The Florence Flood, 1966: What We Learned

After the flood waters receded in the Biblioteca Nazional Centrale (National Library) in Florence.

After the flood waters receded in the Biblioteca Nazional Centrale (National Library) in Florence.

Nearly five decades have passed since the Arno River in Florence, Italy, flooded its banks on 4 November 1966, breaching the lower floors of museums, libraries, and private residences, and burying centuries of books, manuscripts, and works of art in muck and muddy water.

The natural disaster of the Florence Flood galvanized a fledgling conservation community into action. In the intervening decades, successive generations of professionals have advanced the practice of conservation and preservation, imbuing these professions with a global view of the value of cultural heritage and fully embracing the technical details of materials science. Another result of the Flood was to focus on preventing future disasters while developing triage decision-making protocolsand cost effective actions in the face of continuing nature and human-made disasters.

This fall the Clark Library has hosted the exhibit, “The Florence Flood, November 1966: The Conservation of Books at the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale and Beyond,” curated by U-M Conservation Librarian Emerita, Dr. Cathleen A. Baker. 

Cimabue's "Crucifix" being moved
After being severely damaged by flooding, Cimabue’s Crucifix was moved from the Santa Croce to a safer environment.

In the opening cases in the Clark Library lobby, the exhibit examines Florence’s important position in the development of Western art and culture, especially during the Renaissance. The centuries-old history of similar devastating floods in the city are recounted, explanations of the 1966 flood explored and illustrated, and lastly the horrifying effects of the inundation of the muddy and oily waters on many significant works of art, especially Cimabue’s “Crucifix” are highlighted. 


One outcome of the early conservation efforts prompted by the disaster was the coming together of many conservators from around the world, meeting in Florence for the first time. It soon became clear to them that conservation was an activity cloaked in secrecy, that most individuals had either learned on their own or trained under a master, and that there were few common materials and techniques known to the entire group. This realization occurred not only among art conservators, but among the many book conservators, technicians, and binders who volunteered at the Biblioteca Nazional Centrale of Florence (BNCF). This is the focus of the exhibit in the so-called “promenade” area connecting the Hatcher and Shapiro Libraries. As the result of this realization, efforts were initiated to establish professional conservation training from which the world’s cultural heritage greatly benefits today.

Mud Angels formed a “bucket brigade” to move books from flooded basements.
Mud Angels formed a “bucket brigade” to move books from flooded basements.

In the promenade exhibit cases, the exhibit details the story of the British Team, led by Peter Waters, Anthony Cains, and Dorothy Cumpstey, as well as the incredible work of the “Mud Angels,” students and volunteers who swarmed into the devastated city within a day or so of the event, literally working night and day to haul sodden and smelly books from the basements of flooded libraries, including the BNCF.

Joe Nkrumah and a colleague washing book leaves in the new washing sinks
Joe Nkrumah, center, and a colleague washing book leaves in the
new washing sinks in the BNCF.
Dr. Nkurmah remained at
the BNCF for 7 years.

The larger story of the day-by-day activities of rescue and the establishment of a “restoration system” by which many thousands of books were conserved has been published in Sheila Waters’ wonderful book, Waters Rising: Letters from Florence (2016).

In addition to the didactic panels along the promenade exhibit area, a set of floor cases feature typical book structures encountered in the Flood, conservation tools and materials (such as heat-seal tissue), and examples of modern books, damaged by similar floods, and their conservation.

This exhibit and the accompanying symposium, “The Flood in Florence, 1966: A Fifty-Year Retrospective,”which took place on 3-4 November, have taken a historical and retrospective look at the transformative effects of this disaster on the preservation field, and in doing so examined the enduring lessons of a half-century of innovative materials research, professional practice, and education and training.

Late in 2017, the symposium proceedings will be published by the MAIZE Books imprint of Michigan Publishing Services of the University of Michigan.

Stop by before the exhibit closes this Thursday, 21st December!

Dr. Cathleen A. Baker,  Conservation Librarian Emerita