About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters . . .
—W. H. AUDEN,
“MUSÉE DES BEAUX ARTS”
Interior of the Basilica of Santa Croce, November 6, 1966 (Photograph by David Lees)
Nick Kraczyna had read W. H. Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux Arts.” Now he was looking at the painting that had inspired it, Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Fall of Icarus. It was a beautiful day, the plowman plowing, the shepherd shepherding his sheep, ships heading out or making for harbor, and in the middle distance the speck of Icarus, a plummeting teardrop, falling to his death. In the great world with its myriad preoccupations, Icarus is too small to notice, if not to see. The winged exemplar of the artist is lost in the vast and implacable beauty of the day, the disaster of his passing swallowed without a trace.
Nick was in the Galleria Doria Pamphilj in Rome. He was twenty-one years old and this is how far he had come from the nameless and temporary outposts of his childhood. He’d been given a place at the best art school in America and been sent abroad to study the Old Masters, to learn the things about which they were never wrong. Just now, in front of this painting with Auden’s poem in his mind, he’d been given his métier, the overarching theme of his life’s work. All he had to do from here on out was paint.
In the spring of 1962 he’d moved on to Florence, to a room near the church of Santo Spirito, the Oltrarno masterpiece of Filippo Brunelleschi. Nick decided he needed to spend the rest of his life here, to finish up as rooted in art and Florence as he’d been homeless and stateless in the camps, torn from Kamien-Koszyrski by Europe’s self-immolation. His compass points would be the Masaccios in the Brancacci Chapel just west of Santo Spirito and the Pontormos at Santa Felicità to the east. He went to one or the other almost every day until his year abroad was over in June. Before he could come back to Florence he’d have to go back to the Rhode Island School of Design and then to one of the American graduate programs that were eager to have him, one last camp on the way home.
That same spring David Lees was following the path of Percy Shelley, the track through Italy of his foolish, glorious ascent toward martyrdom for art’s sake. The events of the last few years—the death of Pope Pius XII, the election of John XXIII, and the start of the Second Vatican Council—had increased his prominence as Life’s man at the Vatican as well as its specialist photographer for European art, royalty, and fashion. Closer to home, a series of his portraits of Bernard Berenson—still squinting hungrily through his magnifying glass in his nineties—formed Life’s obituary when BB at last passed away in 1959.
But the Shelley project was smaller and more impressionistic, a portfolio of quiet, elegiac landscapes, shadowed, languid villas, and mossy statuary. It was also more personal, a search for what Dorothy had sought in coming to Italy, lured by this very poet; and so, at bottom, a quest for the source of David’s own identity, the reasons and passions that caused him to be born an Anglo-Florentine rather than an English boy, or—if you took away whatever it was that Italy set loose in Dorothy—that caused him to exist at all.
The photographs were exquisite but, in the opinion of Life’s editors, neither newsworthy nor very compelling as a human interest story. David pushed for a year before Life agreed to run them in the international edition in 1963 and finally, the year after that, in the main American printing. The title of the photoessay would be “The Fatal Gift of Beauty.”
But Lees found himself more and more in the role of photojournalist rather than art photographer despite a moving series of portraits of Ezra Pound clinging to life and to poetry in his final Venetian exile. There was the death of John XXIII, the election of Paul VI, and—in a photograph that circulated around the world—the historic embrace of Paul and the Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church after a schism of nine hundred years.
In the autumn of 1963 Lees had to race to another breaking news story. On the night of October 9 the Vajont Dam in the mountains north of Venice was breached and two thousand inhabitants in the valley below it were killed. Vajont closed off a gorge nine hundred feet high, making it one of the tallest dams in the world, but for all the audacity of its construction, residents had been assured that both the engineering and the geology of the mountain behind it had been microscopically studied and found safe.
But that night 260 million cubic meters of mountainside sheared off in a landslide into the reservoir. It in turn displaced 50 million cubic meters of water in a wave that crested the top of the dam at seventy miles per hour. The force of 60 million tons of water fell on the valley below in a matter of minutes, wiping out the entire town of Longarone and four neighboring villages.
When David Lees arrived there was nothing to photograph. The dam, strangely, stood intact, towering over the valley. But everything in front of it was gone, scoured away. Even the water was gone. Lees took pictures of figures—an old woman, a priest clutching his rosary beads behind his back—gazing out onto the great empty plain delimited only by mountains in the distance.
Before a public inquiry could be launched, the chief dam engineer committed suicide, and perhaps, more than the actual official findings, that said all there was to say about the disaster. The ambitions of great men, ascending on pride, delusion, and lies, ended in tragedy for the many and, for the great men themselves, in the melted wax of their vain self-immolations. When the inquiry was concluded five years later, the surviving accused were sentenced to a collective twenty-one years, which was subsequently overturned on appeal for lack of evidence.
By the time of Vajont, Dorothy Lees was eighty-three years old and had left her house in Bellosguardo for a convent run as a casa di riposo, an old folks home, by Franciscan nuns. Dorothy liked to sit with the sisters as they prayed their novenas, and on St. Francis’s feast day they brought her carnations. She in turn bought candles for the church and she confided to her diary that she would like the Mother Superior all “to myself.”
David—now living in Rome where Life’s bureau was located—came to see her as often as he could, and he came on St. Francis’s day in 1964. He took her on a little tour of the city: “We went to Piazzale Michelangelo, where I had not been for years and looked down at the city, all lighted up.” They came down the hill into Oltrarno, down to the Ponte Vecchio, and “I saw for the first time the site of my old tower and what they have built up in its place.” It was more charitable not to say what she thought of the postwar reconstruction, and so she wrote nothing more.
She was to have one more St. Francis’s Day, in 1965, with her David. He’d been in Florence for some time that year, shooting a color essay on Dante for Life: the editors had accepted his Shelley piece, and now one on the maestro himself, and wasn’t that a fine and fitting thing? After all, the day she’d given birth to David, she’d written Dante’s words, Incipit Vita Nuova, in her diary.
The next winter, on February 19, 1966, Dorothy died. On the page for that day in his journal where he kept track of his expenses and travel mileage, his spools of Ektachrome and tips to porters and lighting men, David drew a cross in blue marker and beneath it wrote, “Mamma.”
In Dorothy’s own diary, another hand, not her own, wrote on the same page, “Santa Dorotea.” And so perhaps she was: certainly her life seemed to have been devoted half to prayer, if only for David. It must have been one of the nuns who wrote it—one of those women you see at shrines with their candles and violets—sorting her things, her relics and billets-doux from Gordon Craig, after they’d buried her.
Later that year, in summer, David shot a photoessay on the Arno for Life. He spent a lot of time in the Casentine Forests of the Arno headwaters among the monks at Camaldoli and still more at St. Francis’s hermitage at La Verna. He couldn’t stop photographing the monks and the pattern they made: dark, identical shafts against the huts and cloisters, the rocks and trees, anonymous persons, veiled in their habits, each one of whom was a lick of candlelight in the wilderness.
His attraction to these images sprang from no detectable religious impulse. He was no Santa Dorotea. In Rome he had a wife and two sons with whom he did not live. He had a separate apartment, a mistress, and other women besides. At some point David had become Gordon Craig, his father. He was, if not a genius, an artist. The photographs of Camaldoli and La Verna certainly proved that much. But the photoessay never ran. By the time it was ready to go to press the following winter, it was not what people wanted to know about the Arno.
