Ghiberti’s doors has been the increase in the practice of relocating works of art, and perhaps sculpture in particular, from their original external sites and into the protection and care of museum environments. Florence is scattered with well-executed copies of marble and bronze sculpture, which only the expert eye can detect not to be originals and which is of little interest to the visitor. As with the Ghiberti doors, the originals are all still in Florence, and available for viewing.
Paintings in Florentine churches and museums suffered similar, if indeed not greater, degradation. As the flood waters swamped the city, at speeds of up to 60 kilometres an hour, they became a cocktail of mud, assorted debris, heating oil and even nitrates from decomposing bodies buried beneath many of the churches. Most buildings stored their heating oil, recently stocked up for the approaching winter, in their basements, which was of course the first destination of the raging flood waters. It would be difficult to imagine more perilous conditions, save the total annihilation of the artworks by fire.
A few years ago I met to discuss this tragedy with the conservator Leonardo Passeri, who was by then in his own studio after having for many years worked for the Uffizi Gallery. Following the 1966 floods he, like many other conservators from Florence and throughout Europe, was occupied with the cleaning and restoring of flood-affected paintings. Passeri worked mostly on oil paintings, including Pontormo’s Deposition from the church of Santa Felicita. Fortunately, this large painting was hung high enough that the flood waters did not reach the bottom edge of the work, and so suffered much less than had it been immersed in water. But even without direct exposure to the flood waters, with their assorted additives, the painting was affected by the humidity from the 1.5 metres of water that had invaded the church.
Another painting from the same chapel, a fresco from the 16th century, needed to be detached from the wall to be dried out, mounted on a polyester support, and restored before returning to its original site. Many other frescoes required similar treatment and the restoration needed to be undertaken with some urgency to halt the continuing degradation of the work while still damp and while still attracting a variety of salts, including the aforementioned nitrates. The challenge for conservators in the immediate post-flood years is highlighted by the necessity to detach a total of 2,300m2 of frescoes in the 18 months immediately following the November 1966 inundation.
The 50th anniversary of these floods will be marked in November this year. While much has been accomplished to return the city and its incomparable treasures to their previous condition, many of the losses remain.