November 4th marks the 50th anniversary of the catastrophic Arno flood that swept through the city of Florence and several areas in Tuscany in 1966, killing dozens of people and damaging thousands of artworks, books and manuscripts. On this day, the city also honours the “Angeli del Fango” (Mud Angels): the individuals from all over the world who volunteered in the aftermath of the disastrous Florence flood and tirelessly helped to retrieve paintings, sculptures, and volumes from the oily mud.
A series of exhibitions (at the Palazzo Medici Riccardi and the Galileo Museum, among others) reconstruct the tragic event through archival material and provide a broad background to the anniversary celebration.
The Florence Flood
Heavy rains hit different Italian regions early in November of 1966, causing great damage (see this publication from UNESCO, from January 1967, dedicated to Florence and Venice).
In Florence, the conditions worsened on the morning of the 4th, when the water leapt over the Arno embankments and started submerging the adjacent neighborhoods, devastating houses and shops. At its peak, the flood reached incredible heights, 4.92 meters (16 feet) in some points. Inside the church of Santa Croce, the water level rose to 2.7 meters.
An impetuous vortex of water, contaminated with oil from smashed domestic heaters and cars, swept through the city, smearing everything it touched. While it is impossible to provide a precise number of the artworks that were damaged by the Florence flood, some estimates say that about 1,500 pieces were seriously affected. Famous examples include Cimabue’s wood Crucifix, Donatello’s Magdalene Penitent, and Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise. The panels that now comprise the decoration of the gates at the Baptistry are copies of the originals, which instead are housed at the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, and can be seen on our Duomo Tour.
After meticulous restoration, one of the most symbolic artworks – Vasari’s Last Supper, a monumental painting on wood – will finally return to its original site at the Santa Croce church, after 50 years of separation. It will be unveiled to public view on November 4th.
“In this regard, the Florence flood sparked new research and innovative approaches torestoration methods and materials, like the use of Barium hydroxide and infra-red laser,” says Lucia Picchi, one of our docents in the city, who leads our Restoring Florence tour. “Experts from all over the world contributed to the effort,” she adds. “Cimabue’s Crucifix was particularly challenging because the main issue was how to integrate the lacunae, as consistent portions of the face and figure were missing. One of the solutions they found was to create a chromatic abstraction, so that it wouldn’t affect the eye of the observer,” she explains.
Floods, Past and Present
The 1966 Florence Flood was particularly damaging for the city. However, it is not an isolated case. Several other episodes dot the history of Florence, as one can observe in the commemorative plaques dispersed across town, marking the water levels during various natural disasters. In 1333, for instance, the most catastrophic flood to ever hit the city left over 3,000 people dead and destroyed the Ponte Vecchio. It was rebuilt in 1345.
Due to its proximity to the river, the Santa Croce neighborhood is historically among the most affected areas during the floods. The homecoming of such an iconic piece as Vasari’s Last Supper represents more than just a success in the field of restoration. It also stands as an admonishment to present generations, to adopt preventive measures and safeguard the cultural heritage for the future.