From Dante’s celestial vantage point you might have seen it all: not Florence or Tuscany or even Europe, but the clouds, their peaks and chasms illuminated by starlight, turning endlessly like constellations and nebulae. Beginning in September and all through October the North Atlantic cyclone, the sun around which other weather systems spun, grew to immense size, in turn driving two high-pressure zones—one hot and one cold—like cogs and wheels. South of these, over the Mediterranean, trapped between the Alps and Africa, was a mass of cold air pressing down over an equally large concentration of warm, moist air. For six weeks, nothing moved, the clouds and gyres of vapor as fixed and motionless as Dante’s Heaven: the sky shimmered down in streams of wind and gray water.
This did not seem remarkable: it rained as often as not in Tuscany this time of year. But the rain accreted, insinuated itself into the soil. Perhaps four inches fell in September and that much again in October, a little more each day. By the first of September, the ground in the Casentine was saturated and would begin, unobserved, to slide. Higher up, Dante’s plaque at the head of the Arno was buried in snow and then, as the stratum of warm air bore down on the mountaintops, the snow began to melt. Falterona and the Gorga Nera, or rather the waters they could no longer contain, were creeping toward Florence. On November 2 alone, it rained seven and a half inches in twenty-four hours, and seventeen inches in the mountains. But by then it did not seem like so much. At the Ponte Vecchio the Arno could accommodate 32,000 cubic feet of water per second, a veritable deluge. And what was that—an inch of rain here and an inch there—compared to a thousand years of history, of beauty, and of simply persisting so magnificently in one place?
Upstream thirty miles from the city there was a place called Valle dell’Inferno, “the valley of Hell.” No one knows if this is a literary allusion to Dante, or simply a bald statement of circumstance. In any case, on November 3, Lorenzo Raffaelli had had it with the sirens. The rain was bad enough. He and his wife, Ida, lived in the village just below the La Penna and Levane dams, good enough neighbors as such modern installations went. But at seven that evening the siren started up and, just as you gathered your nerves, began to wail again like a penned dog.
There was a sequence—though no one could remember how it went—of wails that was supposed to precede the opening of the floodgates by the dams’ operators, ENEL, the Italian state electrical utility. But tonight, nothing was happening, nothing but rain. The siren must be a test, or a piece of stupidity by a dam worker. Questa poggia è insopportibile. Vado a lètto, Lorenzo told Ida. “This rain is just too much. I’m going to bed.”
Two hours later, the damnable siren—no wonder they’d called this place Hell—started up again. Lorenzo dragged himself out of bed and went to the window. There was a roaring outside, or rather a roaring with the sound of a breeze laid over it. He opened the shutters. It was dark and he realized there were no lights anywhere. So it took a few moments for his vision to adjust, to see that water was racing by a few feet below his second-story window; that objects were being ferried past his house; his neighbors’ things, pieces of their houses, tree trunks; then empty bottles and a chair, a chest full of gloves, and a piglet, its trotters bent skyward, masts on a white-and-black banded dory.
And strangest of all—ENEL must have opened the gates, or the whole thing had come down, all 500 million cubic feet’s worth of it—were the stones. Rocks and boulders coursed by, big ones that might have fallen off the mountain. But stones couldn’t float. Yet these rolled by, tumbled past, on the surface of the water a dozen feet above where the ground was supposed to be. So if they weren’t floating, they must be flying. They were a flock of birds and the water was the sky.
Down in the city they had finished putting up the green, white, and red bunting for the next day’s holiday, Armed Forces Day. There were Union Jack flags mixed in here and there: it had been “British Week,” a merchandising celebration of swinging London. The 1960s were approaching their apogee: in neighborhood trattorias, the Beach Boys and the Beatles fizzed from the radio, and at the cinema Il Viaggio Allucinante, “Fantastic Voyage,” was playing. There was a wet, lashing wind outside. In another movie theater John Huston’s The Bible was playing with Huston himself in the role of Noah.
In the Palazzo Vecchio the mayor of Florence, Piero Bargellini, was to be the guest of honor at the American Chamber of Commerce banquet. Bargellini was late, preoccupied with the survival of his center-left administration, which was due to face a vote of noconfidence the following week. After his arrival they entertained him with a documentary on the Mississippi River, its beauties, perils, and spectacular floods. In his remarks at the end of the evening he joked, “Don’t imagine I was fazed by your movie. Florence has never been afraid of competition: if it keeps raining like this, tomorrow morning the Arno will beat your Mississippi.”
It was a jest, although Bargellini was a serious man, bookish and devoutly Catholic, for whom politics was the exercise of humanism and charity. He went home to the family palazzo in Santa Croce that night to his books and his prayers, knowing no more than anyone else. There was, as yet, no knowledge—never mind an alarm—to be aware of, to take hold of and take action upon. Upriver, of course, the flood was already a fact, but as the water reached a village it also cut the telephone lines. The river was covering its own tracks, for all its noise and roiling flotsam, proceeding by stealth.
Nonetheless, by eleven o’clock the fire department in Florence had received calls complaining of flooded cellars and garages. But a damp basement was scarcely an emergency. At the Brigata Friuli barracks near Santa Croce, a soldier went outside for a cigarette and returned to say that the sewers weren’t working properly. But he was from Naples, and what could somebody from Naples know about the public works facilities of a great city like Florence?
Romildo Cesaroni worked as a night watchman for the syndicate of jewelers that had shops on the Ponte Vecchio. As was his custom, he made his patrols back and forth across the bridge on his bicycle, taking breaks at either end. But around one o’clock he dismounted midway across. The noise was tremendous—it was raining hard with what felt like a gale-force wind—but what struck him as he stood for a while on the pavement was a palpable vibration emanating from the stones, from, it seemed, the arches of the bridge itself, a vibration on the verge of becoming a throb. He went back to the phone at the far end and began calling his employers one by one. He was from northern Italy, born in a valley called Vajont. They’d better come quick and collect their gold.
A few other communications did get through. Bruno Santi, an art history student living in San Niccolò on the Oltrarno side of Florence, was asleep when his father got a call from his brother-in-law, Bruno’s uncle. The uncle’s village ten miles east of Florence was about to go underwater. Bruno’s father got in the family car and began to drive upriver. When he got to the first bridge he needed to cross to reach the village, he saw water lapping the roadway, skimming across the bridge deck. Even if he got across, he’d be unlikely to get back. There was nothing he could do for his brother-in-law. He drove back to San Niccolò to secure his workshop and get his family to high ground. He woke Bruno, who was due to take his final graduate exam on quattrocento panel painting the day after next. That would have to wait.
Later, around three A.M., a journalist working the night desk at Florence’s leading newspaper, La Nazione, got a call from a shift worker, Carlo Maggiorelli, upriver at the Anconella pumping station of the Florence aqueduct. Everything was underwater. He’d shut down the pumps, not that that mattered. The journalist urged him to flee. “I can’t abandon the plant. It’s my shift.” Besides, he had a sandwich to eat. He had a thermos of coffee. He had ten cigarettes. He would manage. Two days later they found his body embedded in mud inside a hydraulic tunnel. Carlo Maggiorelli was reckoned to be the first fatality of November 4, 1966.
On Monte Falterona, the snow on Dante’s spring had washed away. At nine o’clock an inch of rain was falling every sixty minutes. Snowmelt and downpour were massing in the riverbed, and in about nine hours 120,000 cubic feet of water per second would begin reaching Florence.
At three in the morning Nick Kraczyna was just finishing. He painted every night while Amy and Anatol slept. He and Amy had gotten married in the spring of 1963, the first year of his master’s degree program, and left for Italy the following year, crossing the Atlantic on a Yugoslavian freighter. Amy had been seven months pregnant.
