I was a very young child in 1966 and knew nothing about the world, let alone that Florence, Italy had one of the worst floods in modern history. The Arno River flooded after long periods of rain, and burst LaPenna and Levane dams, leaving in its wake, over 600 thousand tons of mud, and killing dozens of people. The flood over three meters high, drowned homes, businesses, people, and over 14,000 pieces of precious art from centuries ago taken down in its wake as water quickly engulfed the Ponte Vecchio and swept through, sending damaging floods some 200 miles north to Venice. There was barely any warning of these floods coming, leaving no time to remove artwork. Restorations are still being made.
This event came to my attention when I came across and watched a documentary on PBS called, When the World Answered. As Italy is probably my most favorite country in the whole world, I’ve always wanted to go back to Florence to visit art and museums because, quite frankly, I was definitely too young to fully appreciate it all the first time I’d toured European museums. Going back to Florence is a definite on my bucketlist!
Amid the aftermath of the event, a woman art historian from Pisa, named Kirsten Aschengreen Piacenti, got on a bus, headed to Florence, and joined a group of both local volunteers and young people visiting from abroad, named angeli del fango – translating to, the mud angels who were young men and women from around the globe who banded together to help salvage what they could of some of the world’s most treasured art and artifacts. Much of the art that was saved was thick with mud and oil. The floods also ruptured the heating tanks in buildings, causing oil to spew and mix with the muddy waters. Piacenti and a professor from the Uffizi Gallery met up, and along with other art officionados, organized opening new chemical labs to treat the ruinations and residues on marbled artifacts to help restore. Donations poured in from around the world to help restore the art of Florence. Because of all the new developments that came from the restoration efforts, Italy is now known for its excellence in art conservation.
Besides the aid of the mud angels, there were also the flood ladies. After the flood, Florence put out a call to the world for new art donations to open a ‘Modern Uffizi Gallery’ and among the many, 32 international women artists donated artwork to Florence to replace the damaged art in many museums. Some of these women were already famous artists, but many were not yet, then. This restoration project was sponsored by the AWA – Advancing Women Artists Foundation.
Amazing efforts have and still are ongoing to restore artwork from the Arno Florence flood, and one of the most treasured pieces of art – The Last Supper by Giorgio Vasari that was kept in storage for forty years, was finally restored in 2016 after fifty years, from being severely damaged after submerged in water at the Basilica di Santa Croce, and is considered the last important piece of ‘injured’ art to go back on display.
More about the ladies who helped Florence: