The intervention should happen!
TEORIA DEL RESTAURO E
UNITÀ DI METODOLOGIA
Moving paintings in the Piazza Signoria, November 6, 1966 (Photograph by David Lees)
As of nightfall on November 5, Ugo Procacci had slept perhaps three hours in the last thirty-six. On the fourth he’d been up at dawn and had worked at the Uffizi until dawn the following day. That evening he’d gone back to his apartment in the Palazzo Pitti, where the telephone lines still worked, long enough to make some calls, and then washed and retired to bed, but one of Baldini’s students, a twenty-year-old named Alessandro Conti, arrived breathlessly, saying Procacci was again urgently needed: there’d been a report from Santa Croce that the Crocifisso of Cimabue had been severely damaged, soaked from top to bottom, and was still shedding paint.
Now, at nearly midnight, there was no way to get to Santa Croce, and no light to work by, anyway. He gave Conti a note to take to Umberto Baldini in the morning:
They tell me we’re in danger of losing the Crucifix of Cimabue; it seems that the head and body have already been badly damaged. Suspend any other work and get to Santa Croce immediately.
Unable to sleep, Procacci got to the refectory at six the next morning. By then the water inside had receded to ankle depth over the mud. Only a little light reflected off the water, casting waves and glints onto the walls and, as Procacci began to make out, onto the Crucifix. It was a shadowy, immense gangling form among still more shadows, but as the dawn light slowly unveiled it, he could begin to make out its details, or rather, all that was gone: half the face, much of the right side of the body and legs plus the chest and the abdomen. Perhaps three-quarters of the image was gone, stripped down to the gesso or to the canvas beneath it. Procacci could not be sure—hearing the drip and slop of water everywhere, of things being sloughed off—that it wasn’t continuing, in the dim light, to disintegrate before his eyes.
Procacci was not given to despair. But here there seemed to be nothing to save, regardless of what efforts he or an entire army or Cimabue’s God might make. It was, at dawn, two days after the flood had coursed into Santa Croce, far too late.
By now—it was almost seven o’clock—some of the crew Procacci had sent for were turning up. They stood around uselessly, shuffling in the cold and the damp, watching Procacci standing before the cross in his mud-spattered raincoat, his face angular and weeping. Then, out of terrible audacity or raw frustration, someone said, “If you’re crying, what are we supposed to do?”
When Baldini arrived a few minutes later—he’d dispensed with his customary suit and thrown on a blue pullover when Conti had turned up with the note—the light was stronger, strong enough for Baldini to see in seconds what Procacci had only made out over many minutes. He, too, wept, but Procacci was looking at him. And then, because no one else was saying anything, Baldini said, “We need to lay it down.”
But how? The Crucifix was fastened to an iron support that was fixed to the wall, the entire assembly corroded. There were no tools. One of the workers found some scaffolding in an adjacent room that, once erected, allowed them to see what they were up against. The cross would have to be cut down like a tree. Someone went off to look for a hacksaw. He would be a long time: hacksaws were just then in great demand in Florence, along with buckets, pumps, winches, sponges, mops, and, most of all, shovels.
As they waited, Procacci and Baldini saw that the Crucifix was still shedding paint. Baldini’s chief restorer, Edo Masini, began to fish through the water with a tea strainer and recovered about one hundred flecks of color, the largest perhaps a sixteenth of an inch in size. As Masini bent down, peering into the mire, tourist brochures and Giotto postcards from the gift shop floated by.
By late morning, a hacksaw and some other tools had been found and what Baldini would call the “deposition” began. Just then, David Lees arrived in the refectory. He was traveling light, shooting with his Nikon F and high-speed Ektachrome. As the workers sawed, he photographed the activity at the foot of the cross: Procacci stock still; Baldini gesticulating, a blur on the film; the others, waiting. The reflection off the muddy water overlaid by a sheen of oil threw up highlights here and there, the colors as lucid and deep as Cimabue’s.
It took fifteen men and yards of rope to bring the Crocifisso down. Sodden, it weighed well over a thousand pounds (450 of that was the iron frame on which it was mounted). Cimabue had milled and joined the four-inch-thick planks of poplar to be strong, but no one knew how strong: struggling to maintain their footing in the slime or balanced precariously on the scaffolding, the rescuers feared the crucifix would come apart, fall, or collapse of its own weight, crushing them. Lees photographed the straining, grimacing men bearing the weight of the cross—itself bearing the weight of the world, Francis would have said—as a fury of labor, of suffering posed against suffering.
Afterward, David went into the basilica itself, the one-time home of the Crucifix (had it remained there it would have been safe), which was now a delta of mud. The mud was smooth in most places while in others it was banked and shoaled, rippled like sand after the tide’s retreat. In the middle of it stood a wooden Madonna. To one side of her was a candlestick, lodged as though intended to be a votive offering; a little farther away lay the roof of a confessional and a tangle of pews and kneelers. She held her arms in the customary pose of Madonnas, her arms lowered but outstretched, the palms opened upward, as if to say, on the one hand, “Come—you’re safe with me,” or, on the other, “Behold, look,” indicating her child in the manger or his body after his deposition. Now, with Mary shipwrecked, marooned here, both those possibilities were absent in the picture David took. Perhaps now she’d become the patron of mariners and sailors, Stella Maris, Mary, the Star of the Sea. She’s gesturing outward, bidding David and us to look; blessing—it seems—the mud and the great tide that’s just withdrawn from it.
As the workers struggled under the cross inside, outside in the Piazza Santa Croce there was an even larger surge of activity. The president of the Republic, Giuseppe Saragat, was making a tour of Florence in an army truck, trying to demonstrate that Rome had reacted and did, in fact, care. He’d just announced that the government was releasing one billion lire—one million dollars—in unrestricted funds to the local authorities. This perhaps mollified some quarters of the city, but in Santa Croce it did not make much of an impression. People here did not believe in “unrestricted funds”: they believed in bread, as they said at the Casa del Popolo.
Now Saragat was being chauffeured through the piazza, and perhaps contrary to his deepest wishes, it was here that the truck bogged down in the mud. There had already been a crowd, grumbling and launching jeers and epithets at the head of state, things you might hear anywhere but some uniquely Tuscan, involving pigs, swamp-dwellers, the Madonna, bottles, and anuses. Mostly, they simply shouted, “Bread.”
When the truck stopped, immobilized and spinning its wheels, the crowd closed in. The truck began to rock and the president sat, smiling tightly, the color ebbing from his face as the interminable pitching and yawing continued. Then the truck was moving, waddling toward the Biblioteca Nazionale, and the laughter—it was mostly laughter now, plus a few imprecations so local as to be incomprehensible to people three neighborhoods away—fell away behind the greasy spoor of its tracks.
At the Biblioteca, one of the nation’s preeminent cultural institutions, they’d cleared a path through the mud—where it wasn’t an impasto of sewage it was a sort of dense black antimatter, snow heavy as lead, dark as bile—up the steps for the president’s arrival. Or so he thought. Entering the front vestibule where the circulation desks stood piled with ten-foot-high stacks of sodden books, he was led to the library’s chief, Emanuele Casamassima. Mud-spattered and bedraggled in a suit shapeless with damp and sweat, Casamassima seemed not to know who Saragat was. But then he said, Presidente, ci lasci lavorare, “Mr. President, leave us to our work.”
It’s said that Casamassima then handed him a bucket, but it’s also said that Saragat managed to maintain his dignity and, despite everything, to meet these trials with a shy but palpable compassion. He was in the same mold as Bargellini, a good man inundated by the deluge of misery, anger, and despair that the flood left behind. People were prepared to believe the worst about everybody and everything. Earlier in the morning a rumor began going around that the Levane and La Penna dams, supposedly drained ninety-six hours before but now brimming again with water, were on the verge of collapse: another flood, equal to the first, was on its way. That story produced panic while others in circulation fostered bitterness or cynicism: for example, that on November 4, the dams were opened—or not opened, depending on the version—to save somebody’s job or their money or to cover up a mistake or a bribe; another said that the jewelers and goldsmiths on the Ponte Vecchio had been warned hours and hours before the flood while everyone else was left to drown.
The atmosphere was rife with backbiting, suspicion, and calumny, and the air itself increasingly stank: as the water withdrew it left a mixture of mud, sewage, and heating oil to cure over a succession of warmer and sunnier days, an aroma at once fetid and acrid, a hybrid of tide flat, refinery, and cesspool. Now, forty-eight hours after the ebb, the things that had been submerged or drowned were surfacing: dead domestic and farm animals, foodstuffs (thousands of gallons of souring milk, wheel upon wheel of cheese, tons of fish, and hundreds of sides of butchered meat in the central market), and the effluents produced, hour after hour, by Florentines living on the street and in their now unplumbed homes. Among the resources that accompanied President Saragat north from Rome were army flamethrowers to incinerate the carrion in the streets, the horses in the Cascine, and, later, the monkeys, deer, goats, and a lone camel at the city petting zoo.
The Casa del Popolo had managed to find three hundred pounds of bread and four hundred candles that day. Sandra, Macconi, Federico, Carlo, Daniela, and the rest—their last names were irrelevant; they were young, they were politically committed, they were the vanguard—distributed half a loaf and a candle to whoever got to the Piazza dei Ciompi before they ran out. They were still waiting for water, and from farther afield, salvage equipment: the Casa had contacted its counterparts in the Communist Party in Perugia and bulldozers and backhoes were being sent. Based on friendship, commitment, and ideology, a network was forming and spreading in Santa Croce with no ties to the government or the authorities: people knew people and people worked together and shared what they had—a load of underwear and socks, cages of drowned chickens from the country—motivated by solidarity rather than profit.