That was two years ago. Now their son, Anatol, was eighteen months old and everything had gone more or less as Nick had envisioned: they were living a block from Santo Spirito, he was painting Icarus, they were happy, and they were poor. The apartment had no bathroom and no hot water, and for heat they used scaldini, the traditional Tuscan pots that held hot coals obtained from the wood and charcoal merchant. You cradled it in your lap, set it under the table by your feet when you ate, and put it in your bed for a while before you went to sleep.
That night it was 50 degrees outside, not terribly cold, although the stones of their palazzo a half block from the Arno held the cold far past dawn and, in weather like this, nearly sweated with damp. Before he went to join Amy and Anatol in the bed, Nick went to the window on the terrace. He could see the more substantial palazzi on the other side of the river illuminated by spotlights. At the edges of the light, he could just make out the water. It was high and moving at tremendous speed, like gray clouds stampeding before a strong wind. He could hear the river, or rather, the friction of the river on its banks, the parapets of the Lungarni and piers of the bridges, the Arno grinding against the city.
It was something to see, or because the light was so poor and the atmosphere so murky, to imagine; to seize the blanks in the picture and fill them, extrapolate the contents of what was now invisible; launch a winged visionary out the window to explore the hidden interior of the maelstrom. Nick went to bed, the rumble and pulse in his ears.
The first dead inside Florence were seventy thoroughbred horses. The Mugnone, a tributary of the Arno, cuts down through the hills northeast of the city and then, by means of a chain of man-made canals, swings west around the perimeter of the city to join the main river by the low-lying Cascine city park, a recreation complex that contained tennis courts, soccer fields, a small zoo, and a racetrack. The horses, locked in their stables, drowned, thrashing and screaming, as though impazziti, driven mad. A custodian heard them in the distance at one-thirty in the morning.
At three o’clock, the city was asleep. Except along the riverfront, there was no sound but the patter of rain on rooftops. The waters of the flood, however, were running not just through the city in the channel of the Arno, but under it through sewers and storm drains. In most neighborhoods the flood first appeared not through breaches in the riverbank, but oozing up from manholes and drains. As the night went on, pressure within the system lifted and floated off manhole covers. Later, they would rocket into the sky, propelled on jets of floodwater.
In most of Florence information, like the water, only seeped into the city. There were no alarms, sirens, or radio and television bulletins. Only at the river, by the trembling Ponte Vecchio, was there unmistakably a flood, and soon you would not even be able to say how big it was. At three o’clock in the morning the city’s flood gauge on the Lungarno Acciaiuoli between the Ponte Vecchio and the Ponte Santa Trinità recorded 8.69 meters—twenty-eight-and-a-half feet—and was then ripped away by the water and carried off down the Arno.
As often happened in Florence, what you got depended on who you were and whom you knew. The jewelers of the Ponte Vecchio had been informed, as, by sheer luck, had Bruno Santi’s father. Mayor Bargellini had been awakened and returned to his office around two o’clock, just before the water in his Santa Croce neighborhood got too deep for anyone to leave. He would not see his home for many days to come.
In Rome, the telephone of the Florence-born director Franco Zeffirelli rang near dawn. It was his sister who lived on Via dell’Oriuolo east of the Duomo: there was water in her street toward the Santa Croce end and, she suspected, still more near the church itself. At 3:48 A.M. there had finally been a radio news bulletin referring to the flooding upstream, but nothing about Florence itself.
But Zeffirelli’s sister was emphatic about what was taking place below her window and, once he seized on an idea, Zeffirelli was himself a force to be reckoned with. He phoned the president of RAI, the Italian state broadcasting network, and asked for a film crew and a helicopter. Shortly after dawn, Zeffirelli was filming in Florence, long before any other news agency (including RAI’s own) was on the story.
Around five o’clock the Arno finally burst its banks within the city walls: water from still small breaches in the Lungarni met water coming up from the drains and flooded Via dei Bardi and Borgo San Jacopo on the Oltrarno as well as Corso dei Tintori between Santa Croce and the Biblioteca Nazionale on the north bank. At 6:30 A.M. the Franciscan priest Gustavo Cocci left his cloister at Santa Croce to say a seven o’clock mass at a neighborhood church. It was dawn, and he was the first person to pass through the gates of the basilica into the outside world that day. He opened the portone, the great door, and saw the piazza, the water moving upward on a gentle swell, a Galilee he might walk across holding his robe just above his waist.
All at once, at seven in the morning, there was news. Trapped in his second-floor studio, an announcer for RAI radio in Florence lowered a microphone out the window toward the torrent running down the street: “What you’re hearing,” he said, “is Florence between the Duomo and Santa Maria Novella station.”
Even more extraordinarily, La Nazione managed to produce a morning edition headlined L’Arno Straripa a Firenze, “The Arno overflows at Florence.” The last item had gone in at 6:10. The typesetting room was underwater a half hour later, the pressroom a little after the print run was finished at seven.
By then most of the quarters of Florence and its suburbs that were not already underwater were cut off from the rest of the world. The autostrada and other highways in and out of the city were inundated, bridges and causeways washed out, and most railways severed. The Santa Maria Novella station, well above street level, continued to function, even if its trains had no destinations to reach. Telephone lines had been cut for some time and gas lines shut down. The pumps that drove the city’s water supply had been switched off in the middle of the night by Carlo Maggiorelli before he’d drowned in mud. Trucks and automobiles couldn’t be driven or else stalled out as they took on water. And soon enough car after car began to float away. The city, except for the water and the things that floated upon it, was motionless.
Not only movement in space but, it seemed, time halted: At 7:29, with the last electricity cut off, hundreds of clocks stopped all over the city. That instant corresponded with what was later calculated as the moment of the flood’s maximum violence and force. On the faces of Florence’s clocks, it would remain 7:29 for many days. If time did not actually stop, neither did it seem to move forward into days that were like those before November 4, 1966. Perhaps, like the water, time receded, rolled backward into oblivion, Florence’s great sea.
It was not long after dawn when Nick was awakened. A neighbor was calling up the stairs: they should collect as much water as they could, in pans and empty scaldini and jugs. The pressure was giving out. In a minute the taps would dry up. There wouldn’t be any water at all.
That was absurd. They had nothing but water, had had it for weeks, but Nick understood a moment later: the lights cut out. They were going to be roughing it, at least for today.
While Amy filled the last few pots they possessed, Nick tried to get a better sense of what was happening. He clambered across the roof to the terrace of Pensione Bartolini and descended the stairs to its entrance on the Lungarno Guicciardini. To see the edge of their side of the river from here, Nick would normally have to walk over to the parapet and look down twenty feet below him. But today the surface of the Arno was level with the top of the parapet, four feet above the street: the river channel was now higher than the level of the city, an elevated aqueduct whose sides were formed by the Lungarni.
Nick had brought his camera. He had sensed this was history. The water was splashing over the top of the parapet, and he started taking pictures. This, he was certain, was the crest of the flood, as high as the water would go, and he was capturing the definitive moment. He went back upstairs to help Amy.
Ugo Procacci was at the Uffizi by dawn. The night watchman had called him and now there were a dozen people to clear the whole ground floor of the museum of any artworks in harm’s way, which, it had to be presumed, meant all of them. Umberto Baldini had been called by Procacci about the time the clocks stopped and arrived soaked to the skin. He’d come in by way of Via della Ninna, which sloped down from the Piazza della Signoria to a level below that of the Lungarno at the front of the museum. The water there had been chest high. Within an hour the Lungarno would be breached, and the Arno would rush into the declivity, driving a forty-foot-long oak before it, which lodged like a battering ram behind the museum.
