Monday, October 31, 2016

Florence: 4 November 1966

Annamaria on Monday

Fifty years ago, this coming Friday, the waters of the Arno killed 101 people and damaged or destroyed thousands of masterpieces of art and millions of rare and beautiful books. 

Man using a broom to indicate the level reached by the flood waters.

As this year, the day was a Friday, and in Italy a national holiday.  So many public buildings and stores were closed and many of the city’s citizens had gone away for the long weekend.

The weather had been extra rainy, but no one expected a disaster.  Why would they have?  It had been 409 years since such an event had taken place.  Trouble started the day before.  Villagers up the Arno Valley began to call for help because of flooding.  Engineers, fearing the two dams above Florence would fail, began to release extra water into the river.  Up north in Anconella, the water claimed its first victim, a 52-year-old worker at a water treatment plant.

By dawn on the 4th, water was rushing into Florence at a speed 60km an hour.  By daylight, the army barracks were flooded, gas, electricity, and water were turned off, and shortly thereafter the emergency generators in the hospital failed.


Landslides blocked roads in and out of the city and, channeled along Florence’s narrow streets, the floodwaters increased in speed and height.  Within buildings, heating oil tanks were bursting, and the oil and mud mixture was filling up any space below ground level.  By mid-morning, the flood had divided the city in two.

In addition to the 101 dead, the resultant statistics of damage are horrifying:

Families left homeless: 5,000
Stores forced out of business: 6,000
Works of art damaged: 14,000
Books and manuscripts damaged or destroyed: 3-4 million!

Among the casualties: Cimabue’s Crucifix, Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, and Donatello’s Penitent Magdalene.

And then.  And then.  The human beings of world lent a hand.  The very best thing about our species is that we care.

Artists, restorers, conservers, and plain ordinary people came to Florence.  Those volunteers have a name that is an indelible part of the city’s vocabulary: Angeli Del Fango.  Mud Angels.

They came with their skills and their willingness the help.  Many of them were put up in railroad cars at the train station.  The chefs of the city cooked their meals there on portable gas burners.  Some shoveled mud out of basements.  Some delicately, with infinite patience—page by precious page—cleaned the ancient books.  Funds came from charities and governments the world over.


There are still works and books awaiting restoration all these years later.


I never think of this tragedy without thinking of my friend Lilli and another woman whose name I don’t even know.  Lilli was in labor with her third child.  She was on one side of the flood that day, and the hospital was on the other.  She told me she was grief stricken over the damage and terrified about bringing an infant into what felt like maelstrom.  But she safely delivered her son Simone.

The other woman was a librarian at the Biblioteca Nazionale.  She stayed, carrying precious books and documents from the lower floors to the upper ones, until darkness forced her to stop.  Then she escaped over the rooftops, carrying Galileo’s telescope! 

You can see British Pathe’ film of the event here.  

Here is an everlasting reminder of the damage done that fateful day. 



  1. Wow, what a tremendous tragedy. It's unfortunate that it seems to take tragedies to make humans truly shine. But wonderful, at the same time.

    1. EvKa, my feelings exactly. We have the capacity to respond to the worst that befalls us with the best that is within us. The beauty in that moves me like nothing else.

  2. Disasters brought on by nature humble yet unite us, those brought on by man humiliate and haunt us.

    1. Bro, I think that is right some of the time (like all truisms). But often, very often, I think, disasters brought on by man also bring out the heroism and love and compassion in people. In the face of 9/11 in NYC, for instance. New Yorkers are certainly haunted by its dreadful memories, but we are NOT humiliated. We are still sad, still--even after all these years--disbelieving. But we are the opposite of humiliated. We are proud of our city, of our neighbors, and of ourselves for how we reacted as a community. "Where there is hatred, let us sow love" is more than a prayer. Sometimes it is a description of what we actually do.

    2. Whoops, you miss my point. It's not the targets who are humiliated--or even those who carry out the nefarious deeds--it's those who allow the seeds of such disasters to develop and thrive who are humiliated.

    3. Well, there you lose me completely, Bro. If those who allow the seeds of disasters to develop and thrive actually felt humiliation, there might be fewer of them. I think what those people really feel when they survey the damage they have fostered is pride and an enormous sense of accomplishment. If they are not truly evil, just stupid or lazy, I doubt they even notice the destruction they are allowing.
      The Defense (of pride and joy in the best of humanity) rests.

    4. You're confusing those who are actors in a catastrophe with those who allow it to happen. The actors in the Holocaust were not humiliated, but those who allowed it to occur have been by history. The same stands for those today who stand by as mass slaughter thrives, and refugees struggle to survive--doing nothing to save them. It is they who shall suffer the humiliation of history.

    5. Oh i see. You are not talking of their feeling humiliation. I would call what you are describing condemnation. Humiliation for me is an emotion felt BY a person. History will humiliate them. Whether they will be feel humiliation is another matter entirely. BTW, I am not humiliated by your attempts to blame me for misinterpreting your words.

  3. It seems a sad commentary on us that it takes a calamity to bring out the best in is. Thanks for the article.Florence is so beautiful.

    1. True, Lil, but for me anyway, it is one of our most endearing traits that we do it. I am a self-confessed optimist. It may be just my body chemistry. But love and joy come to me faster than the negative emotions. Maybe, I just lose all of the downers in my stories!