Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the flood that devastated Florence in 1966. On November 3rd, after weeks of torrential rains, the Arno’s banks gave way and river water gushed into the city. Florence was caught, virtually unaware that night and was ill-equipped to deal with the aftermath of the flood that damaged or destroyed many masterpieces and rare books.
In the novel “Dreaming Sophia” I talk about the Mud Angels. Sophia’s mother was, in fact, a Mud Angel in Florence at the time of the flood. She embodied Mario Primicerio’s (Mayor of Florence—1995-1999) sentiments about the Mud Angels:
“What we were doing was dictated by the desire to give back the traces of the history of the past to future generations, so that it could be used for the spiritual growth of people who perhaps had yet to be born…it was the international community that worked to try to save Florence, this unique patrimony which belonged to the whole world.”
With very few emergency measures in place or workforce to clean up the resulting mess, when the flood struck Florence in 1966, Florence depended greatly on volunteers dubbed the Mud Angels—gli Angeli di fango who descended upon the city shortly after learning about the flood. These unexpected saviors were the young people who came from all over the world and all over Italy to selflessly help the Florentines shovel approximately 600,000 tons of mud, rubble, and sewage that remained in the flood’s aftermath.
The young volunteers faced not only knee-deep slime and mud, but also the sticky Nafta fuel oil that gushed from broken heating lines coating stone walls, statues, and marble surfaces. The water damage too was quite significant. Shop windows were shattered, merchandise ruined and cars were trashed, dragged through the streets by powerful currents, and left piled one on top of the other.
The Mud Angels worked tirelessly, inspired by hope and a willingness to make a difference. Most were never paid for their efforts and many slept in boxcars in the train yard of Santa Maria Novella. During the day they swept debris from the streets or worked passing hand over hand soggy books and manuscripts from the Biblioteca Nazionale’s basement. Others were given the assignment of smearing walls with caustic solvents to pull the oils from the surface of ancient buildings. Still, others helped in the city’s hospital or assisted local merchants to clean out their shops.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the flood, I attended a tribute to Florence and the Mud Angels in San Francisco at the Istituto Italiano Cultura. People came together to watch a short film and listen to the stories told by students who attended Gonzaga (Spokane, Washington) University’s Florence campus at that time.
We also heard from a Florentine woman, who shared personal memories of the event and how her family and neighbors coped with losing electricity as the waters filled the stairwells of her apartment building in the Oltrarno. Many recalled the eery silence and pitch blackness of the night when the electric generators failed. She remembered the shouts and cries that echoed through the darkness as stranded neighbors called to one another from adjacent buildings.
Another person recalled that although the Ponte Vecchio Bridge survived it looked as if it had been hit by a bomb. Where the jewelry stores had been, large gaping holes remained and people searched through the mud trying to find jewels in the street.
But the most vivid memory for most was the rancid musty smell of the city that remained for days, even weeks after the floodwaters receded.
The flood of ’66 was quite a dramatic event and while human casualties were few the real cost was the devastation to Florence’s art treasures. If any good came out of the disaster, it would be the advancements made in book conservation and art restoration.
It was very interesting to listen to the stories of the Mud Angels, but the images of those days also are quite powerful, astonishing, and sobering. As they say, a picture speaks a thousand words.