Luisa Becherucci was the director of the gallery, but it was Baldini who worked at Procacci’s side. He was neither precisely Procacci’s apprentice nor his right-hand man, but—despite his subordinate rank in the Superintendency—almost an extension of him, a co-Procacci, a free agent who still gave the formal appearance of being a junior partner. As an art historian and manager of the Gabinetto (now, as fitted its larger status, known as the Laboratorio), Baldini was perhaps less strictly brilliant than brilliantly competent, with a preternatural gift for detecting consensus and then shaping it to his own aspirations. He was not a genius, but slogging through Vasari’s Uffizi that morning, he was in his element.
It would have been impossible to save the collection—the Uffizi housed more than 110,000 works of art—but for the fact that the actual galleries were almost all on the second and third floors, and these, as well as the vast portrait gallery housed in Vasari’s Corridoio over the Ponte Vecchio, were high above the river. But that still left a large number of works on the ground floor and still more either undergoing or awaiting restoration in Baldini’s lab across the court, among them pieces by Giotto, Mantegna, Filippo Lippi, Botticelli, and Vasari himself. Some were easily portable—two saints by Simone Martini from Bernard Berenson’s personal collection—but others were in perilously fragile condition (a detached fresco by Giotto) or, in the case of Botticelli’s Incoronazione, too large to move without disassembling their panels. In total, there were about two hundred paintings to be relocated, and twelve people to do it before the Arno crested and surged inside.
Nick thought he had caught the river at its apogee, although by the time he got back upstairs, the water was slopping over the parapet and down his street. But the ground to the east toward the Ponte Santa Trinità was still dry, and he gathered Amy and Anatol and brought them downstairs. They needed to see this stupendous thing—epic, biblical, apocalyptic—not from the window or the rooftop, but from dead center, from inside. He led them out onto the Ponte Santa Trinità, Amy carrying Anatol, to the midway point. He noticed his neighbor Antonio Raffo’s Fiat, parked there, incongruous and alone.
The water was still several feet below the apex of the center arch where they stood, and as it emerged from beneath the bridge, it seemed to fall away, breaking into rapids, cascades, and cataracts, surging back against itself, forming chasms and whirlpools steep as thunderheads. The bridge—only fully rebuilt eight years previously—vibrated beneath them and Nick took pictures. Upstream, the Ponte Vecchio sat almost stolidly, like a dam, the water lapping the tops of the arches. In the opposite direction, to the west, the water seemed to spread and flatten before it reached the Ponte alla Carraia, and slid under the bridge with perhaps two feet to spare. Beyond that Nick and Amy could make out the shadow of the third downstream span, the Ponte Vespucci, disappearing under the Arno.
They’d been alone until now, but then they saw a man with a camera approach the bridge, walk out to mid-span, and begin taking pictures. “Look at him,” Amy said, holding Anatol as the torrent seethed by. She was four months pregnant with another baby. “He’s crazy to be out here.”
That must have meant they were crazy too. But they were not afraid, and Nick least of all. He was twenty-five years old and felt nearly immortal. As for the bridge quivering beneath them, it might have been a roller coaster or a surfboard he was riding. Suspended above the river, the entire world racing away beneath him, he could have been hovering over the earth as it surged by, being made and unmade in one motion. Wasn’t it incredible—like watching a galaxy being born or coming apart; wasn’t it really the most beautiful thing you’d ever seen?
By eleven o’clock, it seemed to almost everyone that the Ponte Vecchio was going to collapse. The water was still rising, and in addition to its own force and pressure—thousands of tons moving at perhaps forty miles an hour—was throwing enormous quantities of debris against the face of the span. Whole trees, forty and fifty feet long, had shot through the shops on one side of the bridge and out the other, lodged like spears. On the second story in the Corridoio Vasariano, the floor shuddered and glass trilled in the window frames.
It was there that Ugo Procacci decided he needed to go, alone. The portraits in the Corridoio needed to come out, and because he could not in good conscience place his staff in danger, the paintings would be taken out one at a time, each carried by him and only him. That was an official instruction, an order. He ran off down the Corridoio, scarcely able to keep his footing as he reached mid-span. By then Baldini, the first to disobey, was coming up behind him, and then the ten others. They formed a human chain, handing back portrait after portrait as the bridge shook below them, as trees and, now, a floating car and then a truck thundered into it.
When the job was done, all of them were trembling. Some wept while others were overcome by nausea. They needed something to eat, something to drink, said Procacci. They pulled themselves together once more and broke down the door of the museum snack bar.
Father Cocci hadn’t gotten to his mass that morning. He retreated inside the cloister of Santa Croce with his brother monks, or rather into the upper story of the cloister: by eight o’clock the ground floor was underwater. In fact, all around the Basilica—from Vasari’s house to the south to Borgo Allegri to the north—the water was higher than it had ever been before, even in 1333, and it would go higher still.
To the west, the former Murate convent—the one-time home of Vasari’s Last Supper before the painting and the nuns had been dispossessed by Napoleon—was half submerged. At dawn there had been men huddled on the roof, but by mid-morning most of them had clambered onto large pieces of floating debris or simply swum away. They were men of the most adaptable sort, accustomed to surviving by their wits. After Napoleon, the Murate convent had been converted into the Florence city jail. It still was. In the early morning hours, the guards realized that if the convicts remained in their ground-floor cells they were going to drown. After turning the locks, they abandoned the jail and left the eighty-three prisoners to fend for themselves. Some disappeared, their old identities and histories carried off by the flood; others were said to have performed heroic rescues and pitched in at soup kitchens and first-aid posts before giving themselves up. One, found clinging to the top of a traffic signal surrounded by twelve feet of water, was pulled to an upstairs window by neighbors using a rope of knotted sheets. They dried him off, put him in a warm bed, and fed him ribollita, only realizing who their guest had been some days later when the police came by.
By ten o’clock, the BBC World Service in London had broadcast the first international news of the flood and a few hours later the American television networks would report it on their morning bulletins. In Rome, the nation’s capital, apparently no one knew anything: neither President Saragat nor Prime Minister Moro had any comment. RAI was broadcasting cartoons. But by noon Mayor Bargellini had made his way to a radio microphone and announced—to whoever might have been able to listen—“The water has arrived in the Piazza del Duomo. In some neighborhoods it has reached the second floor. I ask everyone to remain calm.” There’d been an explosion, a real thunderclap, of a gasoline storage tank near Piazza Beccaria that had terrified half the city, but caused only one fatality. Bargellini added, “Those of you who have boats, canoes, and skiffs, bring them to the Palazzo Vecchio.”
On the other side of the river, in San Niccolò, Bruno Santi and his father had managed to move their family up the hill to a relative’s house. But their attempt to remove chemicals and corrosives from the basement of his father’s studio had failed: the water was up to the threshold of the first floor. The cellars and basements of Florence were full of such things, most innocuously wine and olive oil, but also—more than any other substance—heating oil. The tanks were full for the long winter ahead. All this was beginning to seep upward, into the floodwater.
Still farther up the hill, twelve-year-old Barbara Minniti from Rome was visiting “Zio Nello,” her uncle Emanuele Casamassima, director of the Biblioteca Nazionale, for the holiday weekend. A little after breakfast, the telephone had rung and Barbara’s uncle answered it. He stood in the hallway, stock-still, listening, striking the side of his head with the palm of his right hand. Then, in a great hurry, he left the house.
