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Monday, August 26, 2013

Flooded Art

The mud of the Florence flood, November 4, 1966.
Santa Croce Basilica well before
floodwaters crested around eight p.m.
After several days of hard rains, the dams holding back the floodwaters of Tuscany's Arno River in Italy threatened to give way. November 4th, 1966,  4:00 a.m., fearing even greater destruction if the damns broke, engineers began a controlled release of waters. Within hours a wall of water hit Florence, Italy, traveling at an astounding thirty-seven miles per hour. By ten a.m. the square in front of Santa Croce Basilica (left) in central Florence was under water, eventually reaching a height of 22 feet. With the water came even worse, mud, and oil from ruptured tanks on the outskirts of the city (top). There was no gas or power with many areas cut off from communications. The greatest art disaster in modern times was under way. Florence would never be the same again.

The floodwaters reached well up into
the second floors of many buildings.
I visited Florence some thirty-five years later. The water was gone; so was the nearly three feet of mud it left behind. The Arno river appeared serene and harmless. Stories recounted by guides seemed hard to fathom. Only high-water marks on the walls of some buildings gave any hint of the devastation they had encountered. In a city full to the brim with valuable ancient architecture, books, and art, any water at all reaching street-level brings with it costly, sometimes irreparable damage. All during the day, Florentines watched in helpless horror as the waters continued to rise, inundating valuable works inside Santa Croce, the famed doors of the Baptistery, priceless paintings on the lower level of the Uffizi, and dozens of other well-known repositories of the city's cultural treasures. Florence hadn't seen such damage in more than four-hundred years (1557). Moreover, 101 Florentines lost their lives due to the flood.
A group, which came to be called
the Mud Angels, worked tirelessly
to try to rescue tens of thousands
of books seen here stacked several
stories high for drying.
In writing about the Uffizi (05-23-13) I briefly discussed the effect this flood had upon the art and artifacts housed there. However the museum, because of Vasari's elevated main floors, was relatively unscathed as compared to Santa Croce (above, left), the Duomo, the Baptistery, and especially those structures housing Florence's long, detailed, written history. As bad as the damage was to works such as Cimabue's Crucifix, Ghiberti's bronze Gates of Paradise door panels, or Donatello's wooden sculpture, Magdalene Penitent, and others, such pieces constituted a manageable number and, except for the Crucifix, could be restored pretty much to their pre-flooding condition. Far worse, however, was the widespread devastation the water wreaked upon thousands of priceless printed volumes and manuscripts on paper or parchment. Especially hard hit were the collections owned by churches and government archives going back hundreds of years. Damage to various holdings ranged from thirty to one-hundred percent.
Donatello's 1453-55 Magdalene
Penitent was restored to a condition
actually better than before.

Cimabue's Crucifix (ca. 1288) was found more than half submerged, flecks of paint floating in the water around it. Though Donatello's Magdalene Penitent and the baptistery doors were eventually restored, damage to the crucifix was irreparable. The face and body from the knees to the shoulders was virtually destroyed. Floodwaters reached about half-way up on the crossbar. The damage is especially noticeable in comparing the before and after images (below). Ironically, had the crucifix not been removed from its original placement over Santa Croce's high altar in 1566, it would have remained well above the floodwaters. However, at that time, the gigantic, fourteen-foot work was moved to the church's refectory (dining hall) where it was hung low on the wall. Four hundred years later, it's placement proved to be too low.

Cimabue's 1288 Crucifix before
the 1966 flood.
The Crucifix after the flood.


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