While they waited for more supplies and equipment, all of them—Menzella, Luca, Beppe, Luisa, and more—shoveled or, because it continued to rain sporadically, bailed. The sewers were still full or blocked with mud and debris: with the smallest increment of additional water, they overflowed. Cellars all over the neighborhood remained full of rank standing water. Along with buckets and shovels, the emblematic tool—the hammer and sickle of the Santa Croce Casa del Popolo—was the rastrello, a wooden rake whose crossbar, with the teeth removed, could be used to push and plow through mud, water, or melma, mire and slime. Much more than with machinery—when and if it arrived—Florence was scraped and squeegeed clean with rastrelli.
Down the Borgo Allegri and across the Piazza Santa Croce at the Biblioteca Nazionale and its caverns of book stacks, only shovels and buckets would do, but even more they needed hands: there were almost one and a half million items to be moved—not just books, but newspapers, periodicals, manuscripts, pamphlets, and the written and printed ephemera that constituted the historical records of Italy. Conditions were appalling: wet, cold, and dark, everything stuck to everything, slime to sopping paper, boots to mud, books to one another or to their shelves. The bound volumes hadn’t sat inert in the cases, but swelled: sometimes their sodden weight simply overwhelmed the shelves that held them, but they also expanded laterally, pressing against the sides of their bookcases until these gave way and the entire case collapsed. Where the verticals of the shelving were stronger, the books themselves distorted: with no space in which to expand, they pressed upward and downward to accordion into undulating curves like wave oscillations.
But that afternoon of November 6, books were nonetheless coming out of the stacks, emerging into the light of the circulation hall, hundreds per hour. It must have occurred to Emanuele Casamassima that he should be facing a labor shortage; that in a city without food, power, or transport, people should be too busy fending for themselves to be mucking about in his library. Yet they were, dozens of them, and he hadn’t even asked them to come. Nor, it seemed, had they asked for instructions or equipment: the books just kept surfacing, bubbling up as from an inexhaustible spring. These workers weren’t organized; they didn’t have a party or a manifesto like the Casa del Popolo; it wasn’t clear what they were against or what they were for, except perhaps books. You could call them volunteers, except they hadn’t volunteered or been recruited: they’d simply appeared as though from thin air and set to work. Maybe they’d been sent by Francis or the Madonna; maybe they’d been thrown up by inevitable historical forces, by the dialectic operating at light speed. But they were some sort of miracle. Florentines came to call them angeli del fango, “mud angels.”
In fact they’d been turning up since the day before, the day the water receded. At first they were Florentines, almost universally young, at loose ends with no families to feed or classes to attend. When Bruno Santi, for example, finished helping his father, he waded across the Ponte alle Grazie and rescued a Giotto with a group of soldiers; later he found himself working among the treasures and artworks in the church of Santi Apostoli, then in the Museo Horne, and finally, for many weeks, at the Limonaia of the Palazzo Pitti, which was being set up as a kind of refugee camp and hospital for flooded artworks. A near contemporary of Giovanni Menduni with perhaps less anxious parents, Cristina Acidini, turned up at the Biblioteca and was put to work and later moved on to the Museum of the History of Science. A pretty and energetic twenty-three-year-old art history student, Ornella Casazza, pitched in and finished up studying under Edo Masini.
Some became angels by coming home: Marco Grassi was the son of five generations of Florentine art dealers and restorers. Having studied with the magisterial Cesare Brandi in Rome, he now worked in the Swiss art collections of Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen, the aristocrat industrialist and connoisseur. But on the morning of November 4, he’d jumped in his car and was in Florence by eleven that night. Joined by another young restorer, Thomas Schneider, he spent the next three weeks circulating among the Uffizi, Santa Maria Novella, and Santa Croce.
It was understandable that Florentines should be in the forefront of rescuing their own city, but over the coming days more and more angeli arrived from much farther away. A group of American college students saw the Franciscan brothers working outside Santa Croce and took up shovels and rastrelli on the spot. From as far away as Scandinavia, young Europeans simply dropped what they were doing and boarded trains or drove south. An extraordinary number came from England: a student from London’s Courtauld Institute—perhaps the world’s preeminent graduate school of art history—left the night of the flood, but not before going to his family’s farm to round up all the pumps and hoses he could lay his hands on. Driving day and night across the continent in a Land Rover, he was at the doors of the Uffizi twenty-four hours later.
Luciano Camerino undertook a briefer but in some ways longer journey. Twenty-three years earlier, in his native Rome, he’d been seized by the Gestapo along with his entire family and deported to Auschwitz. Only he had returned alive. After the war he’d run a restaurant and started up a business that dealt in liturgical goods. He was good at all the things he did. Perhaps he was also lucky. But on November 6 he’d dropped everything and gone north to Florence. He’d heard there was a synagogue in Via Farina that held some 120 priceless scrolls of the Law plus fifteenth-, sixteenth-, and seventeenth-century commentaries—fifteen thousand volumes—of inestimable scholarly and antiquarian value.
Camerino arrived late that day and worked largely alone and almost continuously for the next seventy-two hours. The only way to save the 120 scrolls of the Law was to unroll each one—all 130 to 165 feet of it—and drape it over chairs, up and down the aisles, like drying pasta. He labored without food or rest or joy, as they’d labored in the camps. But he was saving the Word, the Law, and the Prophets. After the third day, he raised his palm to his forehead, staggered, and fell dead, of cardiac arrest it was said afterward. The flaw in the heart—his or the world’s—that had been tracking him since 1943 had found him.
The next morning, November 7, three days after the flood, a headline in La Nazione spoke of a “A Prayer Rising Up from the City,” but at the Casa del Popolo in Santa Croce they entrusted themselves to scavenging and scrounging, stoked by need, solidarity, and anger. There had been talk of illness and even epidemic all day yesterday, a rumor abetted by the growing reek of sewage. Piero from the Casa tracked down fifty doses of tetanus vaccine. Graziella went to the barracks to ask if army doctors might come and treat sick people in the neighborhood but was told there was no process for allowing this; that the military, for apparently good constitutional reasons, mustn’t encroach on the sphere of local government.
Nearby a group of neighbors from the Borgo Allegri had gone to the prefecture and refused to move until the city sent a truck and a crew to begin clearing their street of mud and filth. In their case the tactic worked, even as a block away on Via Pinzochere—where Mayor Bargellini’s palazzo stood—residents went unaided: Bargellini had wanted to show that his home would be treated no differently than anyone else’s in Florence, but the example served as another instance of civic neglect and incompetence. As with President Saragat—another well-meaning figure who had the misfortune to be a good rather than a great man—the flood had the capacity to warp every intention, to muddy the most transparent virtue.
Saragat’s tour of the city had occupied most of page one of La Nazione, but two other stories were given equal prominence: Colpa alla Diga del Valdarno?, “The Dams of the Arno Valley at Fault?,” and Semidistrutto in Santa Croce il Prezioso Cristo di Cimabue, “The Precious Christ of Cimabue Nearly Destroyed in Santa Croce,” with the subsidiary heading “Masterpieces of Art Lost or in Danger.” Until now the press, like the public, had focused on the human and economic costs of the flood: even by very rough estimates, there were at least twenty people dead in the city, six thousand businesses wiped out, and 80 percent of Florence’s restaurants and hotels—crucial to the city’s tourist economy—out of commission. Arguably, the scale of misery had not decreased at all, or only by the smallest of increments, but art was pressing its way into the public consciousness. Regarding the Uffizi, La Nazione had assured its readers yesterday that “Dr. Baldini and the personnel of his laboratory are doing their utmost beyond the limits of human possibility,” but now there was a sense that, as with other efforts to address the disaster, incompetence and a dearth of concern or will were threatening Florence’s patrimony.
Florentines still had their dead to bury—there would be thirty-three, mostly drowned or suffocated by mud, but others killed by cold and lack of medicine—and their city to dig out, but its art was the larger world’s preoccupation. Edward Kennedy flew in from a conference he was attending in Geneva and visited the Uffizi and the Biblioteca Nazionale. David Lees photographed him talking to the mud angels in a spattered trench coat. Lees had already decided to stay an extra day, rather than ship off his film and return to Rome. “This is history, not just news,” he’d told one of the brothers at Santa Croce.
Frederick Hartt arrived from America that same day. Within hours he was standing before Franco Zeffirelli’s camera in his own mire-flecked trench coat, explaining why the flood was not simply a catastrophe for Italy but for all of Western civilization. What was at stake here was, in some sense, our humanity, the traditions and artifacts that embodied our best aspirations, the things that gave us meaning.
In the space of the next ten days Zeffirelli’s film, David Lees’s photographs, and the example of the angeli del fango (now consecrated in their youthful and selfless idealism by one of the surviving Kennedy brothers) transformed the flood from a local disaster into a global tragedy. It coincided, perhaps, with a moment when people were especially prepared to respond to it. Their innocent, naive, and perhaps—from a twenty-first-century vantage point—even ignorant belief in human goodness and its capacity to change the world had been attacked at its heart, in the embodied idealism of art. Kennedy’s words about the mud angels at the Biblioteca felt entirely true: “It was as though they knew that the flooding of the library was putting their souls at risk.”
The angeli del fango phenomenon—a proto-Woodstock of high visual culture—gave the appearance of being a miraculous and spontaneous expression of youthful benevolence, epitomized that same night in Botticelli’s Magdalene being transported from the Baptistry in a red Volkswagen Beetle (the archetypal student vehicle of the time), its harrowed face emerging from the sunroof. But for all the impromptu charm of the image—Procacci and Baldini would have been apoplectic (with good reason) had they known—the Magdalene arrived safely at the Palazzo Davanzati, where expert restorers of wood sculpture from Norway would join it in a few days.
