Michael Dirda on 'Dark Water'

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, October 19, 2008


Flood and Redemption in the City of Masterpieces

By Robert Clark

Doubleday. 354 pp. $26

In 1968, when I was 19, I hitchhiked from Aix-en-Provence to Florence, where I spent three days gawking at art in museums, libraries and churches. Today, I've forgotten most of the paintings I saw, but I vividly remember the inscriptions and thick red lines etched high on walls throughout the city: "Il IV Novembre 1966/L'Acqua Dell'Arno/Arrivò a Quest' Altezza" ("On November 4, 1966 the waters of the Arno reached this height.") That height, as Robert Clark notes in Dark Water, his account of the 1966 flood, might be as much as 15 or 20 feet above street level.

On that November night 42 years ago, the Arno river overflowed its banks and inundated much of Florence, leaving more than 30 people dead, drowning millions of books and manuscripts and damaging or destroying thousands of paintings. Though terrible and heartbreaking, the flood's consequences might have been even worse were it not for the efforts of a motley crew of art experts, painting and book conservators, wealthy philanthropists and ordinary people, not least the almost legendary "mud angels." These "angeli del fango" were the young people, most of them in their teens and early 20s, who flocked to the city to help save its heritage. Today in the art world to have worked as a "mud angel" carries the kind of glory that even the fanciest graduate degree is powerless to bestow.

Robert Clark opens his book with a succinct, though sometimes overheated, history of Florence and its love-hate relationship with the Arno. Did you know that Tuscany's capital has been flooded scores of times, indeed with almost predictable regularity? Once these inundations were thought to be righteous punishment for the city's myriad vices:

"Florentines were known for their excessive interest in the exquisiteness of their clothes and cooking, their outsized civic and personal pride," Clark explains, "but Florence stood out most of all for avarice and envy: lust for the florin, particularly someone else's florins, together with their house, their furnishings, their good fortune, their beauty (and that of their spouses, children, and lovers), and their talent."

Florentine Leonardo da Vinci, we are reminded, was obsessed with sketching deluges, roiling waves and torrential waters. We learn that it was Giorgio Vasari, now honored as the father of art history, who decided that Cimabue's great "Crucifix," installed high above the altar at Santa Croce, should be replaced with a ciborio, a kind of tabernacle. As a result, the large panel painting was moved to the church's refectory, where it would remain for 400 years until November 5, 1966, when horrified priests and scholars waded through dirty, oily waters covered with its flaking paint. Within a few days Cimabue's masterpiece was to become the most famous victim of the Arno Flood and the focus of the most intense, if sometimes wayward, restoration efforts.

Clark builds to his dramatic action slowly. He describes the gradual discovery of Florence as a "city of masterpieces," where poets might reside (Shelley, the Brownings), critics learn their trade (Ruskin, Berenson) and novelists observe their gauche compatriots on tour (Henry James, E.M. Forster). He reminds us that during World War II the departing Germans blew up all the Arno's bridges, except one: The art-loving Führer insisted against all military logic that the Ponte Vecchio be spared. We also learn that as the American army advanced toward the river, Lt. Frederick Hartt was desperately trying to discover and protect the caves and villas where the treasures of the Uffizi museum had been hidden. Clark's tour of Florentine history even mentions the distinctly minor expatriate writer Dorothy Lees. Why? Because her illegitimate son by the stage designer Gordon Craig (himself the illegitimate son of the actress Ellen Terry) grew up to be David Lees, the celebrated Life magazine photographer who recorded the flood's widespread devastation.

Not until page 131 does Clark actually begin his gripping account of the disaster. On the evening of November 3, Piero Bargellini, the mayor of Florence, attended a banquet to honor the American Chamber of Commerce at which a documentary on the Mississippi River was shown. Bargellini then jested: "Don't imagine I was fazed by your movie. Florence has never been afraid of competition: if it keeps raining like this, tomorrow morning the Arno will beat your Mississippi."

Within a few hours this would no longer be a joke. First a worker at the Anconella pumping station called a newspaper's night desk to report that everything was under water. His body was later found "embedded in mud inside a hydraulic tunnel." Then 70 thoroughbred horses, locked in their stables at the city park, "drowned, thrashing and screaming." By morning much of the city was cut off from the rest of the world. But just before the lines went down, the sister of moviemaker Franco Zeffirelli called her brother with the dire news. By dawn Zeffirelli was in a helicopter with a film crew heading for his home town. A day later La Nazione, using printing presses in Bologna, headlined its front page: "Florence Invaded by Water: The City Transformed into a Lake: The Greatest Tragedy in Seven Centuries."

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