Showing posts with label Giovanni Cimabue. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Giovanni Cimabue. Show all posts

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 principal 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.

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

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)