In fact, coordinated decision making and planning was slowly taking shape: by the end of November 7, Procacci and Baldini had met with their counterparts at other museums, institutions, and monuments. A central office was established at the Uffizi to dispatch angeli del fango to the places and tasks for which they were most urgently needed. While the mud angels were amateurs in the best sense—lovers of art for art’s sake—there was a surprising amount of expertise among them. Some like Marco Grassi and his friend Thomas Schneider were already professional restorers; others like Bruno Santi and the British volunteers from the Courtald Institute were graduate students in art history; and still others were working artists like Nick Kraczyna, people who knew something about the techniques and craft of painting and sculpture. Susan Glasspool had just graduated from the Slade in London and arrived in Florence on a graduate painting scholarship. Working among the mud-encrusted books of the Biblioteca dell’Accademia, she met another painting student, a Florentine named Giuseppe Bottaro, whom she married a year and a half later.
But if there was amateurism at the Biblioteca Nazionale and the other flooded libraries, it was entirely understandable: no one in the history of book conservation had ever dealt with materials damaged in this way and on this scale. In the course of recovering the contents of Florence’s libraries, many volumes were further damaged by their rescuers’ good intentions. As was also true with some paintings and sculptures, there was an urgent sense that things should be made dry as soon as possible with a concomitant failure to consider the damage that might result—cracking, splitting, and distortion—along with the overarching and pervasive problem of mold. No one knew whether books should be taken apart—disassembled from their bindings and sewn sections—or should simply be washed and dried, never mind whether this drying should be gradual or accelerated. For the latter purpose, by November 7, Emanuele Casamassima had secured not only the use of tobacco kilns in the Tuscan countryside but the powerhouse and heating plant of the Santa Maria Novella railroad station. The main thing was to keep pulling books from the mud, rinsing them off, and hanging them to dry. The rest would be figured out later.
Simultaneously Procacci, Casamassima, and their colleagues were meeting and calculating the extent of the damage to date: 321 panel paintings; 413 on canvas; 11 fresco cycles; 39 single frescoes; 31 other frescoes—32,000 square feet’s worth—detached from their original locations; 158 sculptures; 37 miles of shelved materials at the Archives of State; and 6,000 illuminated manuscripts, psalters, and musical texts in the Duomo. In all, there were fifteen museums and eighteen churches described as “devastated.” And at the Biblioteca Nazionale, despite the labors of the angeli del fango—whose numbers were increasing by a dozen per hour—in some places the mud was still twenty-two feet deep.
The ability of Procacci’s staff and their counterparts throughout the city to make such tallies and summaries suggested that, if the worst was not over, the disaster was becoming comprehensible. But the mind numbs before the abstractions of figures, however impressive in magnitude: a body count, however massive, pales in impact beside the visible, terrible fact of a single corpse. It is from such discrete and tiny realities that meaning arises and can be grasped, from which the awful whole could begin to be sensed.
That was what began to happen to Cimabue’s Crocifisso on November 7. Baldini had described it to the press in Vasari’s terms, “the first page of Italian art,” which was to say it was valuable and important. It was worth saying because, contrary to later impressions, the Crucifix was neither famous nor beloved: it hadn’t been high on the list of must-sees in Florence; it wasn’t, in fact, on the list to begin with. It was known, of course, to art historians, but less as a work of art in its own right than as a precursor of truly important work, the obscure Cimabue’s half step toward what his pupil Giotto achieved.
Despite that, almost immediately the Cimabue became the preeminent symbol of the flood. But symbol wasn’t quite the right word; it implied yet another abstraction rather than a particular but transcendent fact—which is, after all, what (in fact) art may be—a body that had suffered, a body that embodied much more than itself precisely in itself; a particular being that was also an essence. Here, it was wood and paint and brushstrokes that came to mean—that came to become—all of Florence: its beauty, its suffering, and its redemption.
And maybe there was one more thing that made the Crocifisso such a profound vehicle for meaning: it occupied a boundary between human suffering and the damage to artworks where the two seemed to blur or overlap. On the seventh and the following days, everyone in the media was listening to Frederick Hartt: he was an expert of global standing, he was perfectly bilingual, and he had, in a sense, been through all this before in 1944. And his love for the city and its art was tangible: he teared and choked up at the slightest provocation.
Talking of his first sight of Ugo Procacci that day, he said that Procacci “looked like a man ruined, used-up, destroyed by fatigue and covered with mud.” And then Hartt was talking about the Cimabue Crocifisso: “It’s a corpse, the paint is gone and it can only be displayed as a relic.” Where did Procacci end and the painting begin? Where did a person—any person in all of suffering Florence—shade into Cimabue’s image, now both luminous and besmirched, shading into the ruined Christ?
You might say all this, but the people at the Casa del Popolo in Santa Croce would only grow more impatient and angry. They had their own art. There was a large graffito outside in the Piazza dei Ciompi depicting male and female characters, “Mama Flood” and “Papa Deluge,” standing in a puddle next to a building whose toppling wall is shored up by props. The text says they’ve “run off leaving sorrows, ruins, and tears behind them.” Next to these are smaller figures of “the sons and daughters left behind”: “Hope,” “Streets,” “Neighborhood,” “The Arno Restrained,” “Bracing for Houses,” “The Help Twins,” and, last, “The Promise Twins.” Beneath them is the legend “And we hope that someone wakes up in order to aid these orphans.” It’s an allegory of the Santa Croce quartiere, wry, facetious, and bitter, a black-and-white panel painting that found its way up the Borgo Allegri to this piazza.
No one in Florence thought that art was a luxury, a diversion from truly important things. But among all the troubles—shortages of food, water, and medicine, streets wedged with cars, trees, carrion, and yards of mud, and a mere 150 pumps in the entire city to drain thousands of rooms, courtyards, and cellars—these pleas on its behalf were a little troubling. An artist who lived down the street from Nick and Amy found himself writing, “Am I supposed to care about the Christ of Cimabue or the doors of Ghiberti before the reality of five people who could be my own family faced with darkness because they can’t even scrape together three hundred lire to buy candles—assuming there were any candles?”
Don Luigi Stefani had other misgivings. Writing in his room above the Piazza del Duomo, looking onto the Baptistry and its shattered doors, he wondered if “perhaps it isn’t true that the Christ of Cimabue has really been lost because of our indifference to every aspect of its religious and moral significance, retaining only the aesthetic? And when a ‘Christ’ ceases to speak to the soul, what are we to do?”
Both writers voiced their concerns as questions rather than statements. There was nothing to do but go on thinking, feeling, and expressing; nothing to do except to make more words and images. David Lees had taken another photograph inside the basilica. There was a brother working in the Chapel of Madonna delle Grazie with no more than a small broom. The Madonna that the chapel belonged to had herself washed up outside in the nave, where David had photographed her the previous day next to the candlestick. Inside the chapel mud inclined up the front of the altar like a snowdrift, the retreat of the water marked by undulating sidewinder ripples. And here, in the photograph, taking it all on—the ton of mud that buried the room—was this slight Franciscan with his little stick and its hank of straw.
At eight o’clock on the morning of November 8, the Casa del Popolo of Santa Croce officially opened as the de facto relief center of the quartiere. Food tables were set up on the right, clothing tables on the left, and an infirmary at the back. It should have been easy by then for the residents of the neighborhood to make their way there: the city had said that six hundred men would be out with shovels to clear the streets. But thus far perhaps a tenth of that number had turned up in Santa Croce. Butter, cheese, fruit, pasta, and meat had been promised, but only bread and milk appeared. Elsewhere in the city, it was said, cafés were already serving cappuccinos and croissants. Perhaps just as vexing to the Marxists of the Casa (who would have preferred that all the blame go to Bargellini and the Christian Demo-crats and their capitalist masters) was the report that the Seventh Day Adventists were distributing free copies of the Book of Revelation, St. John’s Apocalypse, as the key to everything that had befallen the city and the quartiere.
Santa Croce, or at least the Casa, had had enough. The people took to the streets. Paolo and Menzella got a loudspeaker and a crowd gathered, urged on by the plea “What’s there to lose?—the only thing you have is mud and water!” At 2:30, some two hundred persons marched on the Palazzo Vecchio, “united,” the Casa assured, “not by ideology, but common misfortune.” They were going to see the mayor and they wouldn’t leave until he’d talked to them. Bargellini’s deputy finally agreed that three delegates from the marchers could come in, which Paolo negotiated up to five.
The mayor met them seated in an antechamber and asked them what they wanted. They wanted to know, Paolo replied, how things really stood; they wanted to know why Bargellini kept saying that Florence had met the flood with a smile on the lips, that its citizens were heroic, and that the city was now already on its way to recovery. That, Bargellini responded, had been said in the interests of morale; people needed hope, did they not? But how, he asked again, could he help them?
To start, they wanted the streets cleared. They wanted basements pumped out. They wanted the whole quarter treated with disinfectants. They wanted all the supplies they’d requested—food, clothing, tools, and medicine—and they wanted official recognition of the Casa. Bargellini tried, by his lights, to be kind and good-humored. But according to Paolo, Bargellini hedged and chuckled and then slipped away, having only agreed that his deputy would accompany the demonstrators back to Santa Croce for an inspection.
When they got to the Piazza Santa Croce, there were indeed some of the workers promised, a bedraggled squad that had been furnished with spades too small to penetrate the mud effectively (although by now some five thousand shovels had reportedly been delivered to the city); and even if they’d had the right tools, they looked too exhausted to lift them. The deputy made excuses and promised to look further into the matter when he got back to the Palazzo Vecchio. But before he could make his exit he was seized by a group of neighborhood women and, pulled by the arms, marched down the Borgo Allegri, bootless, his suit spotted with more and more mud as he was forced to rendersi conto—to take in and acknowledge—the extent of the chaos and misery. Then he was set loose.
