Birthplace of Michelangelo and home to untold masterpieces, Florence is a city for art lovers. But on November 4, 1966, the rising waters of the Arno threatened to erase over seven centuries of history and human achievement.
Now Robert Clark explores the Italian city’s greatest flood and its aftermath through the voices of its witnesses. Two American artists wade through the devastated beauty; a photographer stows away on an army helicopter to witness the tragedy first-hand; a British “mud angel” spends a month scraping mold from the world’s masterpieces; and, through it all, an author asks why art matters so very much to us, even in the face of overwhelming disaster.
The Arno River flood that deluged Florence, Italy, in 1966 killing 33 people and damaging 14,000 works of art and countless books and antiques frames this meditation on the relationship between art and life. Clark (River of the West) embarks first on a leisurely history of Florence's intertwined experience of great floods and great art, through the perceptions of Dante, Leonardo, E.M. Forster and other writers and artists. The world's rapt concern for Florence's cultural treasures contrasts sharply with its neglect of the city's inhabitants, Clark argues, offering his impressionistic account of the 1966 disaster as seen through the eyes of artists, photographers, volunteer mud angels who swarmed the city to help rescue its waterlogged art and Communist militants who organized relief for poor neighborhoods. He then follows the decades-long and rancorously debated restoration projects, especially the controversial rehabilitation of Cimabue's 13th-century Crucifix, seeing in them a metaphor for artistic beauty as an endless work-in-progress. Clark's study is sometimes unfocused, but by building up layers of atmospheric chiaroscuro the drying city, he notes, lay lacquered in tints of warm earth and azzuro sky... like pigments just brushed on and still moist he achieves an evocative portrait of Florence as its own greatest masterpiece.