Fifty years ago, on Friday, Nov. 4, 1966, Italy’s Arno River breached its retaining walls and flooded the city of Florence. That day, hundreds of works of art were damaged by a mixture of water, sewage, fuel oil and silt. Cimabue’s panel painting “The Crucifixion”— one of the seminal works of the early Renaissance — was submerged in 13 feet of water inside the church of Santa Croce.

"Waters Rising: Letters from Florence," by Sheila Waters (The Legacy Press)

As we learn from “Waters Rising,” approximately one-third of the collection of the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze — 1.3 million items — was also submerged that day, including “the exceedingly important Magliabechi and Palatine rare-book collections.” Three weeks after­ward, Peter Waters, then only 36 but arguably the most gifted bookbinder of his generation, received a phone call from Howard Nixon of the British Museum. The next day, Nov. 25, Waters — along with fellow binders Anthony Cains and Dorothy Cumpstey — was on a plane to Italy.

Quickly emerging as the recovery effort’s major strategist and team leader, Waters would doggedly overcome myriad obstacles to set up a systematic program to treat thousands of the library’s most important treasures and, in so doing, establish many of the ground rules of modern book conservation. In 1971, Waters would go on to head the book conservation department of the Library of Congress. He retired in 1995 and in 2003 died of lung cancer at age 73.

Up until he received that fateful telephone call, Waters had been chiefly known as one half of the Slade Bindery, established by his former mentor Roger Powell, the man who had rebound Ireland’s greatest bibliophilic treasure, the Book of Kells. At the Slade, the two expert craftsmen usually worked on one rare volume at a time. But now, in a foreign country, the young Englishman was faced with mountains of sodden, dirt-encrusted books. What should be done to save them?

In “Waters Rising” — a marvelous punning title — Sheila Waters relates this critical period in her husband’s life from several perspectives. First, Randy Silverman, who heads the preservation department at the University of Utah, summarizes Peter’s contributions to book and paper conservation. More briefly, Valerii P. Leonov, of the Russian Academy of Sciences Library, contributes a warm, personal tribute, which is followed by a photographic suite of Peter’s early design bindings. Most usefully, Sheila next provides a year-long “narrative diary and timeline” that lays out the day-to-day problems addressed by the ever-changing Florence team, a largely collegial group that came to include some of the most revered figures in book conservation — Christopher Clarkson, Bernard Middleton, Margaret Hey, Sydney Cockerell, Carolyn Horton, Stella Patri, Joe Nkrumah, Philip Smith, Paul Banks and a dozen others.

Peter and Sheila Waters in 1967 (Courtesy of Sheila Waters)

After this valuable introductory material, one reaches the main event: Peter’s long, detailed letters home from Florence, which reveal how he approached myriad technical and bureaucratic difficulties and dealt with loneliness, an inability to delegate and occasional self-doubt. Wisely, Sheila also includes her own side of the correspondence, in part because she worked as Peter’s representative in England, but also because her letters show us the affectionate and bustling family the young binder had been forced to leave behind.

“Waters Rising” concludes with another suite of pictures — of ruined books with accordioned pages, of the library repair stations in action and, not least, of the many young people, fondly called “Mud Angels,” who arrived from all over the world to help in the recovery effort. Each copy of “Waters Rising” also comes with a DVD of Roger Hill’s film, “The Restoration of Books, Florence, 1968.”

From the beginning, Peter Waters stressed the necessity of before-and-after photographs of all the volumes to be treated and the value of a system of symbols to quickly describe any book to workers who spoke different languages. Early on, he shut down one well-meaning salvage operation that was causing more harm than good, was soon battling corporations and bureaucrats to acquire the proper sinks and drying racks and, when tempers flared, was regularly reminding himself and others that the “books themselves must always come first before personal feelings.”

While her husband obsesses over how to wash, dry and press 200,000 rare books, Sheila’s loving letters talk about their three young sons, household chores and a dying pet dog. They also allude to her own ongoing map and lettering projects. Elected to England’s Society of Scribes and Illuminators when she was just 22, Sheila Waters became one of the world’s greatest calligraphers. My favorite picture in “Waters Rising” shows Peter watching an intensely focused Sheila, who holds her pen with infinite delicacy as she finishes the camera-ready artwork for the printed record and treatment cards. The image strikingly captures the intimate connection of head, heart and hand that is the ideal of the arts-and-crafts movement.

Not surprisingly, the Legacy Press has produced an exceptionally well-made and handsome book, designed by Peter and Sheila’s son Julian Waters, himself a renowned calligrapher and type designer, in conjunction with publisher (and former paper conservator) Cathleen A. Baker. At this point I probably don’t need to add that I knew Peter Waters during his years in Washington. As in Florence, he continued to foster an expectation of excellence and camaraderie in those around him, so that — as he once wrote to Sheila — people simply “got on with the job, each one doing his or her allotted task and not questioning the others’ competence to do the job.”

Peter was, in short, that rare thing, a practical visionary. Whether you care about books or their conservation, or would simply like to read about a remarkable couple and their enviable marriage, “Waters Rising” shouldn’t be missed.

Michael Dirda reviews books on Thursdays in Style.

Waters rising
Letters from Florence:
Peter Waters and Book Conservation at the
Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze after the 1966 Flood

By Sheila Waters

The Legacy Press. 482 pp. $45