Italy – ‘Mud Angels’ reveal Florence’s bright side

Florence in the sun is revered as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, if not the world.
Florence in the rain is like anywhere else: its wet and cold and leaves you dreaming of warm towels and even warmer bed sheets.
Visions of Italian ice cream certainly fall off the agenda.
Escaping from the rain into one of the city’s tourist buses is no saviour either.

Viewers on the top deck usually take in a series of monuments and churches of Renaissance design, topped off by the magnificent domed Santa Maria del Fiore.
That was substituted on my visit for grey skies and pouring rain, pools of water on the seats and great difficulty in standing up.
Sadly, you don’t see much of a city famous for its steepling architecture when sitting on the lower level of a bus – but you do get to listen to the tour guide.

And that’s where I learnt about 1966 and all that.
No, not the World Cup and England’s sadly distant solitary victory, but a time when Florence really was hit by the rains.
For on the night of November 3, 1966 Florence was the centre of a flood which left 30 people dead and many thousands homeless.
This Godly city was eventually saved by a series of angels. Whether they were sent from Heaven or not I will leave to you, but the ‘mud angels’ came to Italy from all over the world.
It is a remarkable story.
Police in the Tuscan city initially received calls for help from villagers further up the valley of the River Arno after a third of the region’s annual rainfall fell in just two days.
The situation worsened when the city’s drainage system and cellars filled with rain, spewing water out onto the streets.
Electricity began to fail and the ancient Roman aqueduct began to creak under the pressure of the rain. Santa Croce and San Frediano were already under water and as mud began to flow through the underground of the city a 52-year-old workman became the rain’s first victim, choking to death in a tunnel.
Public buildings locked up for the national Armed Forces Day holiday also filled with water, leaving many magnificent works of art and treasured books ruined.
By 4am a group of engineers, worried that the Valdarno dam was about to burst, discharged a huge volume of water which rushed towards Florence at speeds of more than 37mph.
Smashing aside cars and trees, the floods burst into churches, ancient palaces and homes cutting off gas, electricity and fresh water supplies as it went.
Even the city’s electric clocks came to a halt at 7.26am, followed more worryingly by emergency generators at the hospital.
Landslides followed as the Arno embankment gave way and the city was cut in two and isolated from the rest of the world.

On the banks of the river, the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale (National Central Library) and the Uffizi Gallery, which was full of priceless works of art including Botticelli’s La Primavera, suffered.
Next to be hit was the Piazza del Duomo itself. Narrow streets around the building acted as funnels, increasing the speed and height of the water. Outsiders came to help, but by nightfall, people were still stranded in upper floors and on roofs with the water reaching over 22ft at its peak.
It did not start to fall until 8pm.
Disease, escaped prisoners and collapsing buildings plagued the town leaving 30 people dead and 50,000 homeless.
That was when the ‘mud angels’ arrived. An army of students from all over the world they started putting the city, and its people, back together again.
Volunteers from as far afield as the US and Japan turned up to set about helping to rescue and limit the damage to more than a million books and almost a thousand paintings, frescoes and sculptures.
When the muddy waters had entered the Piazza del Duomo, they had torn Ghiberti’s bronze and gold Doors of Paradise from their hinges, knocking off five panels of the original ten.
A wooden Magdalene by Donatello was later found with half her body covered in black oil, while the greatest artistic loss was the 13th-century painted wooden Crucifix by Giovanni Cimabue, which had been in the church of Santa Croce. It was so badly damaged that it has become a symbol of the tragedy.
Around a million books were damaged in the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale alone. Although they had all been dried by 1967, 35,000 still remain damaged today.
But the flood has a surprising bright side. Restoration practices were re-evaluated after it and it was the first time many books had received ‘deacidification’ treatment – the flood water contained a high percentage of calcite, which neutralises harmful acid.
Refreshed with the knowledge that every raincloud has a silver lining and that angels – if even if they are ‘mud angels’ – look over Florence I ventured back into the rain.
It turned out the Duomo remains a beautiful building whatever the weather – now where’s that ice cream parlour.

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