At noon Barbara and her cousins went to the Piazzale Michelangelo, which overlooked the city from the south. There were a lot of people gathered there, staring, holding black umbrellas, silent in the rain. Below you could see the towers, the rooftops, and the Duomo looming above them like a volcanic island. And between them and where Barbara stood was a valley full of water where the river had once been, a distended stomach expanding from the gullet of the Arno upstream. A little to the east, toward Piazza Beccaria, a plume rose into the air, maybe another volcano, this one spuming smoke or black steam.
Almost straight across, just in front of Santa Croce at the place where the riverbank used to be, Barbara could see Zio Nello’s enormous bibliotecca, the Italian equivalent of the Library of Congress. It might have been floating, marooned in this new sea, but tethered at the back to Santa Croce, which depending on how you looked at it, was either an island or the deepest point in the ocean.
Either way, there was no chance that Uncle Emanuele was going there today. Even a ship, a big one, would get sucked downstream and crash into the Ponte Vecchio. After Barbara and her cousins got home, her uncle came back, wet and shaking. Sometimes you couldn’t say if Zio Nello was being silly or serious. “Now comes the looting, the cholera, the famine,” he had told Barbara’s mother.
Giovanni Menduni had just turned thirteen years old and he and his mother were going out to buy a chicken. But his mother still treated him like he was twelve, a bambino instead of a ragazzo. They walked down the Via degli Artisti, which led from the Piazza Giorgio Vasari to the Piazzale Donatello. People were saying L’Arno è andato fuori di testa, a phrase that didn’t quite make sense to Giovanni. A person could andare di fuori di testa—“have gone out of his mind”—but could the Arno? Then, when they got as far as Piazzale Donatello and saw the water, his mother made him go home.
Here he was at an epochal moment in history—or at least the start of an adventure—and he was missing it. Meanwhile his eighteen-year-old brother was in the thick of it, coming home in his muddy boots with tales of rescues and close calls and devastation. But for the next week, his mother kept him in. It was frustration piled on top of frustration. Just ten days before the flood he’d finally talked her into looking at a Hammond B-3 electric organ, which he coveted more than any other object in the world, the gold standard in jazz and pop keyboards. It wasn’t just his heart’s desire but the single thing upon which the outcome of his whole life was contingent.
The music store was just off the Piazza Duomo, and Giovanni waited outside while his mother went in. After perhaps two minutes she came out looking not simply unpersuaded but shocked, even stunned. It wasn’t just that the B-3 was too expensive, but that the whole world it represented was beyond the pale: she’d seen the kind of people who hung around the store—the kind of people who played the B-3—and they were seedy, shiftless jazz and rock types of the worst sort, neither good company nor examples for a twelve—all right, thirteen-year-old. The only way he’d ever get a B-3 would be if someone just gave it to him, or if he waited forever, until he was old.
So that had been that and now there was this. He might as well just give up.
Nick and Amy needed food and Anatol needed milk. It was Nick’s job to shop every morning before lunch—they had no refrigerator—and around eleven he went out to see what he could find. The clearest way forward seemed to be across the Ponte Santa Trinità, where Antonio’s car still sat perfectly undisturbed, a pert jalopy atop a Renaissance architectural masterpiece with a deluge running under it.
On the opposite side Nick turned left and walked west along the Lungarno Corsini. But then he began to worry—even finally realized the likelihood—that the bridge would be washed away and that he would be stranded on the other bank of the river, cut off from Amy and Anatol. So at the next bridge downstream, the Ponte alla Carraia, he crossed back over to the Oltrarno side. At the Borgo San Frediano he turned west again, toward the Carmine church and the Porta San Frediano. He slogged on, block after block, the water at best shin-deep in some places but up to his waist in others. Perhaps a mile from his apartment, he was able to buy some canned goods from a grocer who was hurriedly moving his stocks up to his second-floor apartment.
Going home, Nick found himself walking against the current in what was now almost entirely waist-deep water. To move forward without falling he had to brace himself against buildings with both hands, so he put all the cans into his pockets or stuck them inside his jacket. Looking toward the river, he realized that the elevation of the Lungarno was actually higher than the streets immediately behind it, which sloped up toward the artificially raised banks created by Giuseppe Poggi a century earlier.
Having moved up to the Lungarno, and pushing eastward again, Nick was able to wade down the middle of the roadway to avoid being immersed by the water that was slopping and, increasingly, surging over the parapet. But between the Ponte alla Carraia and his apartment, the street had been torn up for repairs. That meant Nick would either have to turn back down to the parallel Via Santo Spirito, which he knew was already inundated, or work his way directly along the side of the parapet.
He chose the shorter if more reckless course, rather than the deeper, more tedious, but safer slog down the Via Santo Spirito. On the Lungarno he was a tightrope walker, clinging to the parapet edge. He was being thrown off balance by the force of the water pouring over the wall, and, as the water level in the Lungarno drew even with the river, equally at risk of being sucked into the torrent and carried away downstream. The food in his pockets and inside his jacket had already long disappeared, and his clothes and shoes had become dead weights that threatened to pull him in and under. But he inched his way along the parapet, his fingers white and swollen.
Later, Nick could not quite say exactly when he realized he might be going to die—maybe time really had stopped, flowing but not passing—or if he realized it for more than an instant before the feeling passed. Because as he forced his way upriver, with the whole Arno pressing down on him, what he felt most of all was joy, sheer exhilaration. When he reached his apartment he went out on the roof and saw that the entire parapet that had been his lifeline had been washed away.
At one o’clock, the Ponte Vecchio was still intact, thanks in part to a truck that had smashed through both sides of the center of the bridge, easing some of the pressure of the flood against the superstructure by allowing water to pass freely over the deck. But the river was continuing to rise—it would do so for the next five hours—and with each cubic meter of water came a still larger amount of debris and, increasingly, mud.
Inside the Uffizi, Procacci and his staff had been joined by Maria Luisa Bonelli, director of the adjacent Museum of the History of Science. Trapped in her apartment on the top floor of the museum, she’d escaped across the rooftops to the Uffizi carrying Galileo’s telescope. They and, as the day went on, others would move artworks until five o’clock the next morning. At around mid-afternoon Procacci’s old art historian friend Carlo Ragghianti turned up. They embraced and Procacci said, “It’s like August of forty-four, remember?” They cried for a few moments and went back to work.
By now other parts of Florence’s artistic and civic patrimony more distant from the Arno had been struck. To the west, in the church of Santa Maria Novella, water was washing up against the bottom of Masaccio’s Trinità. In the cloister Uccello’s Flood and Drunkeness of Noah was now truly inundated.
Closer to the Uffizi, the state archives were awash, as was the Palazzo dei Tribunali, the city courts. Transcripts, briefs, and writs drifted through the courtrooms. In the basement, titles, deeds, and contracts swelled, sank, or floated along the ceiling. Facts and promises—vital to some, best forgotten to others—disappeared.
In the afternoon Florentines began to rendersi conto—literally “to render or take an account” but in common parlance “to realize”—that they had been struck by more than an inconvenience. “The Arno sure loves Florence,” said someone in the Oltrarno, and a graffito appeared on the door of a trattoria: “No roast chicken today—only boiled.”
Another artist and writer in Nick’s neighborhood, writing in his journal, wondered how people would deal with what was happening. He was not optimistic: “Florentines are too old, too bitter, too gray inside and out, to believe in the existence of a flood like this.” Nor, he thought, would they believe that anyone would want to help them.
In the salone of a residential hotel near the Ponte Vespucci, a wizened octogenarian woman—a countess from a forgotten aristocratic line—complained when the electricity went out, “What has happened to the lights? It’s very dim in here without lights. And all these persons are talking extraordinarily loudly. It’s not necessary to talk so loud, is it?”
