At Italy On This Day you will read about events and festivals, about important moments in history, and about the people who have made Italy the country it is today, and where they came from. Italy is a country rich in art and music, fashion and design, food and wine, sporting achievement and political diversity. Italy On This Day provides fascinating insights to help you enjoy it all the more.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Umberto Baldini – art restorer

Saved hundreds of artworks damaged by Arno floods


Umberto Baldini
Umberto Baldini
Umberto Baldini, the art historian who helped save hundreds of paintings, sculptures and manuscripts feared to have been damaged beyond repair in the catastrophic flooding in Florence in 1966, died on this day in 2006.

Baldini was working as director of the Gabinetto di Restauro, an office of the municipal authority in Florence charged with supervising restoration projects, when the River Arno broke its banks in the early hours of November 4, 1966.

With the ground already saturated, the combination of two days of torrential rain and storm force winds was too much and dams built to create reservoirs in the upper reaches of the Arno valley were threatened with collapse.

Consequently thousands of cubic metres of water had to be released, gathered pace as it raced downstream and eventually swept into the city at speeds of up to 40mph.

More than 100 people were killed and up to 20,000 in the valley left homeless. At its peak the depth of water in the Santa Croce area of Florence rose to 6.7 metres (22 feet). 

The Basilica di Santa Croce partially submerged under flood water
The Basilica of Santa Croce partially
submerged under flood water
Baldini was director of the conservation studios at the Uffizi, the principle art museum in Florence and one of the largest and most well known in the world, where some of the most precious and valuable treasures of the Renaissance were kept, supposedly secure and protected.

The main galleries on the second floor of the Uffizi complex, situated just off Piazza della Signoria in the heart of the city and right by the river, escaped but the water – not only muddy but full of oil after tanks in its path were ruptured – poured into storerooms, where more than 1,000 medieval and Renaissance paintings and sculptures were kept.

Once the flood subsided, it was Baldini’s task to save what he could from the mess that remained, with everything in the storerooms covered in oily mud.  Similar scenes confronted the wardens and curators of churches, libraries and museums all over Florence.

It was estimated that between three and four million books and manuscripts were damaged, as well as 14,000 works of art.

Baldini not only oversaw a painstaking restoration project at the Uffizi, he was called on to advise in similar efforts taking place across the city, with almost every church possessing priceless works by one Old Master or another.

The bespectacled academic called in experts from around the world and rapidly organised the hiring and training of hundreds of volunteers – the so-called Mud Angels – to dry, clean and restore such damaged material as could be salvaged.

Baldini examines some of the restoration work
Baldini examines some of the restoration work
Books were washed, disinfected and dried, pages often removed to be later rebound. Paintings were dried with the application of rice paper, with techniques employed in some cases to remove entire paint layers and reapply them to a new surface.

The work went on for decades after the streets had been cleaned up and Florentine life restored to normal but by the mid-1980s it was thought up to two-thirds of all the damaged items had been repaired, including high-profile casualties such as Cimabue’s wooden crucifix in the Basilica of Santa Croce.

Others took much longer. For instance, work on Giorgio Vasari’s huge panel painting of The Last Supper, also housed in the Santa Croce basilica and submerged for 12 hours, was not completed until 2016, half a century after the flood.

Much of the successful restoration was down to the work by Baldini in the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe, when he reorganized the Uffizi’s conservation facilities under a single institute and put in place formal training programmes for students of conservation to provide a steady supply of highly-skilled staff.

In 1983, Baldini was appointed director of the Istituto Centrale per il Restauro in Rome, Italy’s most prestigious conservation body, in which capacity he led the project to clean and restore the 15th- century Masaccio frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel of the Carmine Church in Florence.

Completed by Fillipino Lippi, the frescoes depict scenes from the life of St. Peter and the Book of Genesis. Baldini’s team discovered a virtually unspoiled portion of the fresco hidden behind an altar.

Born in 1921 at Pitigliano, near Grosseto in Tuscany, Baldini wrote books on the Brancacci Chapel, Masaccio and the restorations of Botticelli’s Primavera and Cimabue’s crucifix.

He died at his home in Marina di Massa, a Tuscan coastal town north of Viareggio, some 125km (78 miles) west of Florence, aged 84. His funeral took place at the church of San Giuseppe Vecchio in Marina di Massa and his body was interred at the Cemetery of the Holy Gate at the Basilica di San Miniato al Monte in Florence.

The church of San Miniato al Monte and adjoining cemetery
The church of San Miniato al Monte and adjoining cemetery
Travel tip:

San Miniato al Monte stands at one of the highest points in Florence and has been described as one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture in Italy. Work on building the church began in 1013 at the sight of a chapel marking a cave supposedly occupied by Minas – later St. Miniato – an Armenian prince serving in the Roman army under Emperor Decius, who was denounced as a Christian after becoming a hermit. The Emperor ordered Minas to be thrown to the beasts in an amphitheatre outside Florence only for the animals to refuse to devour him, and instead had him beheaded, upon which he is alleged to have picked up his head, crossed the Arno and walked up the hill of Mons Fiorentinus to his hermitage.

Cimabue's partially restored crucifix in the  Basilica of Santa Croce
Cimabue's partially restored crucifix in the
Basilica of Santa Croce
Travel tip:

The Basilica of Santa Croce, consecrated in 1442, is the main Franciscan church in Florence and the burial place among others of Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, the poet Ugo Foscolo, the philosopher Giovanni Gentile and the composer Gioachino Rossini.  It houses works by some of the most illustrious names in the history of art, including Canova, Cimabue, Donatello, Giotto and Vasari.


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