The dreadful November

the flood of Florence, 4. 11. 1966

Santa Croce square during the flood.
Santa Croce square during the flood.

Autumn in Tuscany is one of my favourite seasons. It’s still warm outside so one can enjoy walks and hikes in the countryside and admire colourful landscapes with yellow, red and orange trees, bushes and vineyards. At the same time, November tends to be particularly rainy. The weather is not as stable as during the rest of the year and, when it rains, it rains for real with heavy storms and intense rainfalls. However, we not always complain about it. Especially after very hot and dry Summers, like this year, we welcome rain with joy and hope. After seeing rivers and streams completely dried out for the past four months, I was really happy when the first November rains came this year.

November 1966

At the same time, when the beginning of November brings the first rain, I always think about that terrible November of 1966, when the Arno flooded Florence and a part of Tuscany. 4 November 1966 remains one of the most difficult days in the recent history of the city, the day of the Great Flood. That year, intense rainfalls continued since the end of October. The sun came out on 2 November but the day after it started to rain again. On Thursday, 3 November, heavy rainfalls continued. At 3 pm another bad storm hit Florence and at 6 pm the level of the river reached 8,69 meters. Despite this difficult situation, the inhabitants of Florence were not warned about a possible flood and nothing was done to protect the particularly vulnerable areas or the most important monuments, such as the Santa Croce district. During the centuries, the Santa Croce district, located at the level of the river, has always been hit by floods of the Arno. Given the proximity of the National Library, the convent of the Santa Croce and the State Archive to the river, today it seems incomprehensible why nothing was done to prevent the destruction of the precious works of art, manuscripts, rare books and documents preserved in these institutions. The flood started around 1 am and the first to break the river banks was the Arno’s tributary – the Mugnone. The Arno flooded at 4 am and already few hours later the National Library and the complex of Santa Croce were under the water. During the night, just in few hours the city was buried by dirt, mud and tons of malodorous water. Thirty-five people lost their life, seventeen of which in Florence itself. Many of the victims lived in the Santa Croce area. They were often infirm or handicap people who could not move and did not have any chance to escape from the impetus of the flood.

The morning of 4 November was a shock…

Friday, 4 November, was a public holiday in Italy, the anniversary of the end of World War I. Many people were out of town, which probably contained the number of victims. At the same time, because of the holiday, the central authorities reacted with a certain delay. During the whole morning the water continued to invade the historical centre of the city. By 10 am it reached the Baptistery and the Cathedral. Florence was cut in two with no communication between the different districts. There was no potable water, no gas, no electricity. In the evening the water began to lower leaving behind only devastation and destruction. What the witnesses recall, is the smell of fuel oil that was coming from everywhere. The water that broke into the apartments destroyed hundreds of oil-burning boilers and, thus, carried the naphtha and the fuel everywhere.

The mud angels put in safe the paintings from the Uffizi Gallery.
The mud angels put in safe the paintings from the Uffizi Gallery.

Florence needed help!

The day after the flood the city woke up covered by a thick and malodorous layer of mud mixed with fuel and every kind of filth and it was obvious that to clean it all and to return to a certain sort of normality the Florentines needed help. And this is when the so called “mud angels” started to arrive to the city from all over Italy and from abroad. They were mainly young people, high school and university students, who came to Florence and helped to remove the mud from churches, shops, apartments and museums. It was necessary to empty the magazines of the National Library and the State Archive, full of manuscripts and documents completely covered by the mud. In the Santa Croce church, under the layers of the dirt, Cimabue’s Crucifix was discovered, one of the most precious paintings from the thirteenth century completely ruined by the water. The painting became the symbol of the flood. Its restoration was concluded only in 2014 when it returned to the church. Despite the restoration, a part of the pictorial layers could not be reconstructed, and the painting remains strongly marked by this tremendous event.

Mud angels

Today the memory of the mud angels preserves in the city. These brave young people spent days in Florence, often sleeping inside of the empty train carriages at the Santa Maria Novella station or wherever they found some place. For weeks they helped to remove the mud, they saved the paintings, the books and the sculptures and they allowed the city to return to the normality. In same way, the presence of these young volunteers proved that Florence belonged to everybody and that the importance of its cultural heritage crossed every border. The appeals for help came from everywhere, including the actors and artists of international importance. During the days of the food Franco Zeffirelli, a famous Florentine film director, worked in Rome together with Richard Burton and Elisabeth Taylor shooting The Taming of the Shrew. Deeply touched by the scale of the disaster, Zeffirelli produced a documentary entitled Per Firenze. The film shows the images of Florence during and after the flood commented by Richard Burton who appealed the international public for help and support. During the next months, the international help reached Florence from all over the world. Germany, for example, sent to Florence many industrial heaters used to dry the walls of many buildings. It took many months before Florence could return to the normal life. It was even longer before the first paintings, manuscripts and rare books could return to their original collections and even today there are many works of art, books and documents that still wait for the restoration.

Consequences of the flood

The flood of Florence had many long-term consequences. First, it proved that the national system of the civil protection was highly inadequate and insufficient. Thus, the flood opened up the discussion about the establishment of an efficient system of warning and rescue in case of natural disasters. In consequence, in 1970 the government instituted the regular units of the civil protection ready to react during floods, earthquakes, landslides or fires. In 1986, instead, the government created a new ministry – the Ministry of Environment – established to protect the Italian environment, ecosystem and natural patrimony of the country.

If you want to see few more pictures from the days of the flood, have a look at this slideshow prepared by the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works.

Planning a holiday in Florence? Contact me to arrange your custom private guided tours!