Late in the afternoon, however, like a revelation, the heavy equipment the Casa had been promised by their fellow party members in Perugia appeared, not only bulldozers and backhoes but lights and generators that would allow them to work into the night. With the rose window on the front of the basilica illuminated by the spill from the lamps, Santa Croce was finally being dug out, overseen by the statue of Dante in the center of the piazza, beleaguered these four days and just now emerging from the underworld, blinking in the sudden glare.
Inside the basilica, in the refectory, people had been coming to visit the Crocifisso they’d been hearing about. Nick had come with his camera. Workers were putting up scaffolding on the west wall so that restorers could get a closer look at the damage to Taddeo Gaddi’s immense Cenacolofresco. The Cimabue still lay where Procacci and Baldini and their crew had set it down, lying flat on the cluster of benches they’d scraped together from the furniture scattered in the mud. To one side, there was a section of gold picture frame molding they’d used to wedge the cross into position.
Nick photographed the Crocifisso upside down, the head and the halo inverted, and from that position it was no longer clear that there’d ever been a face, or even a body. It was still recognizably a cross, awaiting, perhaps, a victim. He took another shot from the front, the Crucifix supine before the iron wall mounting that had once supported it, which itself looked like nothing so much as a gibbet, a cross upon which to crucify the Crocifisso. Anyone could come and look at it.
There were also still people from Procacci’s staff at work. They’d turned from the Cimabue—no one quite knew what was going to be done with it yet—to the other artworks in the refectory and the rooms adjoining it. In addition to Taddeo’s fresco, there was an important Deposizione by Francesco Salviati and another by Alessandro Allori, as well as a Descent into Limbo by Bronzino, all from the mid to late 1500s. A little later someone noticed a severely damaged painting from roughly the same decade in another room, The Last Supper of Giorgio Vasari.
That day, November 8, Marco Grassi and his friends Thomas Schneider and Myron Laskin—an international, polyglot group, as angeli del fango always seemed to be—were sent by the coordinating office at the Uffizi to Santa Croce. They were assigned to doing velinatura, covering damaged areas of paintings with Japanese rice paper attached with Paraloid, an acrylic resin. Each sheet of velina (tissue) covered about a square foot and was held in place with the fingers while the Paraloid was brushed over it. Like everything else associated with the flood, the process was sticky and smelly, although the aroma was synthetic rather than fetid. It was a stopgap measure, a way to put a painted surface in suspension, intact (including any dirt, oil, and mud) until restorers could begin working on it.
Velinatura, then, was the art conservation equivalent of sandbagging, ubiquitous and effective up to a point. It didn’t make things better, but it stopped some of them from getting worse. Baldini’s staff and the mud angels used up all the rice paper in Florence, Bologna, and then all of Italy in a matter of days, and when it was gone they switched to Kleenex tissues.
It fell to Marco and his friends to do the velinatura on the Vasari. The painting had been thoroughly soaked and at about eight by twenty feet it would be a long and tedious job, like pasting a billboard with handkerchieves. Swollen with water, the five panels had begun to pull apart: Bartholomew, James, and Andrew from Thomas the Doubter; Simon, Jude, and Matthew from Philip and James the Greater; the apostles dispersing, going their own crooked and various ways. The central panel of Jesus, Peter, and John was in the best condition, the one to its left, Iscariot’s—performing his fey, devious pirouette—in the worst. While the Paraloid was still wet you could see the painting as through a veil, and then, as the resin dried, it slowly disappeared beneath the cloud of tissue. That was the last time anyone would see it for a long, long time.
Marco and the rest were at it for some hours, long enough to be photographed a half dozen times and to be caught in a panning shot by Zeffirelli’s crew during its final hours in Florence. Marco himself remained for another two weeks daubing lesser masters with Paraloid before he returned to the Thyssen collection in Switzerland. The baron had telephoned to ask what he might do to help, and Marco told him he supposed clothing would be much needed and appreciated. Within a week box after box of slightly worn cashmere sweaters, tuxedos, velvet dressing gowns and jackets, and Charvet neckties arrived at the mayor’s house. All but the most unprepossessing items went undistributed: what the Casa would make of handing out smoking jackets to the working folk of Santa Croce Bargellini could by now easily imagine. Instead, the mayor opened a depot to dispense more functional clothing on the ground floor of his palazzo. In exchange for donating a large part of her own wardrobe, he allowed his daughter to take a camel-hair coat from the baron’s hand-me-downs.
Beyond the press and his political opponents (who certainly had no intentions of halting their own agendas during the emergency), Bargellini had to deal with sudden shifts in public feeling caused by rumor. The talk about the jewelers on the Ponte Vecchio wouldn’t go away nor would the suspicions about the La Penna and Levane dams as well as fear of their potential for bringing another flood. That same morning La Nazione had published ENEL’s denial of having any role in the disaster. But people would believe what they wanted to believe, and Bargellini was, in his optimism, his piety, his bookishness, and aristocratic humility, not entirely of the perennial Florentine temperament, even if he was a native son. He was not well equipped to sustain, on the one hand, cynicism about ENEL and the goldsmiths and, on the other, sentimentality about the survival of the pet boar Esmerelda in the Cascine zoo. But the classic Florentine—the one whose soul Dante had anatomized and upon whose governance Machiavelli prognosticated—could. All that, bound by the love of quartiere, denari, and bellezza—neighborhood, money, and beauty—was the Florentine’s essential character.
And how could Bargellini or anyone know what was true in the midst of all this chaos in a city marked by deviousness at the calmest of times? It was true, for example, that there were still fifty-eight prisoners from the Murate unaccounted for, but it was false—so far—that cholera had broken out; and as to whether there were scuba divers salvaging gold under the Ponte Vecchio, you couldn’t put it past somebody to have thought of it, not in Florence.
There were even rumors about art, about the Crocifisso. It was said—it even got into the newspapers—that when Procacci and Baldini arrived at the refectory, they found the cross drifting like a derelict raft in the mire and watched helplessly as it shed its pigment before their eyes. It was also said that the fragments the monks were supposed to have sieved from the melma had been left (for lack of any other receptacle) on a platter that a laborer, looking for something to eat his lunch from, subsequently scraped into the trash.
The next morning’s edition of La Nazione extrapolated some anxious comments by Ugo Procacci into the headline “No Hope for the Cimabue Crucifix.” A subheading on the prognosis for all the damaged art estimated “Twenty Years Needed to Complete Restoration Efforts.” Another page reported, for the first time, the phenomenon of “Groups of Students Working on the Recovery of Artworks.” Bargellini had already wondered, “Where will we put them all?”—there were now a thousand of them in Florence—and struck a deal with the state railway to bunk them in idle sleeping cars and coaches.
The mayor had to concentrate on these and other practical details, but by now other voices began making the case for Florence: in London, the Observer, echoing the global media from Paris to New York to Tokyo, insisted that to allow the city to fend for itself without “the entire world doing everything possible would be unpardonable.” The paper had noted the dead, the ruin, and the homelessness, but it was “the finest fruits of the Renaissance . . . abandoned to decompose in the mud” that clinched the argument and would become the focus of the world’s outrage and pity.
That same day, November 9, the weather turned against the city again. The sky lowered and grayed and the temperature fell. By noon it was bitterly cold. People said that the Arno might now freeze: it was already thick with the mud and refuse that was being dumped into it from every corner of Florence. There were still 18 million cubic feet of debris to be cleared from the streets, enough to dam the river to Leonardo’s specifications. An old man with a pail, trudging back and forth across the Lungarno from the riverbank to the cellar he was bailing, chuckled, “It’s a good thing we have the Arno” as he dumped another bucket into the stream.
Mayor Bargellini made his way on foot around the city that afternoon, past the lines of people queuing up for typhoid shots, and even down to Santa Croce, which was, after all, his quartiere too, despite the hotheads at the Casa. In the piazza, someone mentioned the Crocifisso yet again and, perhaps a little exasperated, Bargellini said, “Enough about Cimabue’s poor Christ. Now we must think of the poor Christians.”
Later, in his study, in his journal, alone in the night, he could still dream his Florentine humanist dreams: “We’ll be free at last to remake [the city] on our terms, more beautiful than now—like it was once-upon-a-time! Like it was in our golden age.”
A week after the flood, on Friday, November 11, young Giovanni Menduni’s mother finally let him out of the house. She was going to the Casa del Popolo to volunteer on the breadline, one of a growing number of people from outside the neighborhood who wanted to help. That they did not come from the quartiere was not a problem, but that they did not belong to or support the Party often was. A debate was surging among the leaders of the Casa about whether the organization was losing its Communist identity. In the end Carlo and Daniela, who’d been putting people in positions of responsibility regardless of affiliation and who were now being criticized for it, walked out.
Giovanni and his mother were bourgeois, from the middle of the middle classes. Giovanni attended Florence’s elite Pestalozzi academy—he was an able student if rather less well-off than most of his fellows—situated a few blocks east of the basilica. Cooped up at home and for days having had to listen to his elder brother’s exploits in the disaster zone, he was eager to pitch in but also curious about the fate of his school. So Giovanni got himself a rastrello, propped it on his shoulder, and, leaving his mother at the Piazza dei Ciompi, set off for the Pestalozzi.
