The Mud Angels

“The Arno River reached this hight on Nov. 4, 1966

All over Florence, you can see small plaques that mark the level reached by the devastating flood of the Arno River on November 4, 1966.

The River Arno is approximately 240 km long and a part of it runs through Florence. On the fateful day, after a long period of steady rain, engineers feared that the Valdarno Dam would burst, so at 4 am they discharged a mass of water that rushed towards the city at a rate of 37 miles per hour.

The narrow streets within city limits funneled floodwaters, increasing their height and velocity. By 9:45am, the Piazza del Duomo was flooded. The powerful waters ruptured central heating oil tanks, and the oil mixed with the water and mud. At its highest, the water reached over 22 feet (6.7 m) in the Santa Croce area.

The flood devastated Florence, economically and culturally. City officials and citizens were totally unprepared for the storm and the widespread destruction it caused. There were virtually no emergency measures in place because Florence is located in an area where the danger of flooding is relatively low.

5,000 families were left homeless by the flood, and 6,000 businesses were forced to close. 101 people lost their lives when approximately 600,000 tons of mud, rubble and sewage swept them away.  It is estimated that between 3 and 4 million books and manuscripts were damaged, as well as 14,000 movable works of art. Among the most famous were: The Cross by Giovanni Cimabue, The Doors of Paradise by Lorenzo Ghiberti and The Magdalene by Donatello

Immediately, individuals and organizations from many countries made their way to Florence to help with the rescue and conservation. International committees were formed and supervised by a central committee in Rome. Additional funding came from various governments and UNESCO and Charity auctions were also organized. In a show of support for the Florentine art community, Pablo Picasso auctioned one of his paintings, Recumbent Woman Reading.

But the hearts of the Florentine people were won by a group of individuals who travelled to Italy completely at their own expense to aid in the restoration. There were fine arts students and aficionados, librarians and lots of “young people with strong backs”. Collectively, these people became known as the Gli Angeli del Fango or the Mud Angels.  They worked under deplorable conditions and without them, even more irreplaceable treasures would have been lost.

The Angels cleaned the city of refuse, mud and oil, and retrieved works of art, books and other materials from flooded rooms; the Mud Angels felt compelled to help: a concern for future generations, a feeling of international unity and a pervasive sense of solidarity.

Yet sadly, even forty years later, a significant amount of restorative work remains to be done in          Florence. Due to a lack of awareness, funding, and manpower, a great number of works of art and books lie in storage, dirty and damaged.

The photos of the mud angels were selected from Google Images files. The one of the marker is mine and the final “angel” … while not one of the mud, was adorable nonetheless…

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