In November 1966, when the River Arno broke and flooded Florence, it was undeniably one of the most damaging natural disasters in Western Europe. Over a hundred-people died – and millions of masterpieces were destroyed. “The world nearly lost the Renaissance city,” the Guardian wrote somberly.
The Tuscan capital was the city of the Medicis, Machiavelli, and Savonarola, where Michelangelo, Leonardo and Botticelli lived and worked. In this wet autumn, it was to welcome a third of its annual rainfall in just two days. The waters reached over 6.7 metres around the Basilica of Santa Croce, where Giotto had painted frescos; inside Cimabue’s crucifix from 13th century was destroyed. Completely flooded was the Biblioteca Nazionale, on low ground facing the Arno, where eight million documents, books, and manuscripts had been deposited, many of them for safety since the Second World War. In Piazza del Duomo, baptistery doors by Ghiberti, the ironically named “Gates of Paradise”, were flung open by the floodwaters, which also ripped off its bronze panels off their frames and carried them 500 meters.
The efforts to restore Florence began almost immediately. The so-called angeli del fango, the mud angels – many of them young artists and students – came to the mud-soaked city to carry out the flood damaged masterpieces. Picasso donated a painting to raise funds, and a short film by Franco Zeffirelli and narrated by Richard Burton raise $20 million. But the amount of works affected was so staggering, the restorations so time-consuming, and the Italian bureaucracy so glacial that a significant portion remains unrestored. Giorgio Vasari’s five-panel “Last Supper” which was underwater for more than 12 hours was restored fully only in 2016, and a great number of books and art remain locked in warehouses waiting to be repaired.
The photo above — taken by Giorgio Lotti, a photojournalist with the notable Italian illustrated news magazine Epoca – shows the Florentine city transformed into Venice. Lotti would later be more famous as the man who took one of the most widely reprinted photos in the world – a snap which was used by Zhou Enlai as one of his official portraits. Lotti was in Beijing for an event with the Italian embassy to which he brought a camera despite being told not to do so. While Zhou was greeting the visitors, he asked the Chinese premier (in French) to pose for a photo. Lotti was not impressed by the first photo but he took another as Zhou’s assistant informed Zhou that they were waiting for him in the room and he looked away from the camera to look into the room. Later, the Chinese ambassador would ask Lotti for a copy of this second shot at Zhou’s explicit request.
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