The Borgo Allegri and its adjacent streets were now cleared of mud although scarcely free of smaller debris—the Casa’s own dented and mud-encrusted blue Fiat 500 had blown five tires in two days—but to Giovanni they looked like a battlefield, like Berlin after the war, not that he’d ever seen a war. One thousand houses in Santa Croce had already been condemned, and much of the rest were propped up with timbers, the walls plastered with mire and oil. He might have expected to smell powder and cordite, but the pervasive smell was sour where it was not sharp, a mix of dirt, petroleum, and rot. The army had succeeded in incinerating almost five thousand animal carcasses and tons of meat, but there was still the reek of rehydrated and now decomposing baccalà, the dried cod that was a staple of the Italian diet and of the poor in particular.
Giovanni traversed the mud-slicked steps of the Pestalozzi and made his way into the vestibule. Around the landing of the stairs he’d ascended each day for the last two years was a knot of furniture and enslimed jetsam, and standing nearby, as though presiding over it, a woman. Giovanni could not say if she was old or simply exhausted. Indicating his rastrello, he said he wanted to help. It had been his school after all. He’d come as soon as he could.
The woman spoke to him, flinging out her hands in irritation. “Can’t you see there’s nothing—nothing to do, to be done?” Giovanni thought he’d better leave. Outside the morning went on; the sunlight strong and cold, angling up the street from the east, past Azelide Benedetti’s barred window two doors down from the school, the curtains hanging stiff with dried melma. He turned west, across the Piazza Santa Croce, and in the Via dei Benci found a shopkeeper who was willing to let him push some mud around the pavement with his rastrello.
Around lunchtime he went back to Piazza dei Ciompi. He and his mother walked toward the centro, toward the Duomo. Just beyond the Baptistry was the music store, hollowed out, the metal shutters over the windows and doors sucked inward by the water pressure; butted and nosed, perhaps, by the twenty thousand cars Giovanni’s brother had told him were floating everywhere a week before.
Men were working inside the store, carrying sheet music and LPs out to the street. Giovanni went to look more closely, and he saw that, just then, four workers were wresting a mud-clotted crate out of the showroom. It was the Hammond B-3, his B-3. It was too big and too awkward to pass up the stairs and out the door easily, so the men simply shoved it through, battering the case, which was now split open. Giovanni could see inside it, see the ninety delicate “tonewheels” that gave the B-3 its inimitable sound, now sheathed in mud.
They got it outside and dumped it on the street, splayed with its wires and guts hanging out, alongside the other junk from the music store: horns and brass instruments plugged up with mud, guitars and violins swollen and split like melons. It was then that Giovanni understood the meaning of the flood: that this was how things ended up, this was how the world is. Never mind the money his mother didn’t have: they could have just given him the Hammond ten days ago and everything would have been different, would have been better. This one beautiful object would have been saved and Giovanni himself would have been happy beyond measure. There still would have been a flood and of course that would still have been terrible, but this one small hope wouldn’t have been lost, would have stayed true. It was a lesson in lacrimae rerum, the tears of things, that phrase Virgil had come up with for the Aeneid and taught Dante. They would be studying that in Latin at the Pestalozzi, if there had still been a Pestalozzi.
The angeli were still pulling books out of the underworld of the stacks at the Biblioteca Nazionale, still removing the bindings, washing the pages, and hanging up the leaves on clotheslines in the boilerhouse at the railway station. Other angeli were stacking volumes and folios from the Archives of State under the arcade on the piazza of the Uffizi. You could hear music from someone’s transistor radio—it was the Beach Boys, usually—and the angels needed music, just as they needed to stop and smoke a cigarette, not just to relax but to keep warm, heating themselves from inside out. It was always cold and always damp where they worked, and often where they ate and slept. There was, of course, a surfeit of Chianti dispensed from immense demijohns just as there was limitless talk and laughter. People fell in love: with art; with one another; with themselves, because how often did you get to be a hero, much less an angel?
For example, an art history student named Silvia Meloni was working in the Uffizi, wiping mud off pictures that had been set aside as insufficiently important to require expert handling. She swabbed at one for some time, and then she wiped it down until a bit more of the paint emerged, and then she exclaimed—perhaps only to herself, perhaps to the whole world—“This is the self-portrait of Velázquez!” And so it proved to be. Miracles were for the asking.
Across the river in the Oltrarno, Nick was counting his losses. He and Amy could manage without electricity and they’d never had heat. Their household and kitchen could cope with boarders like Art Koch and the usual passersby, even if their number seemed to swell each day. But Nick was supposed to have a show of drawings and woodcuts at the end of the month. It went without saying that it would have to be postponed, but there would probably be no work to show anyway: on November 4 most of Nick’s art had been at the printer’s being photographed for the catalog. The shop had been flooded up to the second floor, and even now the printer was still mucking out.
More likely than not, the work would be ruined, assuming it was found: he’d done half the drawings with a ballpoint pen on butcher’s paper the previous year when he and Amy had been particularly short of cash. Last summer he’d managed to buy india ink and rag paper after he’d sold some work in America. Almost all the drawings were on the theme of Icarus. Nick had been dreaming about him, and in the dreams Icarus melded with other subjects and traditions: Annunciations, Depositions, and, most recently, Pietàs. Nick drew Icarus, dead and shattered, draped in the lap of a female figure, a mother, a lover, a god—you couldn’t say. The image was only a shard of a dream Nick had had. But maybe it meant that Icarus wasn’t just ambitious, foolish, or vain; maybe in his ruination Icarus’s drowned and crumpled body warranted love, or at least pity.
A week after the flood the printer turned up with Nick’s portfolio. He’d found it wedged between the ceiling and some pipes in his basement. The earlier drawings were indeed reduced to pulp, but the ones on rag paper were intact, albeit muddy. As was true of so much of the art that survived the flood, the Old Masters were never wrong about materials. Nick washed the drawings off, the mud lifted, and the images—perhaps a little depleted and weary—were still there.
In the drawings Nick had willfully mixed traditions—he was very big on the unconscious, the serendipitous chance or collision, the classical and the Christian swallowing each other’s tails—and under the circumstances, who could object? Only the day before, Frederick Hartt had told another group of reporters that “there were two cities that occupy the most special place in the history of human civilization: Athens and Florence.” So why not put Icarus and Mary together in a Pietà; why not make Icarus into the crucified Christ? Maybe that was precisely the art the moment called for, just as it called for the world’s help. That was what Hartt had meant about Athens and Florence: “When something happens to one of them, all civilized people have a moral obligation to run to their aid.”
With that final remark, Hartt flew home to America. He and Fred Licht, the art historian from Brown University who’d accompanied him to Florence, had been busy consulting with Ugo Procacci and when they arrived in New York they set about getting him what he needed most: expert restorers and money. Within two days, sixteen restorers headed by Professor Lawrence Majewski of New York University’s Conservation Center were on their way to Florence. That same week they helped found a fundraising and coordinating organization, the Committee to Rescue Italian Art (CRIA), with Licht, his Brown colleague Bates Lowry, and Millard Meiss of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study in charge in the United States and Myron Gilmore of I Tatti as their liaison in Italy.
Mayor Bargellini was meanwhile struggling with the third and fourth waves—he’d lost count—of the angeli, who now numbered well over a thousand: “What should we do with all these kids?” he pleaded, and found more railroad cars, dormitories, and spare rooms outside the city.
If there was no place to put the angeli, Ugo Procacci had found shelter for the art. He seemed to have recovered from the devastation so apparent to Hartt during the first week after the flood and was now marshaling the considerable wherewithal he’d exhibited when they’d met twenty-two years ago. Panel paintings would be sent to the Limonaia of the Palazzo Pitti; canvas paintings to the Accademia; sculpture and objets to the Palazzo Davanzati; and books to the Forte Belvedere.
Much had been accomplished in a little more than a week after the flood, and it had happened very quickly. Some people had done what they could and were moving on, or resting up before another tour of duty. David Lees had already left Florence on November 8, the Tuesday after the flood, to take a load of film and submit his expenses: 6,000 lire for high boots and 5,000 lire for cleaning his mud-spattered suit. The helicopter ride from Pisa had been free, courtesy of the army. He stocked up on film and returned to Florence on the eleventh and would stay for the rest of the month.
Franco Zeffirelli left for Rome that same day. He would edit, script, and score his film Per Firenze, “For Florence,” in one week. To narrate it, he rounded up Richard Burton, with whom Zeffirelli had been filming The Taming of the Shrew at Cinecittà with Burton’s wife, Elizabeth Taylor. Burton recorded the soundtrack twice, once in English for global distribution and again in Italian. He spoke no Italian but read from phonetically transcribed cards in a convincing accent and with visible, near wrenching emotion. Burton spoke of the recent landslide at Aberfan in his native Wales. Twenty-eight adults—almost as many as in Florence—had died. So too had over one hundred children. But Florence was worse, Burton said.
Such testimonies and appeals were, of course, just the beginning. Asked how much and how long the restoration of the artwork would take, Ugo Procacci estimated $32 million and twenty years. Conscious of the need to underline the gravity of the situation he allowed himself to be a little pessimistic. As it turned out, he was off by millions and by decades.
In Santa Croce the disorder had taken on a certain order of its own: when supplies arrived, there was a flash of voices, a shock wave that went around the neighborhood, reporting that at this instant there was milk or bread or clothing or blankets. A line would form, like iron filings swarming around a magnet, and then when there was nothing left—there was never enough; someone always went without—the clot of persons would dissipate, and the quiet, the slow drip of Santa Croce would begin again until the next truck arrived.
And what of the river? By mid-November the level of the Arno had fallen back to normal, even a bit below average for the time of year; too low, in fact, to carry away the detritus that both nature and man had dumped into the riverbed. The Arno channel looked like a junkyard, heaped with mattresses, furniture, and tons of lumber, paper, and cars. Along the banks you might spy a rivulet of purses or shoes or a cascade of café chairs. All this was ugly or morbidly striking, even bizarrely beautiful: Dante’s infernal ditch brought to life through a cornucopia of sullied consumer goods.
