And now I will tell you about the horrible flooding in Florence. It’s a disaster. The whole world is sending help, especially for the precious works of art that have been damaged by water and mud. On television, I saw them carrying out paintings by Sandro Botticelli, Fra Filippo Lippi, and Domenico Ghirlandaio. It breaks my heart.
-Nonna, in a letter to my parents, November 1966 (translated from Italian)
I wasn’t yet born when Nonna wrote my parents about the horrific events of November 4, 1966 when, due to unusually heavy rainfall, the Arno River flooded the city of Florence. By the time the waters receded 5,000 people were left homeless, 6,000 stores were forced out of business, and 600,000 tons of mud, rubble and sewage damaged and destroyed millions of masterpieces of art, rare books, maps, historic documents, and manuscripts. The world responded quickly, and Angeli del Fango (Mud Angels) arrived from around the world to help with the rescue and eventual restoration of precious artwork and antique books.
The event took hold in the hearts of many, so much so that as a little girl I often heard stories about the 1966 flood, mostly from my Nonna who still got emotional describing the amazing (and often heroic) efforts to rescue masterpieces that, ultimately, belong to the world.
I was reminded of her stories this past September when I was exploring the Santa Croce Basilica in the heart of Florence. While I had entered the church with the intention of seeing the tombs of Michelangelo, Dante, Machiavelli, and Galileo, it was the crucifix by Cimabue which fascinated me the most because that masterpiece became the symbol of Florence’s post-flood period of recovery.
In 1966, when the flood waters broke down the church doors and the basilica was filled with water, many precious works of art were damaged … including this precious crucifix painted in 1275 by Cimabue for the Franciscan order. When rescuers entered the church, the surface of the crucifix was covered in water, mud, and oil; the base was damaged; and there were deep gouges in the wood. Additionally, Cimabue had used distemper to coat the wooden crucifix, and nearly 60% of it was chipped off.
Amazingly, when a local priest entered the church the next day in a small rowboat, he noticed flecks of paint floating in the water. Upon realizing they were from the precious crucifix, he directed volunteers to collect the floating specks. Subsequently, during the 10-year restoration project it was these rescued pieces that greatly helped with the restoration and, in 1979, Cimabue’s restored cross was returned to the Santa Croce Basilica.
This month marked the 50th anniversary of this terrible flood, and having just returned from Italy where I saw Cimabue’s cross, it is sobering that now there is yet another flood making headlines—this time in Venice. I was just there, and now St. Mark’s Basilica, where I attended Mass, is flooded; St. Mark’s Square, where we spent our evenings listening to music, is now closed to the public.
The same peaceful waters that offered us gentle passage for our gondolas on an evening just before sunset, are now turbulent and dangerous.
I recently came across a quote from author Toni Morrison in which she says all water has perfect memory and is trying to get back to where it was. Maybe she was referring to the fact that you can’t hold water; you can contain it, for a while, but it can’t be held because while we see it as something that is the same, it is never the same as it was a moment ago.
The waves, the tides, the endless ebb and flow along the shore will come. Again and again. Sometimes quietly, sometimes ferociously. In Florence. In Venice. Anywhere in the world.
And so, like those paint specks floating on the water, we pick up the pieces and put them together again.