4 November 2016

Florence's catastrophic floods

Tuscan capital devastated on same day six centuries apart

Plaques on the Via San Remigio in  Florence mark the level of both floods
Plaques on the Via San Remigio in
Florence mark the level of both floods
More than 3,000 people were believed to have been killed when the River Arno flooded the streets of Florence on this day in 1333.

More than six centuries later, 101 people died when the city was flooded on the same day in 1966. The 50th anniversary of the most recent catastrophe, which took a staggering toll of priceless books and works of art in the Cradle of the Renaissance, is being commemorated in the city today.

The 1333 disaster - the first recorded flood of the Arno - was chronicled for posterity by Giovanni Villani, a diplomat and banker living in the city.

A plaque in Via San Remigio records the level the water allegedly reached in 1333 and another plaque commemorates the level the water reached after the river flooded in 1966, exactly 633 years later.

Villani wrote in his Nuova Cronica (New Chronicle), ‘By noon on Thursday, 4 November, 1333, a flood along the Arno River spread across the entire plain of San Salvi.’

By nightfall, the flood waters had filled the city streets and Villani claimed the water rose above the altar in Florence’s Baptistery, reaching halfway up the porphyry columns.

The statue of Giovanni Villani in the Loggia del Mercato Nuovo in Florence
The statue of Giovanni Villani in the
Loggia del Mercato Nuovo in Florence
Apart from its two central piers, the Ponte Vecchio was swept away when huge logs in the rushing water became clogged around it, allowing the water to build and leap over the arches.

An old statue of Mars that stood on a pedestal near the Ponte Vecchio was also carried off by the flood waters, Villani recorded.

The idea of creating a year-by-year history of Florence came to Villani after he attended the first Jubilee in the city of Rome in 1300. He realised Rome’s history was well-known and wanted to create a history of his own city.

In his Cronica he covers 14th century building projects, population statistics and disasters, such as the flood and the Black Death of 1348, which eventually took his own life. His work on the Chronicle was continued by his brother and nephew after his death.

There have been eight major floods in Florence since 1333 but the one that occurred on November 4, 1966, is considered to be the worst.

It happened after two months of wet weather across the region began to cause problems in the Arno valley upstream of Florence, exacerbated when 43cm (17ins) of rain fell in 24 hours on November 2.

Pathe News footage following the 1966 flood

Dams built in the valley at Levane and La Penna, more than 50km away from the city, were already discharging water at a rate of more than 2,000 cubic metres per second on the afternoon of November 3.  At around four o'clock the following morning engineers feared that one of the dams would burst and took the decision to open the sluices still more.

The effect was to send a huge volume of water hurtling along the valley at a speed of around 60km per hour (37mph), turning the Arno into a terrifying torrent.  Within just a few hours the city was under water as the river rose a frightening 11m (36ft) above its normal level.

A marker of how high the water rose in the 1966 catastophe
A marker of how high the water rose
in the 1966 catastophe
Streets were flooded up to 6.7m (22ft) at the flood's peak and although miraculously few people died compared with 1333 the damage to the city's historic treasures was almost unimaginable.  It is estimated that between three and four million books and manuscripts were destroyed or damaged and that 14,000 works of art were affected to one degree or another, with up to 1,000 suffering serious damage.

Two major libraries - the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale Firenze and the Biblioteca del Gabinetto Vieusseux - and two notable archives - the Archivio di Opera del Duomo and the Archivio di Stato - suffered particularly badly.

Among the major artworks hit were Giovanni Cimabue's Crucifix at the Basilica di Santa Croce, the so-called Gates of Paradise doors by Lorenzo Ghiberti at the Florence Baptistry and Donatello's statue Magdalene Penitent, also at the Baptistry.

Astonishingly, thanks to the substantial generosity of donors and the work of experts from around the world, as well as many volunteers from among the citizens of Florence - dubbed the 'Mud Angels' by the Mayor of Florence - many of these works have been restored, although the task has taken many decades.

Cimabue's Crucifix has undergone painstaking restoration work
Cimabue's Crucifix has undergone
painstaking restoration work
Giorgio Vasari's Last Supper, a five panel painting completed in 1546, is being reinstalled in the Cenacolo, the old refectory of Santa Croce, to mark the 50th anniversary.

Travel tip:

Plaques in Via San Remigio record the level the flood waters reached in the city in 1333 and 1966. The street is just off Via de Neri in the centre of the city, not far from the Basilica di Santa Croce.

Hotels in Florence from Hotels.com

Travel tip:

A statue of chronicler Giovanni Villani can be found in one of the niches of the Loggia del Mercato Nuovo in Florence. The New Market is also the home of Il Porcellino, a 17th century copy in bronze of a Roman statue of a wild boar in the Uffizi. Visitors who rub its nose are said to return to Florence some day and coins dropped in the water basin below it are collected and distributed to the city’s charities.

More reading:

Giorgio Vasari - painter and the first art historian

Donatello - the greatest sculptor of 15th century Florence

Florentine Dante Alighieri and the Divine Comedy

Also on this day:

(Photo of high water mark by Gryffindor Wikimedia Commons)


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