She would not be persuaded that the dark and the hubbub were the result of a flood. She didn’t believe in floods, and she’d lived in Florence all her life, ever since she was a debutante. She finally allowed herself to be taken to the window overlooking the Arno. “But why don’t they stop it?” she said. “What is anybody doing about it?”
Some things could not be explained to anyone, or not to some people. The water was crawling toward the San Salvi psychiatric hospital and the patients would not be reassured or calmed. Most of them already lived in one or another Hell. They screamed and beat the walls like the horses in the Cascine stables.
Below the city, where the plain of the valley broadened, the Arno too was expanding, if not slowing. The garden where Marina Ripari played was submerged in an instant. Her father reached her, grasped her for an instant, but then the water tore her out of his hands. Being three years old, she would at least know nothing of Hell, or of the great sea to which the Arno was carrying her body.
No one heard anything from Santa Croce. The water had covered the steps of the basilica some hours ago and was now making its way into the church. The statue of Dante stood like an iceberg in the piazza. Pigeons with no place else to land settled onto the cap shielding his hook-nosed face. Around him, for blocks and blocks, people remained on the second or third floors of their buildings, trapped, waiting for the water to subside. Just now, at three o’clock, it was ten and a half feet deep. But it only rose. Save for the dead, the inhabitants of the Santa Croce district would suffer more than anyone in Florence.
People were poor in Santa Croce. They had St. Francis, but most didn’t have telephones or appliances, nor did they hold much interest for the larger world or even the rest of the city. So the water stole in among them even more unnoticed than elsewhere.
For example, Delia Quercioli had a narrow escape on the Piazza dei Ciompi. “I was sleeping and was sleeping well. I’m deaf. My cat was already dead. They broke down the door to save me.” Vanna Caldelli lived right on Piazza Santa Croce and from her window she watched tables, chairs, doors, and manuscripts from the cloister and the Biblioteca Nazionale drift by. Later came the heating oil, a stream within the stream of floodwater, the smell so strong you couldn’t breathe. “I said to myself, ‘Maybe this is the Last Judgment.’ ”
Azelide Benedetti lived in a ground-floor apartment behind the basilica, in line with the high altar where Cimabue’s Crucifix had once hung and Vasari’s ciborio had sat. She was sixty-six years old and pushed herself around the apartment in a wheelchair. At first, the water began to drip in, but then to dribble and flow. She rolled to her window—grilled to keep thieves away—and began to call out. The nuns from the convent next door heard her and by the time they came back with Father Boretti from the parish church of San Giuseppe the water had nearly reached the bottom of Azelide’s window. Soon it would be running over the sill.
Supplemented by the subterranean water that had already crept into the apartment under the bolted door, the cascade through the window quickly began filling Azelide’s front room. The water was finding its own level. Inside, lighter objects—pillows, bottles, pots, cups, wooden Madonnas and saints—became buoyant, and then the furniture began to shift, to bob and lift free, and circulate around the room. It pressed around Azelide and then drifted back toward the door to the hall and the street. The door, of a piece with the grill, was barred from inside, and by the time Father Boretti returned with more men to try and break it down, it was blocked on the inside by a tangle of furniture.
The thing to do, the priest realized, was to get Azelide up as high as possible; the water couldn’t rise indefinitely, and then it would recede. He passed her a sheet through the window and told her to thread it through the spokes of the wheelchair and the uppermost bar of the grille. Then, pulling up the sheet and lashing it to the grille, they were able to raise Azelide in her chair almost to the top of her window. She was well above the priest, the nuns, and the men outside, but they were already nearly up to their heads. Soon the water would be rubbing, catlike, against Azelide’s numb legs.
There was nothing to do but pray that it would stop. After an hour only Azelide and the priest still remained. He couldn’t hold her hand, raised up as she was, and she had a rosary in it, which she clutched, worrying the beads as the water worked its way upward. She must have made her confession—Azelide was very pious—but that was not something Father Boretti could speak of. Around noon, she did say, with her face pressed against the bars of the grille, just before he had to leave—the water was nearly over his head, closing the last of the cranny between them—“I’m crying.” Or rather she whispered it, as though it might put her soul in danger.
By six o’clock that evening the water was receding, although it would be several more hours before people were sure of this. The Arno had crested around noon, flowing at a speed of 145,000 cubic feet per second with 2.5 billion cubic feet of water passing under the Ponte Vecchio. For the next six hours, it continued to run at a slower 106,000 cubic feet per second. But the maximum capacity of the river was 77,000 cubic feet per second, which meant that there were 30,000 cubic feet—225,000 gallons—of water entering Florence every second with no place to go except into the city. By midnight, finally, the Arno was able to carry as much water downstream as it contained upstream.
The sun had gone down a little after five, but no lights went on in the evening, there being no electricity. Not everyone slept that night. Perhaps almost no one did. The rain pulse on the roof had stopped, replaced by a stillness, a little breeze that might have been the sound of withdrawal, of an ebb, of a tide going out where there’d never been a tide before. Don Luigi Stefani, a priest who lived at the Misericordia across the piazza from the Baptistry and the Duomo, prayed and wrote in his journal, and although he kept himself free from despair—he’d brought the Blessed Sacrament from the chapel downstairs into his room for safety—the words in the journal might have been spoken by Job. The Arno had become a lash, flagellating the church and the city; the ribbon of heating oil now running through and over it was a black serpent that licked the altars of Florence. God, it seemed, had deserted the city.
More than once, Don Stefani wrote, Signore, dormi?, “Lord, are you sleeping?” The night wore on. He took comfort in his prayers. It was out of the sea, the tempest, the flood that Jesus had called his apostles and comforted them. But Don Stefani himself slept fitfully. Across the piazza, perhaps one hundred feet away, Ghiberti’s great Baptistry doors of bronze, half-ripped from their frames, clanged with the flow and swell of the ebbing water, tolled like sad, infernal bells.
Later, near the dawn hours with the water down a few feet, you might have been able to make out one of those ubiquitous Dante wall plaques by the moon—a crack had opened in the clouds; the rain had stopped—scarcely a block toward the river from Azelide Benedetti’s apartment. It read, Per mezza Toscana si spazia / Un fiumicel che nasce in Falterona, / E cento miglia di corso nol sazia, “Through the middle of Tuscany a little river spreads itself that’s born on Falterona; and a course of a hundred miles is not enough for it.”
Miraculously, again, the journalists of La Nazione brought out a paper the next morning. They’d sent their copy over the mountains to Bologna, where it was composed and printed on the presses of a Bologna daily, Il Resto del Carlino. The headline was “Florence Invaded by Water: The City Transformed into a Lake: The Greatest Tragedy in Seven Centuries.”
No one could yet say how severe the damage was. By dawn, the river had fallen fifteen feet, but that still left a yard of water standing inside the Uffizi. The artworks inside had been saved, but the city was devastated: thousands of Florentines were marooned inside their apartments and hundreds trapped on rooftops. There was no drinking water, no milk, no fresh food or bread, no heat, light, or telephone. Happily, the city’s hospitals were all outside the flood zone and there, as well as in more makeshift delivery rooms, twenty-four Florentines appeared who would be able to claim the historic date of November 4, 1966, as their compleanno.
But as on the previous day, Santa Croce suffered most, unheard and seemingly despised. At the neighborhood’s heart, the market square of Piazza dei Ciompi, there was still fifteen feet of water. And for all the beauty of the art saved at the Uffizi, people here were suffering like Jesus and Francis. People were cold and tired; people were hungry and thirsty; people were injured or sick; some of them might be dying or dead. It would be late afternoon before a soldier from the local barracks could reach Azelide Benedetti. He had to dig the mud out of the stairs and break down the door. Inside, wading through the sump of her apartment, he found a kitchen knife and cut her drowned corpse free, still lashed to the wheelchair and the window, suspended. For lack of a stretcher, never mind an ambulance or a hearse, they carried Azelide out on a clothes rack.
