Florence: the Days of the Flood, by Franco Nencini
November 4, 1966. The city of Florence, capital of Tuscany, repository of centuries of art and history, had prepared for the Armed Forces Day holiday. What happened instead was a flood that devastated the city, though the loss of life was not as great as would likely have occurred had it not been a holiday.
Franco Nencini, a Florentine journalist, writes in the days immediately following. He is not content merely to describe what happened, though he does so in depth and to great effect. He talks about why it happened, and anyone who watched in horror the news coverage of Hurricane Katrina's impact on New Orleans will weep with recognition. "The carabinieri . . . had no further boats at their disposal . . ." "Not one of [the authorities] realised in time what was happening." "So many voices, so many recommendations! And at the time of the tragedy there was only silence and impotence." The story is the same. Inadequate equipment, inadequate warnings, loss of forest land to "act as a giant sponge". The same jockeying for political advantage.
But there are stories, too, of great courage, of great dignity, of cooperation and ingenuity, even of humor in the face of disaster. Nencini tells the story of a young man who had clung to his roof for eighty hours, with no food or water. When food was dropped to him by helicopter, he did not eat, but crawled, "at the limit of his strength", along the roof, to share the food with others. "Priests, Communists, carabinieri, troops -- these were united in the great work, sometimes risking their lives, chronically short of food and sleep."
Only about 30 people died, but thousands were rendered homeless, businesses were destroyed, there were major food shortages, and the loss to the city and region's patrimony was immense. Ghiberti's great doors of the Baptistery were saved only because a gate miraculously held and kept them from being swept away in the flood's currents. Cimabue's masterpiece, The Crucifixion, was horribly damaged. "For two days monks and restoration experts went through the mud and water left behind by the inundation, recovering one by one the minute fragments of colour that had been flaked off by the water . . ." In the weeks and months to come, a second flood would descend on Florence, but this time a welcome one, for it was a flood of art experts and volunteers (the "angeli del fango", angels of the flood) who came to help save its history.
This was not Florence's first flood by any means. The early days of November are a particularly vulnerable time for the city, and Nencini has included in his book descriptions of floods dating back to the 13th-century. In another familiar trope, Marchione di Coppo Stefani wrote in 1333, that "all the people of Italy regretted the damage that had been done in Florence and the loss of merchandise (which was inestimable), except the Cardinal, who rejoiced, saying that all had been done by God in return for the damage which Holy Church had suffered in Ferrara at the hands of the Florentines . . ." I guess every age has its Pat Robertsons!
(For further reading, I recommend Katherine Kressman Taylor's Diary of Florence in Flood, and Robert Hellenga's novel, Sixteen Pleasures.)