But it was also dangerous. City engineers repeated their earlier warning that dumping raised the floor of the riverbed and might cause the Arno to disperse the next flood even less effectively than it had on November 4. People rather than nature could make a deluge. Perhaps they’d even had a hand in the one that had just happened: on the weekend of November 13 the Sunday Times of London published an exclusive: “Our investigation has reached the conclusion that the disaster of the flood in Florence was made even more grave by a mass of water released from a hydroelectric dam.” The newspaper claimed that at nine o’clock on the evening of November 3 ENEL opened the gates of the Levane dam “releasing five million cubic meters of water.” It concluded that “this means that all the civic authorities knew that the flood would strike Florence at least eight hours before it happened.”
ENEL had already done its own preliminary investigation and responded to the Times article the next day. You only had to do a little arithmetic, ENEL argued, to see that the charge was false: 250 million cubic meters of water had struck Florence, but the reservoirs had only ever contained 13 million, and even then the gates had never been completely opened. Moreover, there were now conflicting accounts about when or even if the supposed “mass of water” had been released. The residents of the village below the dams were a little fuzzy on the time they’d heard sirens or at what hour the flood first swept by.
Lorenzo, Ida, and the rest of the village would maintain they had every right to be a little confused on November 4: it was the middle of the storm, it was the middle of the night, and then it was total chaos. They were still picking up, not to say recovering their sanity. You could parse cubic meters until you were impazzito—driven mad—but they’d seen and heard what they’d seen and heard.
The villagers’ story and all its kin, its vague but shapely logic and thrust toward tragedy and complicity, was more satisfying than the mathematics of ENEL. It was organic and whole. It possessed a kind of beauty. The calculations were something you could know, but the story was something you could believe.
It was the same with the rumors and recriminations about the jewelers on the Ponte Vecchio. Maybe they’d been warned early because the guard had been specifically instructed to issue a warning if the water rose any farther and had also been especially vigilant about floods on account of coming from Vajont. But it was also assuredly a conspiracy, conspiracy being one of the arts of Florence. It was a matter of smarts, information, and connections, the neural net of political economy. Capitalism Medici-style (and who was more a capitalist than a goldsmith or a jeweler?) was a higher form of awareness, the equal of religion and philosophy.
Although the streets were neither flooded nor engorged with mud, Florence was scarcely dry. The city had taken a soaking worthy of Noah and no one would quite shake the damp from their bones until spring, even as electricity and gas returned. An enormous quantity of the city’s fuel oil had gone into the floodwaters, but most people in places like Santa Croce or Nick Kraczyna’s neighborhood in the Oltrarno didn’t have central heating anyway. You were better off, for once, with a scaldino.
Even then, much of Florence was literally moldering away. The pervasive damp fostered several varieties of mold, and within weeks walls all over the city were felted with white, green, and blue-gray spores. Mold fed on melma, rich in organic materials from the river and the sewers, and also on paint, especially the kind of colors and media used in traditional Florentine wall painting. Sustained by moisture and by the paintings themselves, the mold—it had a certain beauty, a soft, embracing patina—was eating artworks alive.
Nor would the water simply run off and the walls dry. A vast quantity had been absorbed into the ground (particularly in low spots like Santa Croce) and in the aftermath of the flood began to wick its way upward, carrying much of what was in the soil with it. Bricks and stucco were porous and behaved like a sponge. When underground water and damp surfaced under a building, they continued to rise through the masonry.
Moisture alone, together with the pervasive mold, could do tremendous damage to wall paintings. Fresco had an advantage in that the paint was part and parcel of the plaster to a certain depth, but in the presence of enough damp, the plaster surface itself would crumble. In the case of secco—color applied directly on dry plaster as Giotto had done in the chapels at Santa Croce—the paint simply blistered and flaked off.
The problem was exacerbated by dissolved salts, phosphates, sulfates, and nitrates: as the walls dried, these compounds migrated to the surfaces of both fresco and secco, forming crystals under the color that erupted and burst, carrying the paint away with them.
The problem was probably most grave in the refectory of Santa Croce, which, in addition to the Crocifisso, contained another major artwork, Taddeo Gaddi’s immense frescoed Cenacolo on the west wall. Only its lower edge had been immersed on November 4, but it was now under a triple assault from moisture, mold, and salts, flayed from its wall by their crystallization. Santa Croce, in addition to being the dampest ground in Florence, was also especially rich in phosphates and nitrates: the soil beneath the basilica, the cloister, and the refectory were the repository of a seven-hundred-year accumulation of bones, the cadavers and skeletons of thousands of Franciscan brothers.
At the Biblioteca Nazionale, Emanuele Casamassima had help, almost a surplus of it, and it was perhaps the most cosmopolitan volunteer rescue effort in history. But after nearly two weeks of excavating books and materials, Casamassima found himself in a position akin to Mayor Bargellini, puzzling out where he was going to find bed and board for the angeli. Thanks to Casamassima’s own organizational skills and the seemingly spontaneous and unconscious efficiency of the angels, a tremendous quantity of items had been removed and relocated, and were now being washed and dried. All told, there would be around one billion leaves or sheets of paper to deal with, and the question of what to do with them next seemed suddenly to arise: Should torn and fragmented pages be somehow mended or sutured? Should oil and mud stains be bleached out, cosmetically restored, or left untouched? Should some or all of the millions of volumes be rebound? How did you balance the utilitarian needs of future readers and scholars against the integrity of books and manuscripts as aesthetic and historical objects? Assuming time and money were not infinite, was it more important to have a continuous collection of every newspaper published in Italy during the nineteenth century or a letter in Machiavelli’s own hand? Casamassima realized that he simply didn’t know. Nor did he have much time to consider the matter: mold fed even more eagerly on paper than paint.
No one knew more about paper, printed texts, manuscripts, and binding than a small group of experts in London and Oxford, and what the Americans were to artworks, the British would be to books. On November 25, three weeks after the flood, Casamassima called his counterpart at the British Museum, who in turn contacted Peter Waters of the Royal College of Art. The next day Waters, accompanied by the restorer Anthony Cains, arrived in Florence and they were later joined by Christopher Clarkson of the Bodleian Library, Oxford. They found Casamassima at the Biblioteca cooking lunch for the angeli.
The British spent two days watching and listening. The makeshift operation Casamassima had improvised worked much better than the British might have expected: books were being covered with sawdust and interleaved with blotting paper, which was good, but also, to their horror, with colored mimeograph paper, whose pigments leached into the pages the interleaving was designed to protect. Nor was it sufficient to let the interleaving absorb the moisture and then leave it inside the book: once it had blotted up water, it had to be replaced with a dry sheet, sometimes up to a dozen times. Otherwise the interleaving itself would turn the book into a sodden brick of pulp, which mold would quickly begin to consume. Fortunately, the weather had remained cold: warmer conditions would have fostered an epidemic of spores. But many books might decompose with no assistance from mold: the extremely fine-grained mud of the Arno had not only coated the pages but worked its way between the very fibers of the paper, abrading the leaves from both inside and out. Other books, impregnated and brittle with glue from their bindings, might simply crumble.
On the Tuesday after their arrival, the British had a meeting with Casamassima. They outlined all the problems they’d observed and suggested solutions. But at the end of the meeting they proposed something more radical. The entire salvage program of the Biblioteca to date consisted of washing, drying, and wrapping books in paper to await action to be determined at some future date, regardless of their condition. This was no way to run a library, Waters diplomatically suggested, backed up by the rather more acerbic, chain-smoking Cains. Why not aim to restore and rebind every book that needed it? Set up a kind of production line in which each volume would be disassembled, washed, dried, photographed, wrapped in fungicide-treated paper, and sent on to whatever specialist treatment it needed—repair or rebinding—and then reshelved as quickly as possible. Money could be found. Angeli could be taught the necessary skills. Waters would agree to stay not for a week but ten months, and then Cains would take over for what would prove to be three years. To the surprise of the British, Casamassima accepted the entire plan.
What was needed immediately was streamlining, organization, and more technical know-how. In short order the British devised and improvised forty stainless-steel washing stations, a program to chemically inoculate books against mold, and a visually coded card system—many angeli, for all their enthusiasm, spoke neither English nor Italian—to track each item and the treatment it required. The least damaged volumes needed washing—it took about four hours per book—but others needed their mud scraped away with surgical blades, one page at a time. A large number had to have each leaf pried apart from the next, stuck together by the dissolved and redried glue from their bindings, the entire volume now an impregnable block.
Drying was as problematic as washing, given the absence of electricity and fuel. Christopher Clarkson had taken charge of the railway station boilerhouse and its crew of angeli washing and drying pages. The ceiling of the building extended up several stories and ropes had been stretched across the vault in rows and layers, each a few feet higher in altitude than the next, folios of paper draped over them like densely packed Neapolitan laundry lines. When David Lees came to photograph the angeli in the boilerhouse for Life, the book leaves looked like an enormous flock of doves descending. Once, a door was left open, a gust of wind entered, and the papers did exactly that, sailing through the air and falling by the thousand.
