Florence Floods of 1966
No Worse Fate
No worse fate could befall a city renown for its art and culture.In 1966, Florence experienced the almost unthinkable, when the banks of the Arno Rivers burst, bringing a
torrent of water gushing through the streets of the city and reeping havoc to all in its wake. As people
scammered to safety, the water engulfed the city's most treasured buildings and took with it priceless pieces of
art and history.
It all began late in the evening of the 3rd of November 1966. The Florence police knew something was wrong when
they began receiving calls from frightened people in villages further up the Arno River, warning of rising waters.
The city was experiencing its second day of intensive rainfall. In fact the city had a third of the regions annual
rainfall pour down in just two days. That was about 2,000 cubic metres of water per second. But still nobody was
prepared for what was about to come. Romeldo Cesaroni, the nightwatchman on the Ponte Vecchio, was the first to raise the alarm in Florence, when he was forced to flee the bridge
as the water began rising dangerously close to the many shops along its span. Romeldo jumped on his bicycle and
rode through the city streets, waking the Ponte Vecchio shopkeepers. Many of the shopkeepers arrived just in
time to save their stock before the bridge was engulfed in a wave of water. Unfortunately for some owners, it
came with such force and speed it washed away their shops before anything could be saved. All across the city
nightwatchmen were being caught off guard as the waters of the Arno rose.
In the early hours of the following morning, engineers at the Valdarno dam, fearing it would burst, had no
option but to release a huge volume of water. The water sped towards Florence, at a reported 60kmph (37mph) ,
destroying just about everything in its path.It wasn't long before the city's drainage system had completely
failed. Water was spewing from manholes, creating muddy water fountains all over the city. Electricity began to
fail, as water found the fuse boxes (mostly in basements) and they began to explode. Gas, electricity and water
supplies were cut off and hospitals began running on emergency generators.
But the worst was yet to come as the city's worst fears were about to be realised. The banks of the Arno River
burst, creating huge landslides which literally cut the city off from the rest of the world. By 8am muddy water was
rushing into the the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale (National Central Library) and the Uffizi Gallery, not caring that the buildings housed priceless content. One woman ran madly
through the corridors of Museo di Storia della Scienza clutching the telescopes and lenses of galileo. Like the
scenes from the 2005 floods of New Orleans, people watched in disbelief as the muddy waters swept Florence's
history away in two days of chaos.
Santa Croce was the first and hardest populated area to be hit. The Cloister was completely submerged in water
and the crypt penetrated. But saddest of all the Crucifix by Cimabue, located in the Museum, inside the big
Franciscan refectory, was completely destroyed. Later the mud was sieved in the hopes of retrieving some of the
Water was soon flooding the Piazza del Duomo, helped along by the narrow streets which acted like a funnel.
Cellars around the city were filling with water and the oil used for central heating, was adding to the water, mud
and sewage gushing through the streets. The bronze doors of the Bapistery were broken open from the power of the
water, engulfing Donatello's wooden Magdalene and taking off the doors of Paradise by Ghiberti and the doors by
Andrea Pisano. The wooden Magdalene was later found covered in black oil and five panels from the doors found lying
At its peak, the water level of the Arno reached 11m and through the city it reached 6.7m (22ft), the highest
being around Santa Croce. When the water began to reside, late in the evening, it left horrid black rings around
the buildings from the oil and mud.
As news began spreading of the flood waters, hundreds if not thousands of students and volunteers from all over
the world rushed into the city. They worked long hours in the worst of conditions, trying to save as much art and
treasures as they could. They formed long lines and just passed valuable books and artwork continually down the
line, from hand to hand, until they were safe. Five hundred people alone stood in the mud and filthy floodwaters at
the Biblioteca Nazionale, working feverishly to rescue what they could. All over Florence great lines of volunteers
began forming in a valant attempt to save Florence's history. These amazing people became known as the "angeli del
fango" (Mud Angels) by the Florentines.
By the time the water began to ebb, the people of Florence were beginning to realise the extent of the damage.
The streets were covered in an estimated 600,000 tons of mud, sewage and debris, escaped prisoners were roming the
city and houses were collapsing around them. An estimated 30 people died, over 50,000 families made homeless and
6,000 shops went out of business. To make matters worse Venice was also in a simular predicament and the city had
to compete with them for assistance from Rome.In the end there was mixed emotions, as the people of Florence (and
the world) mourned what was lost but at the same time rejoiced in what was saved. It is estimated over 1,400 pieces
of artwork, 2 million books and numerous historic scientific and musical instruments were completely destroyed.
Some of those works lost forever included frescoes by Botticelli, Pietro Lorenzetti, Simone Martini, and Paolo
Uccello and Cimabue’s Crucifixion.It was of little comfort to the Florentines to discover over 14,000 pieces of art
and 4 million books and manuscripts were damaged but restorable. To this day, forty years after the event, they are
still working to restore each and every one of the pieces.
It must be remembered that the floods of 1966 affected not only Florence but Austria, Switerland, Yugoslavia and
many towns of Southern Italy. In the end, a total of over 150 lives were lost in southern Europe due to the