Florence Flood 1966: What Happened to Renaissance Art Collections
For many centuries, the Arno was a very capricious and willful river, which constantly attracted floods, and on the night of November 4, 1966, it once again proved that Florence was erected in an extremely unfortunate place. In a few hours, the river turned into a dirty dung stream. Due to the Florence flood of 1966, thousands of priceless works of art were destroyed and tens of thousands were damaged. In rural areas, floods drowned 114 people, another 53 people died in the city itself. In its vicinity, 500 thousand tons of mud remained, which amounted to 1 ton per person. More than 100 thousand inhabitants of this Tuscan paradise were trapped in the upper floors of buildings for several days.
For 900 years, Arno has regularly and inevitably flooded its shores. From 1177, when the first flood was recorded, to 1761, Arno overflowed its banks 54 times, with significant floods occurring every 26 years, and catastrophic ones every 100 years. The flood in Florence, Italy in 1966 was no exception.
The whole October 1966 was cloudy, and it rained incessantly. But the first two days of November were dry and clear. On November 1, the anniversary of the end of the First World War, in Italy everyone expected that the national holiday would be held in a favorable and joyful atmosphere and did not expect a new Florence flood. But on November 3, after the end of the celebrations, a downpour hit. In 48 hours, 470 mm of precipitation fell over Florence, which amounted to more than a third of the area’s annual norm. This was only the beginning of the Florence flood of 1966.
However, this fact in no way alarmed the operators at the Peña hydropower plant, located 50 km upstream of the river. Despite the rains that had rained in the previous weeks, they did not drain the water from the reservoir in small portions. They let her down all at once. This put unimaginable pressure on the walls of the Levane Dam, located six kilometers below. Operators in Levan were faced with a serious problem of whether to open the locks, which, of course, would entail a new flood in Florence.
Señora Ida Raffaele, who lived below the dam, later told the representatives of the world press: “Seeing that the gate was slowly opening and a huge wall of water rushing into Arno and in our direction, I was very frightened, shouted to my sister, and we rushed to escape.”
They managed to escape, and Arno carried the waters directly to Florence. Between 9 and 11 p.m. on November 4, the river rose by 370 cm within the city limits. By 11 o’clock, the water reached a speed of 65 km per hour and was only 90 cm below the level of the bridge. Huge tree trunks hit the bridge.
By 3 am, the water flooded the bridge. From the impacts of vehicles floating in the water, the bridge shook, its pillars, blown up by the Germans during the Second World War and restored only recently, almost collapsed. The bridge miraculously survived.
Now the lower parts of the city began to hide under the water. Underground transformers began to burn, boiler rooms exploded. The ancient sewage system, built 300 years ago, under the incredible pressure of the water rushing into it, could not stand it, and feces began to geyser out of the hatches, filling the city with an eerie stench. Oil from the furnaces spilled onto the surface of the water and left dirty spots on the walls of the houses. Situated on the banks of the river, the old part of the city was the home of the poorest citizens. Many of them drowned. In the Santa Teresa prison, the water rose to 4 m, and the prisoners were transferred to the upper floor, where they managed to defeat the guards. 80 prisoners then got out to the roof, from where they tried to hide under the cheers of the Florentines, who were locked in their apartments by the flood. Some jumped on passing tree trunks, others tried to grab onto the debris. But not everyone was lucky.
At Cascine Park, located on the other side of town, horse owners were desperate to get 270 horses into trailers to transport them to safety. Only 200 horses were saved, 70 drowned. Two days later, when the water subsided, their corpses were found by rescuers and burned with flamethrowers on the spot to prevent the spread of disease.
At 7:26 am, all electric clocks stopped in the city: the power supply was cut off for 24 hours. Bridges leading from the city were demolished, roads were destroyed, and railroad tracks were filled with sediments. The Florentines found themselves isolated from the rest of the world.
But the biggest damage, due to the 1966 flood of the River Arno in Florence, was done to the repositories of the richest collections of Renaissance art. These treasures of world importance have been torn, broken, stained with oil. The restoration of the surviving works took many years and billions of lire.
Florence is the pearl of world culture. And the whole world immediately responded to her trouble. As soon as the sky cleared, rescue teams from 10 European countries, as well as from the USA and Brazil, began to arrive. Material aid was received from England, Germany, Austria, and the Soviet Union. Blankets, water pumps, and vaccines came from Scotland. The United States sent food and clothing, generators, and prefabricated houses. Engineers arrived from Holland with equipment for water disinfection. Israel has invited over 100 homeless children to its kibbutz for the Christmas holidays.
But the distribution of this aid was not enough, and the incredibly hard work of cleaning the city still had to be done. Students of the Florentine branches of the Universities of Stanford, Syracuse, and Florida immediately began its implementation. And since they worked in jeans, the Florentines affectionately called them “blue angels”. For two weeks, students cleared the rubble in the basements of the National Library, handing over books and manuscripts soaked in water to the upper floors along a living chain. Each book was carefully wrapped with special paper to absorb moisture. The books were then loaded onto trucks provided by the US Army, and under the supervision of restorers and scientists who had come from around the world especially for this, they were transported to dry in ovens in central Italy, where tobacco was usually dried.
Priceless Ghiberti panels have been found beneath a layer of dirt and debris. They were returned to their original place on the “Gates of Paradise”. Michelangelo’s statues were covered with a thick layer of talcum powder, then spotless with brushes and strong detergents. After such treatment, they practically restored their former beauty. The ancient sculpture of Mary Magdalene, made by Donatello five hundred years ago, after being treated with a solvent and surgical scalpels, has become even better than it was before the flood since centuries-old dirt was removed from it at the same time. But Chimbau’s “Crucifixion” was lost forever, as were the priceless frescoes.
In the Strozzi Palace, all furniture and archives were destroyed, some of which date from the sixteenth century. All 130,000 photographic negatives taken from works of art were destroyed in the basements of the Uffizi Gallery. The paintings themselves, collected on the upper floor, survived. Florence and the flood of 1966 caused terrible damages. The great flood of Florence in 1966 caused not only about a hundred human deaths but also damaged the repositories of the richest collections of Renaissance art. People living there will never ask “what year was the Florence flood” because it is unlikely that the Florence, Italy flood will ever be forgotten.