In a week forty book restorers and binders were at work, backed up by several hundred angeli. Waters and his team were inventing the science and techniques they needed as they went along; they realized, for example, that it wasn’t enough to sterilize a book and its wrapper against mold. The storage units and stacks in which it would be deposited also had to be sterilized, and so they sterilized the entire Biblioteca, not once but three times. The compounds and treatments for this and other problems were devised by Joe Nkrumah, a young chemist from Ghana by way of the British Museum. Nkrumah, his beard a nimbus of wiry hair, was as passionate about Florentine art and culture as any of the angeli. He would stay for almost seven years, working both in book conservation and in a lab funded by the Australian government to rescue and restore prints, engravings, and lithographs. He loved company as much as he did art, and soon he and Anthony Cains found their way to Nick and Amy’s apartment in the Oltrarno.
To underwrite this and other projects the British would develop their own fundraising network: Zeffirelli’s Per Firenze had premiered the previous week in London before Queen Elizabeth, raising $25 million. Meanwhile the American founders and organizers of CRIA were achieving extraordinary things—they would send Procacci his first check for $70,000 only twelve days after they’d established themselves. CRIA was freighted with grandi signori, drawn not just from the realm of art history and museums but from American business, politics, and high society: Jacqueline Kennedy agreed to serve as honorary chairwoman and Clare Boothe Luce and David Rockefeller were directors. CRIA was in a position to stage high-profile art auctions, fashion shows, and society galas and balls as well as secure bountiful media coverage, booking, for example, Marchese Emilio Pucci on the Today show to make a nationwide appeal on their behalf.
CRIA was officially launched with an announcement on November 28 in the New York Times, a full-page advertisement festooned with the names of the great, the powerful, and the chic (many of whom would be attending Truman Capote’s legendary Black and White Ball that same night). For all their excesses—and how blameworthy were these if the result was the salvation of a large portion of Western culture?—they chose to place David Lees’s simple image of Mary standing marooned on the mudflat inside Santa Croce at the center of their announcement. Lees and his employer, Clare Boothe Luce’s husband, Henry Luce of Time-Life, donated the rights to the photo to CRIA, and it, too, helped save Florence.
Or rather its art. The Paleys, Rockefellers, and Whitneys were not sending checks to the Piazza dei Ciompi and the Casa del Popolo. But the Casa was, in any case, winding down its activities. After a month, life was returning to normal in Santa Croce; to ordinary poverty, at least, where the basic provisions necessary to sustain life were in reach, most of the time. Sandra, Macconi, Federico, Carlo, Daniela, and the rest had done an extraordinary thing with no resources whatsoever beyond their sweat and passion, a small, briefly lived but transcendent work made ex nihilo. Now they could return to the perennial struggles of ideology and politics, capital versus the proletariat instead of the Arno versus the poor. The poor will always be with you, as the son of Mary—she of the embracing, futile gesture, blessing the mud—had once said.
The Arno was running cold, cold enough to freeze. It had been nearly a month since the flood—the lights were on almost everywhere—but as happened every ten days or so, a fresh outbreak of rumors erupted, efflorescing throughout the city like the spores of the now pervasive mold.
On December 2 it began to rain and the river to rise. It never got any higher than ten feet below the Ponte Vecchio. But it was enough to make the rumors seem credible, even prophetic. By evening the roads out of town—some people already had their new Fiats—were clogged in response to a story that the dams had been breached, or were about to break, or one or another variant on the tale. Running alongside or under it—a bass line of dread as counterpoint to the hysteria—was the report that there’d been an outbreak of cholera.
The angeli had their own rumors, which tended to bear on the art they were rescuing. With tremulous conviction, an American student maintained that the floor beneath the David in the Accademia was buckling; that the towering statue was heeling over, on the verge of toppling. She’d seen it, or someone else had seen it and told her, or the superintendency knew it and didn’t want anyone else to know it.
Perhaps these weren’t mere rumors, loose words skylarking through the city or, more darkly, circling overhead like vultures. Maybe people, maybe even the press, were having visions and hearing voices, like madmen or saints. But almost none of these stories were true. David Lees had photographed the David twice since November 4, once a few days after the flood and again ten days later. The statue had stood impassively, the languid cocked wrist slack on the hip, the sling over the back, the whole body gathering itself to push back the flood by merely looming, depthlessly beautiful, over it. In Lees’s first photograph there were only a few inches of water on the floor of the museum; in the second, a skin of tan dried mud.
In fact Procacci had arranged for a temporary reopening of Florence’s museums on December 2, a kind of Christmas gift, as he’d described it, a return to normalcy designed precisely to militate against despair or panic. That afternoon, the Cimabue Crocifisso, supine in the Santa Croce refectory for four full weeks, was moved to the Limonaia of the Palazzo Pitti. People had been visiting it and photographing all that time, as though it were undergoing an extended lying in state. Now, after the deposition on November 6, would come the entombment. Twenty people carried the cross out to a flatbed truck and strapped it down. The truck set off, never faster than fifteen miles per hour. It crossed the river at the Ponte San Niccolò, and in the Piazza Ferrucci a woman dropped to her knees before it and made the sign of the cross.
The truck had to climb the hill to the Piazzale Michelangelo, past the viewpoint where Barbara Minniti watched her Zio Nello’s library seem to sink into the Arno. Then it descended the serpentine slope to the Limonaia. The truck stopped on the road outside and the cross was raised up on grappling lines, almost silently. A meager rain fell. Procacci and Edo Masini, vested in their lab coats, sprayed the cross with Nystatin fungicide, sweeping up and down it like priests with censers. They took measurements: the Crocifisso was still waterlogged, with a humidity level in the wood of 147 percent (normal would be about 18 percent), enough to almost double the weight and add three inches to its length. Then it was hoisted through the doors and laid down just beyond the chief restorer’s office, glass-walled like a nurse’s station in an intensive-care unit.
The Limonaia was a hothouse, constructed in order to furnish oranges and lemons to the Medicis and the grand dukes of Tuscany. It was one of those Florentine building projects that was less an edifice than a gesture, a demonstration that the mighty possessed the wherewithal to conjure up and enjoy citrus fruit in the dead of winter. Now Baldini had had the heat turned up for several weeks and the orange trees were dying or dead. That didn’t bode well for the paintings, as it turned out. The whole notion of using the Limonaia was founded on its being potentially both a large, well-lit work space for the restorers and a kind of dehumidifying chamber for damp artwork. But even after improvements funded by CRIA, it was at once too hot and too moist, fostering excessively rapid drying on the one hand—fast enough to make panels crack and to harden Paraloid on their surfaces into an epoxylike varnish—and mold on the other.
Procacci’s goal had been to move in everything destined for the Limonaia before Christmas, and he and Baldini managed it by December 18. More funds were coming from CRIA: in New York they’d auctioned off Picasso’s Recumbent Woman Reading for $110,000 and the proceeds were on their way to Florence. In the New Year the real work of restoration could begin. Procacci and, more particularly, Baldini were still swamped, but soon they would be able to sit down and figure out how to proceed. The paintings, from the Cimabue to the obscure, unvisited Vasari Last Supper, were safe.
Mayor Bargellini was a devout Catholic, but he was not sure the Pope should come to Florence. The pontiff was a complicated figure for Italians, the beloved (or at least respected) head of their church but also the representative of an ancien régime that had crushed—often ruthlessly and cruelly—their aspirations to become a people and a nation. Even now, after Vatican II and the liberalizing pontificates of John XXIII and, now, Paul VI, the arrival of the Pope anywhere could have the quality of a state visit, the reception of a sovereign by a subjugated people.
So there would not be a Papal Visitation, but merely a visit by the Pope. He would look around, say a mass, and go home. But he would do it on Christmas Eve, bestowing an honor that normally belonged to Rome and St. Peter’s upon Florence and the Duomo. The Pope wouldn’t be deigning to honor Florence with his presence, but coming to pay tribute.
Christmas Eve was cold, almost bitterly so, but clear. Paul VI entered the city about nine o’clock, standing up in an open-topped black Mercedes. His first stop was at Santa Croce, where he was received by the mayor and the Franciscans of the basilica. He was then immediately to be driven to the archbishop’s palace, but instead he descended into the crowd, shaking hands, patting cheeks, offering blessings, and in at least one case, exchanging a bear hug and a kiss with a burly laborer from the quartiere.
In those days there was little concern about the Pope’s personal safety, but Bargellini didn’t want things to get out of hand, particularly not in Santa Croce with its pride, resentments, and political volatility. Perhaps the Pope’s instincts were surer than the mayor’s: the crowd in the piazza swelled, almost pulsed, and there were boys hanging off Dante’s statue at the heart of it all. It seemed they wanted the Pope, as much as they’d ever wanted bread, blankets, and shovels.
Finally they yielded him up, gave him back to the civic dignitaries and the Mercedes. At the Palazzo he and Bargellini exchanged gifts: a decorated copy of the Gospel of John for the Pope, a rare volume of Dante for the mayor. Then they moved to the Baptistry, where Paul VI put on his vestments and walked in procession to the Duomo, opened that night for the first time since the flood. At the end of the midnight mass, the Pope again departed from the agreed program. He asked to be brought the Gonfalone, the official city banner, the symbol of its independence, its emblem of defiance against outsiders, tyrants, and, yes, popes. Paul bestowed a papal medal upon it and then blessed it.
The Pope’s last stop was supposed to be San Frediano, Santa Croce’s Oltrarno twin in poverty. But after blessing the crowd there, he asked to be taken one more place. It was two o’clock in the morning and the Pope was due in Rome to say mass at St. Peter’s at ten. But he wanted, he said, to go to the Limonaia, to see la vittima più illustre, the flood’s “most illustrious victim,” the Cimabue Crocifisso.
Ugo Procacci was located and brought to the Limonaia. The Pope asked him how the art was faring—what its prognosis was. They might have been standing in a hospital, in a ward crowded with lepers and cripples. Then Paul kneeled before the Crocifisso and prayed. He prayed very softly and in Latin, but Procacci made out the words adoremus te, “we adore you,” the traditional prayer for Christmas, for the newborn Christ, offered to this broken Christ, this Christ not of the manger but of the tomb. He thought he saw the Pope weep.