Nick had awoken not as from a dream or from a nightmare, but with the internal assurance that today things would go back to being the way they had been. It was not that he did not understand the laws of the physical universe (at school he’d been nearly as talented in math and science as in art) but, intuitively, it seemed that when the water withdrew—like a cloth, like the tide—everything that had been there before ought to be there again. He had, after all, nearly been dead, and now he was back here, alive.
Yesterday, after losing everything on the Lungarno, he’d found something for all of them to eat. In the afternoon he and Antonio Raffo—today they’d have to see how his Fiat had fared on the Ponte Santa Trinità—had broken into their landlord’s offices downstairs and hauled his account books and files upstairs. Later they were rewarded with a month’s free rent. In the afternoon, they’d all looked out Antonio’s window on the Via Santo Spirito and watched the flotsam sail by, not just junk and debris, but furniture and antiques, presumably valuable, from the shops up the street. There’d been a pair of sculpted wooden angels—nearly as big as Anatol—Amy had had her eye on in a dealer’s window a few doors down. Now she imagined the angels might float by, and if they’d had a grappling hook, a rod and a line, they might have caught hold of them, those and all the lovely things Florence was full of.
Today the sun had come out for an hour or so, and where the water had withdrawn, there was an ochre sheen of mire that was the same color as the traditional stucco of the walls of Florence. It seemed to Amy that the whole city was lacquered in tints of warm earth and azzurro sky, so beautiful, like pigments just brushed on and still moist. Amy, Nick with his camera, and Anatol of course—how did this look to him; was it just one more stunning everyday thing?—wanted to go out and see how the morning after looked.
Antonio’s Fiat stood absurdly untouched on the Ponte Santa Trinità, the apparent sole survivor in a necropolis of battered, overturned, heaped, and swamped cars. But the three of them continued onward, as anyone would, like pins to a magnet, to the Ponte Vecchio, and Nick began to take pictures. Amy held Anatol. He looked at his hand, about to put the knuckle of his index finger into his mouth, to give it a nip, a suck. Amy gazed sidelong—she was still beautiful and young; she’d managed to brush her long hair—as if emptied out; a vessel drained, a scaldino without coals. Alongside the exhilaration they’d all shared, a sense of the devastation was rising in her.
Behind them was the river and bridge, pinioned and shot through with tree trunks like Saint Sebastian, overhung with limbs, hanks of shredded furniture and lumber, the plaster, wood, and stone of its own flayed innards. The river didn’t bear looking at: it was a mammoth roiling sewer, slithering away, shamefaced.
They threaded their way across the Ponte Vecchio through the thicket of debris. Nick stopped to make photographs: antique chests and chairs entwined in roots and branches; wall-less, windowless jewelry showrooms with their chandeliers still immaculately pendant. And on the other side, where the Via Ninna comes up behind the Uffizi, quiet; and then a ghostly bark floating toward them, full of silent souls, ferried toward them by boatmen with poles. They were crossing the river of forgetting, from the land of the dying to the land of the dead. Amy understood, at last, that something truly terrible had happened.
But then there was shouting and chattering: it was Firenze after all. The boat held a contingent of rescuers and rescued. The skiff was beating its way—upstream, so to speak—from the depths of the Via dei Neri and Santa Croce to the Palazzo Vecchio, where the water was now scarcely knee-deep. Nick, Amy, and Anatol worked their way north, across the mud flat of the Piazza della Signoria toward the Duomo. There was a crowd, Zeffirelli’s film crew among them, and in the middle stood the mayor in his gum boots, gesturing emptily, as though water were pouring through his fingers, then kneeling in the mud.
Everyone was standing by the Baptistry, at the east doors, Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise. Five of the ten gilded panels were missing: they used to tell the story—Adam and Eve, the expulsion from Eden, Cain killing Abel—of the things that led up to the flood, the Mosaic deluge, but now those images were buried somewhere in the mud. Monsignor Poli, the head priest of the Duomo, and some custodians were poking the mud with staves. So far, they’d found one panel.
Two more panels were missing from Pisano’s south doors, which were hanging by a few tendons of bronze from their frame. Nick took a picture of one of the empty wells in the door where a panel had been sheared away. There was a crack from the upper left to the lower right clear through the metal; a fissure, a chasm, as though an earthquake had rolled right through the door.
Nick and everyone else, really, had thought that the flood was merely water, a liquid, not a solid; a substance that yielded, passed around obstacles, sought the gentle, idle path of least resistance. They hadn’t reckoned with its power, energy, or force: the weight of millions of gallons of water at sixty pounds to a mere cubic foot. Still less had they considered its residuum, its spent remains, the skin it sloughed off as it oozed away—muck, sewage, heating oil, and soil gathered from here to Falterona—which resembled nothing so much as merda, shit. Inside the city walls there was now one ton of mud for every man, woman, and child in Florence.
Nick, Amy, and Anatol turned east. They had an expatriate friend, a sculptor, Art Koch, in Santa Croce. Nobody had spoken of Santa Croce. They passed along the south flank of the Duomo, right past Giotto’s Campanile. People had said the foundations had been undermined; that the spindly, arrogant tower might fall. But Pisano’s figure of Icarus, up there above the waves on the southeast corner, hadn’t even gotten his feet wet.
On the bank of the Arno below the basilica, Emanuele Casamassima finally got inside the Biblioteca that morning. He’d come by boat with his two assistants, Manetti and Baglioni. They’d worked their way inside with shovels. The water had retreated from the ground floor, but the card catalogs were buried in mud. Of the books for which every card stood as doppelganger, no one could yet say. But there were 62,000 miles of shelves in the library and perhaps half of them were on this floor or the floors below it. At a rough guess, that would make three thousand tons of books: sodden, as they assuredly were, twice that.
The Basilica of Santa Croce was directly behind the Biblioteca; in fact, the library and the Franciscan convent overlapped, Santa Croce’s original second, southern cloister being occupied by the Biblioteca. And as was true on the Lungarni in the Oltrarno, the riverbank was higher than the ground behind it: at the Biblioteca, the farther north—away from the Arno—you moved, the lower the ground. So as Casamassima went farther back into the library—six million items constituting the nation’s written patrimony, with which he had been entrusted—his horror and then despair deepened. At the cloister, water still covered the ground floor up to the top of the lower arcade, forming a pool a thousand feet square. Books were floating in it, surfacing like wreckage from the sunken stacks below.
Just on the other side of the common wall, in the primary northern cloister, the priests and brothers had finally been able to descend from their dormitory. Outside help had reached them from the higher ground of the basilica steps: a rubber dinghy had been found in a neighborhood sporting goods store (could bringing aid to a mendicant religious order be called “looting”?) and turned over to the brothers. Now Father Cocci was aboard it, navigating the flooded cloister to the refectory. The main church had already been checked: water had streamed around the high altar, spilled into the crypt and tombs of Michelangelo and the other great men of Florence, but had stopped just inches below the frescoes of the Bardi and Peruzzi chapels. The blessed luck of Giotto had held again: his fresco cycle of Francis was untouched.
