Hello November



November…. silently, behind the door, variably cloudy.

November, Hello November!

 Remember, remember!

    The fifth of November,


The Gunpowder treason and plot;

    I know of no reason

    Why the Gunpowder treason

    Should ever be forgot!

.Today on November, let’s reflect with our calendars open.


Which day could you take off without your world will be to halt. If you are the conservator or lover history and lover heritage or someone like me share a love affire for Florence, you probably have taken off from the calendar, the day of the 4th November 1966.


It was just another day in  Florence. However, after 18 hours of steady rain, Florence’s newspaper, La Nazione, printed during the night, had a headline: The Arno overflows at Florence. The article went on to report (translated by Salsini): “The city is in danger of being flooded.


At 5:30 this morning water streamed over the embankments, flooding the Via dei Bardi, the Borgo San Jacopo, the Volta dei Tintori and the Corso dei Tintori, the Lungarno delle Grazie and the Lungarno Acciaiuoli. Many families are evacuating their homes. The river banks at Rovezzano and Compiobbi were overtopped shortly after 1 am. The Via Villamagna and the aqueduct plant at Anconella were invaded a short time later, and certain areas of the city are in danger of losing their water supply. There are indications that the day ahead may bring drama unparalleled in the history of the city. At 4.30 am. military units were ordered to stand by to cope with a possible emergency situation.”

At 7.26 am electric power failed in Florence. The Arno flowed over the parapets of San Niccolo bridge, as well as Ponte alle Grazie and the Ponte Vecchio.

By 9 am., hospital emergency generators, the only remaining source of electrical power failed.

After breaching its retaining walls on both sides, the Arno flooded the city. On the north side, it swept through the National Library, the Piazza Santa Croce and the church itself. Water filled the Piazza della Signoria, the basement of the Uffizi and the Palazzo Vecchio.


from the left images Florence from 1966 and ‘my Florence’ in 2014

By 9.35 a.m. it reached the Duomo and the Campanile. Ten minutes later, the Piazza del Duomo was flooded. A twenty-foot vortex of water tore three panels from Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Gate of Paradise on the east side of the Baptistry and two from Andrea Pisano’s panels on the south. At the San Lorenzo Mercato Centrale, the refrigeration units located below street level were destroyed and the main floor and all of the food stands were awash. At the Accademia, water inched across the floor toward Michelangelo’s David although the statue was never in real danger. On the south side, in the Oltrarno, where the land sloped uphill from the river, the damage was less.

At 5 am in the morning on 4th November the 22 feet, with 225,000 gallons of water per second rushing into Florence.         It  was a dark day for all city around the 12.00 Florence was going through a building boom with the Duomo cathedral in full swing.


Flooded books at the National Library

The 1966 Florence flood changed and revolutionized the field of art conservation. Until November 1966, restoration and conservation were quite secretive crafts where all techniques and recipes were passed down from master to pupil with the sort of caginess once characteristic of artists themselves.


Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale Firenze): Located alongside the Arno River, the National Library was cut off from the rest of the city by the flood. From the left image, the flood damaged and my visit in the Library in 2014.

A lesson from loss and damage stimulated an extraordinary demonstration of international cultural solidarity.  Volunteers – from around the world flocked to the Florence, they so-called “mud angels” – turned up in the city and set about helping to rescue and limit the damage to more than a million books and almost a thousand paintings, frescoes and sculptures.


A child – ‘mud angel’ making his contribution to the cleaning of a flooded street. Florence, 1966.

It was a large-scale disaster and served as a catalyst for the development of new materials and methods of restoration, particularly for mass and large-scale treatment.Things do not change, people change.


Piazza della Signoria (square of Palazzo Vecchio) from the right during flood in 1966 , on the left in 2014

Have you ever thought, when something dreadful happens, a moment ago things were not like this, let it be  then not now, anything but now? It is estimated that 14,000 movable works of art were damaged, as well as three to four million books and manuscripts. In the Biblioteca Nazionale alone, 1,300,000 items were reported to be damaged. Loss is part of  real life.


Drying one book is hard enough, but what to do with complete libraries? Thousands and thousands of pages from books, including many from medieval manuscripts, were hung out to dry in giant storehouses like drying spaghetti in a pasta factory.

The 1966 flood was a turning point in the history of preservation. The conservators and preservationists all over the world to consider the implementation of a disaster preparedness or preservation program for the review and improvement of disaster preparedness as well as art preservation. It was a day, where the Modern Preservation Science was born.


I can’t even imagine what it might have been like to experience it. The question in my minds can It Happen Again?

In the five decades following the Florence Floods, is important remember that preserving our cultural heritage is no less important than preserving rain forests and endangered animal species. If society recognizes that books, manuscripts, maps and atlases, graphic arts, paintings, photographs, recordings, and a host of related material contain the essence, history, culture, and creativity of the human race, then we must begin to place a priority on their preservation if we expect future generations to be able to study and enjoy these vast and often irreplaceable resources.


The Cimabue Crucifix became the symbol of both the tragedy of the flood and the rebirth of the city after the waters receded. The heavy wooden crucifix had taken on so much water that it had grown three inches and doubled its weight.  The Cimabue Crucifix is now hung on a metal device that can be raised far above the level of the 1966 Florence Flood if the waters start to rise again.

Florence floods kill 101 and ruin millions of works of art. I believe we have two lives, the life lesson we learn and the life lesson we live after that.


On the south side Florence in the Oltrarno, where the land sloped uphill from the river, the damage was less, from the left 2014 and 1966.

On November, it’s time to say massive thank you to all ‘mud angels‘ that saved heritage in Florence.


No day is so bad it can’t be fixed with a nap.



About conservationwithella

Hello, I'm Ella, Art on Paper Conservator & Preservation Manager at Glasgow University Archives and Special Collections. This blog is a walk through my daily life, work, arts & crafts history, my discovery that everything in my life is enough to be a continuous source of reflection. I started blogging to entertain myself but I hope you enjoy it too. I'm sure you agree, that Life without art is nothing. :)

2 responses »

  1. Fascinating post – the image of the books drying is wonderful. Extraordinary that conservation knowledge was kept secret but out of great moments of stress things change and minds open up out of necessity. Very interesting!

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