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Michael Dirda on 'Dark Water'
A dramatic tale of the flood that nearly drowned Florence and its treasures.

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, October 19, 2008

DARK WATER

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."

Clark's stories of the flood are the stuff of thrilling documentaries. Trapped in the Museum of the History of Science, its director "escaped across the rooftops to the Uffizi carrying Galileo's telescope." One disabled woman, wheelchair-bound and unreachable because of the anti-theft bars on the windows of her ground-floor apartment, was actually hoisted into the air by neighboring priests using a sheet threaded through the grille. But the floodwaters kept rising and rising, so that -- in a macabre scene -- the woman eventually drowned while suspended in her wheelchair high above the floor.

"By the end of the day of November 5," Clark writes, "most of the city's museums and churches were either still inaccessible or uninspected, but some 14,000 movable artworks would prove to be damaged or destroyed, sixteen miles of shelved documents and records in the State Archives had gone underwater; three to four million books and manuscripts had been flooded, including 1.3 million volumes at the Biblioteca Nazionale and its catalog of eight million cards; the rare book and literary collections of the Vieusseux Library on the Palazzo Strozzi had been completely inundated, with book covers and pages stuck to the ceiling; and unknown millions of dollars' worth of antiques and objets from Florence's antiquarian shops were destroyed, swept away, looted, or otherwise missing."

It was also on November 5 that Ugo Procacci, the superintendent of Florence's monuments and art works, made his way to the Santa Croce refectory, home of Cimabue's "Crucifix." The painting was more than just severely damaged: "perhaps three quarters of the image was gone, either stripped down to the gesso or the canvas beneath it," including half of the face and most of the right side of Christ's body. Procacci's lieutenant, Umberto Baldini -- a highly controversial figure -- directed the removal of the painting and soon emerged as the chief force behind the international restoration efforts.

Which were extraordinary. In Philadelphia, a tearful Frederick Hartt, who had become a professor and America's leading authority on Italian Renaissance painting, told his art classes about the disaster. The next day he flew to Florence. From all over Europe and America, young people -- the mud angels -- began to make their way to the city. One graduate student at London's Courtauld Institute "left the night of the flood, but not before going to his family's farm to round up all the pumps and hoses he could lay his hands on. Driving day and night across the continent in a Land Rover, he was at the doors of the Uffizi twenty-four hours later." Before long, the care of the waterlogged books was given over to a group of mainly English book binders and scientists, under the direction of Peter Waters (who spent much of his later career as the much-loved chief of conservation at the Library of Congress). Waters's colleagues included not only the eccentric conservators Christopher Clarkson and Anthony Cains, but also the nearly larger-than-life Joe Nkrumah, a chemist and restorer who stayed in Florence for seven years before finally going home to become director of the National Museum of Ghana.

But paintings, not books, remain at the heart of Clark's story, and none more so than the Cimabue "Crucifix." Here, Clark almost coyly approaches the bloody crossroads where the care of priceless art intersects with money, ambition and sex. The middle-aged Baldini coveted power, but he also had an eye for beauty, and didn't fail to notice the young and talented paintings conservator Ornella Casazza. Soon the pair were lovers (and eventually, after their divorces, husband and wife), and she was given the task of restoring the Cimabue. Her work, especially the method adopted to fill in the painting's losses, has been both praised and disparaged. When Clark interviewed Casazza (Baldini was dead), she was in her early 60s, and the smitten writer tells us that the conservator was "beautiful; in fact, she was sexy. I would have done whatever she asked." He admits that Baldini might have eased Casazza's path, but "he did what anyone might do when seized by overwhelming bellezza." You can see that the American writer has imbibed the real Italian spirit.

Nonetheless, Clark occasionally segues into strange, almost mystical passages about art and transcendence -- note that odd use of "redemption" in his subtitle -- though these lapses hardly matter given the compelling story he tells. Of course, since Hurricane Katrina, we Americans know all too well the shock and sorrow of a beautiful city suddenly overwhelmed by merciless waters. ·

Michael Dirda's email address is mdirda@gmail.com.

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