But the interior of the refectory was a shallow lagoon: a foot of mud, four more of water, and along the surface, river carp flapping and gasping. The water was retreating very slowly, but what remained was too noxious to support life. Father Cocci may or may not have disembarked from the inflatable at this point, but he was joined in the refectory by Father Barsotti and Brothers Franchi, Collesi, and Renzi. Later, there were supposed to have been twelve brothers present, like the apostles. But disasters, like miracles, are amorphous and slippery; realities that are at once more persuasive than ordinary events, yet refractory. So no one can quite agree what happened next, and today all the witnesses are dead.
It’s said that Father Cocci saw the floating paint and gesso flecks, some bright and gilded like tropical fish; that it was only then he looked up at the Cimabue Crucifix, looming over the waters of the refectory like the creator spirit. Or rather like God reduced to shreds. It was un brandello, carni strappate fino al volto, “in tatters, the flesh ripped off up to the face,” Christ crucified and then drowned. Someone found a tea strainer or a pasta collander and began to scoop the scabs of paint off the surface of the water. Another version has it that Father Cocci was still in the inflatable and that the inflatable was equipped for fishing, so the priest angled for bits of gesso and pigment, leaning over the gunwale with a net on a pole. And a persistent story, one that would not go away even after forty years, had it that the Crucifix wasn’t attached to the refectory wall at all; that it was found floating facedown in the lagoon, drifting.
How else, analytic minds contended, could all that paint have come off? Who knew what had gone on? Con men and looters were supposed to have been roaming around the church; and, in Firenze, how could it be otherwise—someone looking for an angle, grating a little profit from the wedge, or just helping lost things stay lost? But no one could even agree on when the Crucifix had been discovered. Most of the brothers thought it was in the morning, but the first layman to enter the refectory, Salvatore Franchino, said it was in the afternoon and that the only way in was through a window.
Regardless of what time it was, all the priests and brothers could do was continue to pan and skim with their various devices, and when that was done—when no more bright specks of paint were left—retreat back to the cloister and save the rest of the basilica, their home.
Word of conditions inside the refectory wouldn’t reach the world outside the basilica until later. Meanwhile, around the corner from the Crucifix, there was Vasari’s Last Supper, unseen. The flood had immersed the painting, and even now water slapped against the bottom—perhaps Father Cocci’s bark had left a wake that beat in wavelets down the corridor—lapping on Judas Iscariot’s sandals.
By noon Nick, Amy, and Anatol had reached Santa Croce, the most deeply flooded place in Florence. The epicenter was a point approximately equidistant from the market at Piazza dei Ciompi, the Borgo Allegri, and Dante’s statue in the piazza, which was now half mud, half water, surmounted by haystacks of cars. They found Art Koch’s Volkswagen, almost vertical, suspended on a rail outside his apartment. Art’s apartment was uninhabitable—on November 4 he’d been driven from the first floor to the second and finally to the third floor of his building—and Amy and Nick invited him to come live with them. They slogged down the boot-sucking trail back to the Piazza Santa Croce, where an army truck that had just arrived was distributing bread.
The bread was gone in a few minutes, but a crowd remained thick around the truck. There was no more bread for them, and there’d never been any water. Just then, at noon, the sun broke through, clear and strong, and perhaps that was why there was no shouting, no raised fists, no effort to stop the truck rolling off back to that drier, better-provisioned place whence it had come. After all, this was Santa Croce, Saint Francis’s country, where you had to beg. The Communists at the Casa del Popolo by the Piazza dei Ciompi would have put it differently, would have said that Bargellini and the Palazzo Vecchio would just as soon let people here starve, assuming they couldn’t exploit them. That Bargellini lived in the neighborhood and yet did nothing simply proved the point. Largely surrounded by water, Santa Croce was now an island—under the protection of St. Francis, Karl Marx, or both—and would have to become the steward as well as the handmaiden of its own suffering. No one else was going to bother.
In fact, relief was being organized, even if no one could say precisely by whom. There was the mayor and Palazzo Vecchio; there was the army; there was the fire department and the various branches of the police; there were priests, nuns, and monks; there was the single panificio in the hill village of Meoste (with its own well and an overstock of flour) that had dedicated itself to baking for the most devastated parts of the city; and there was the Casa del Popolo in Piazza dei Ciompi, which had decided to found its own Paris Commune to save Santa Croce. From Rome there was silence.
It was almost as if the farther away you were the easier it was to hear and to act: the BBC had sent a film crew headed by the young art critic Robert Hughes almost as quickly as Zeffirelli had dispatched his. Of course it was less the cry of Santa Croce than of the Uffizi, the Baptistry doors, the David in the Accademia, and whatever other art might be under threat—Florence rather than Firenze—that was being heeded.
You could hear it in America, in Philadelphia. Professor Frederick Hartt had heard it, and in his morning art history class at the University of Pennsylvania—it was late afternoon in Florence; the sky was clouding again; Art Koch was getting settled at Nick and Amy’s; he and Nick were hauling drinking water up the 103 steps to the apartment—Hartt told his students what had happened. Then he explained, in tears as often as not, what else would happen if some things weren’t done, if certain measures weren’t taken immediately; which was why he was leaving them to go to Florence tomorrow.
In the Palazzo Vecchio Mayor Bargellini was trying to conjure up loaves and fishes for the hungry multitude of his city. A central distribution center for food, medicine, and clothing was being established near Campo di Marte, at the city soccer stadium, through which supplies could be efficiently channeled, inventoried, and secured. In addition to being able to handle trucks and heavy equipment, it was big enough for helicopters to land in. They were already coming: at midday one arrived from Pisa, carrying a Life magazine photographer from Rome. He’d had to drive himself up the coast to Pisa, camp for the night, and cajole his way onboard.
David Lees would spend the rest of the day getting his bearings and planning how to cover and photograph the city under what seemed to be near-battlefield conditions. For starters, he had to find a pair of rubber boots, without which nothing was possible. Then he would plunge in and start taking pictures. There was no way to assess the damage or even to discern exactly what kinds of damage—inundation, drowning, burying, soaking, rotting, moldering; all of Leonardo’s hydrological lexicon—had taken place or might still be happening. Of all people, his wife, the mother of his children, had been in Florence yesterday. They’d talked for a moment. She’d escaped without harm and now she would be going back to Rome, their paths crossing in passing, moving in opposite directions, as was their wont.
David found his boots, set off through the streets of the city of his birth, and learned what he could. By the end of the day of November 5, the following things were true, if not yet tallied up: most of the city’s museums and churches were either still inaccessible or uninspected, but some 14,000 movable artworks would prove to be damaged or destroyed; sixteen miles of shelved documents and records in the State Archives had gone underwater; three to four million books and manuscripts had been flooded, including 1.3 million volumes at the Biblioteca Nazionale and its catalog of eight million cards; the rare book and literary collections of the Vieusseux Library in the Palazzo Strozzi had been completely inundated, with book covers and pages stuck to the ceiling; and unknown millions of dollars’ worth of antiques and objets from Florence’s antiquarian shops were destroyed, swept away, looted, or otherwise missing.
That is one kind of knowledge, but for the moment what most people knew was amorphous and fragmentary, evanescent, frayed, and fractured. Everyone seemed to be saying, for example, that it was just like August 1944; or worse than August 1944; or that, when the sun went down, that it was dark in exactly the same way it had been dark in the war. Or people saw things: someone carrying off the Ghiberti panel of Joseph and his brothers from the Baptistry in a wheelbarrow; through the gap in the doors themselves, Donatello’s Mary Magdalene stained by heating oil up to mid-thigh, besmirched beyond any penance she might make; a Dominican in Santa Maria Novella seated at a table, its legs and the monk’s feet immersed in water, selling votive candles for one hundred lire apiece; in the window of a pet shop, a cage of drowned songbirds.