Paul left Florence at about three in the morning, the coldest hour of the third shortest day of the year, fifty days after the flood. At dawn the city was sleeping. In an hour or so water would be boiled, scaldini stoked, Christmas dinners begun, bells rung, masses said. A little ice seemed to be forming on the margins of the river. The Pope was gone but the city was still blanketed with his presence, flocked and swaddled with his prayers and benedictions.
For all that, Florence would never be pious, at least not with the solemn, wizened-lipped piety of the morbidly devout. Of course Florence, being so lovely, was under God’s protection, even after the flood, which itself must have been a mistake. God would come to his senses. Maybe he’d even apologize. And as for the river, some vero fiorentino had hung a stocking filled with charcoal on the Ponte Vecchio with a card that read All’Arno che quest’anno è stato molto cattivo, “For the Arno, who this year was very naughty.”
When John Schofield was a boy in England, his father read him Vasari instead of bedtime stories. His father’s father was Walter Elmer Schofield, the American Impressionist, and his uncle was Peter Lanyon, a leading member of Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth’s St. Ives artists’ colony. Uncle Peter also knew Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, and Franz Kline in New York. John grew up believing that nothing—it went without saying; what else was there?—mattered more than art. In the manner of Vasari’s Renaissance artists, John took up both architecture and the fine arts, and it was while studying painting at the Slade in London that he met Susan Glasspool.
Susan had just decamped to Florence on a postgraduate painting scholarship at the Accademia when the flood struck, and John wrote to ask what there was that he might be able to do there. She wasn’t sure: the city was full of young people more or less like themselves, and they didn’t so much get jobs or perform formally set tasks as simply turn up—crop up, really, like mushrooms. But John needed to go to Florence as some young men had once needed to go to war against the Kaiser or Hitler. It took him until December to organize the money and the time off, and he arrived the night before New Year’s Eve.
Susan’s place was full, and Susan herself was just then falling in love with an Italian classmate. They’d met in the canteen at the Accademia, where the authorities gave out free meals to the mud angels. So John found a room in Fiesole and, two days later, a bunk in a dank hostel. The other angeli were noisy, carousing at all hours, drunk and obnoxious. It was hard to believe they were serious about anything, least of all art and beauty.
After two days of trying unsuccessfully to volunteer his services, a girl he’d met told him she’d heard that help was wanted on the other side of the river in the Limonaia. She was going and John crossed with her to the Oltrarno. On the nether side of the Palazzo Pitti, they ascended through a gate, two doors, a vestibule where a group of laborers were tearing into lunchtime bread and wine, and finally through a sort of airlock. They’d arrived in an office overlooking an enormous hall, sheathed in polyethylene, threaded with shiny new air ducts, illuminated by a white, sterile glare, the whole place echoing, faintly thrumming, vastly empty.
This was the Limonaia, remade with a tenth of a million of CRIA’s dollars, now sheltering some several hundreds of priceless—or, if you had to place a value on them, perhaps a hundred million dollars’ worth of—artworks. Descending, John felt alone with them, entombed with them in this isolation chamber; and there, just down the steps to his right, was Cimabue’s Crocifisso, a presence, almost a person, that it now seemed he had been brought here to meet.
In fact John was not alone, but merely blinded, disembodied, and aloft in a bubble of awe. The girl was talking to a man in an elegant suit—slight, wearing glasses, but formidable by virtue of a reserve of specialized knowledge of a very powerful kind. Maybe he was the attendant spirit, the magus, of the Cimabue, the keeper of the gate to its world.
He spoke no English, or deigned not to speak it. John and the girl came to understand that he was called Dottore Baldini, and that he might have something for John to do, and perhaps something for the girl—John noticed she was pretty—too. Baldini had lovely hands; he radiated autorità.
John was put on the mold detail. He couldn’t say what had been done with the girl. His supervisor would be another dottore—they were all dottori, although it seemed that Baldini was the archdoctor—named Puccio Speroni, younger and much more approachable than Baldini himself. Only Speroni was allowed to work on the painted surfaces of the artworks, but John would apply something called alchyl-dimethyl-benzyl-ammonia to the back of the panels. He’d be doing it alongside an art history graduate student from San Niccolò, Bruno Santi.
John wanted (as he’d wanted for the last three days, since he’d stepped off the train) to get to work and he kept at it until the night watchmen made him leave. He and Santi talked: Bruno told him that his father’s studio had been wiped out by the flood and there’d been no insurance; that he himself was still hoping to finish his study of Neri di Bicci, but maybe he wouldn’t be able to; maybe he’d have to go to work for his father, to extricate them all from the mess the flood had made of their lives.
For those first hours and into the next day, John was agape: here he was, in the Palazzo Pitti, rescuing art he’d read and dreamed about since he was a child, working in a state-of-the-art restoration facility under one of the most eminent art historians in Florence. But then, sometime into the third day, he felt doubt, a sense that not everything was as it should or could be. He’d been dutifully tending the panel paintings he’d been assigned, waiting for a crack at the Cimabue, and it seemed to him incongruous that in most cases the backs of them were still encrusted with damp mud, a perfect medium for culturing mold. Why bother to lavish attention keeping the front of each piece free from spores when you were, in effect, letting mold run riot at the back? Why install an elaborate dehumidification system when the artworks were still swathed in the muck that had made them damp in the first place?
The next day John was allowed to work on the Crocifisso, or rather under it. Although the Cimabue was the showpiece of the entire facility—Baldini had it positioned at the front so the press could get at it more easily—it too was sheathed with mud on the back, not to mention carpeted with black, blue, and pink mold. The problems were exacerbated by the cross’s steel wall mount, still fastened to the back of the panels, which prevented him and Bruno from applying their fungicides to large areas of its underside. John brought his concerns to Speroni, who he supposed reported them to Baldini, although Baldini made no mention of the matter. John took that as a kind of consent by default to proceed as he’d proposed: to get all the mud off the cross and then find a way to inject fungicide into the inaccessible spots.
From that day, John made himself at home under the cross, took shelter there in a clubhouse or camp where he was joined by Bruno Santi and sometimes even by Speroni, who was proving to be an extremely easygoing supervisor, more a contemporary than a boss. They drank tea and smoked to keep warm and devised plans to save the Crocifisso, even to restore it. Speroni said the work would likely be done by Gaetano Lo Vullo from the Laboratorio, since he was the best restorer Baldini had at his disposal. Regardless, no one from outside was going to get their hands on it. There’d been talk of filling in the lost sections with white and then perhaps sandwiching a sheet of Plexiglas over it with the original details stenciled on it. John suggested that this was worse than no solution at all.
John could be a little zealous, un inglese un po’ impertinente. But he worked as late as they’d let him, usually until eight in the evening. Sometimes he had the whole Limonaia to himself and he had the chance to look at the technical records and documents. The cross was indeed drying out, but in bursts, the humidity dropping precipitously over Christmas and then rebounding in the New Year. The treatments for mold had also been recorded, including those made by John.
The data were meant to indicate a kind of progress, proof that things were getting better; that the cross and its companions in the Limonaia were healing. But it didn’t seem that way to John. The mold came back every day, not just on the back, but on the paint on the front, the precious remnant of Cimabue’s brush that Baldini himself was supposed to be monitoring. The black mold in particular was almost impossible to eradicate: John brushed on his chemicals and twelve hours later it was back, invulnerable, mocking him.
Spending so much time around and under the cross, John knew it better than anyone; or he felt he did, felt its dampness, its swollen, twisted limbs, its leprous skin, the pain and shudders running through his own body. Now, after a week in the Limonaia, he saw the Crocifisso was cracking. Fissures were erupting upward through the wood. It was as though the Cimabue were shifting, flexing itself, imperceptibly flailing on its bed of scaffolding, tearing itself apart with the effort. And no one seemed to be noticing except him.
The cross, of course, received constant attention, but not the kind it really needed: reporters and photographers came almost every day, the office door flapping open with another gale of superheated air of exactly the kind that John believed was causing the damage. The week he’d noticed the cracks, an athletic-looking man—apparently English, but speaking Italian like a native—took pictures for two days. He was supposed to be from the most important magazine in America.
The day after the photographer left, Baldini came in to do his afternoon inspection, his rounds of the ward and its two hundred fifty patients. John steeled himself and approached the dottore. He spoke in stammering, childish Italian, explaining what he’d seen under the cross: the cracks, the mold he couldn’t treat because he couldn’t reach it. Baldini stood listening, unperturbed, steely in his faint amusement, not exactly imperious; or perhaps he was imperious, this being his empire.
John had an idea to get at the inaccessible mold behind the metal frame: he could buy a perfume atomizer from a farmacia, fill it with fungicide, and puff the vaporized chemical into the unreachable spots. Baldini told him to go ahead, and John pressed his luck a little further: he told Baldini about the cracking and proffered his theory to explain it. Every time the office door next to the cross opened, a blast of dry, hot air blew against it, defeating the steady, slow dehumidification process the cross was supposed be undergoing. What made matters worse, John pushed on, was that while the heating and dehumidification plant CRIA had provided was quite effective in the center of the room, the effects dissipated toward either end, at one of whose extremes the cross was now resting. John didn’t say it ought to be moved—his Anglo-Saxon impertinence wouldn’t go quite that far, not with Baldini—but the implication was clear. Baldini decided the two of them should hang a sheet of polyethylene between the office and the Cimabue to fend off the gusts from the opening of the door; and so they did, Baldini’s suit seeming miraculously to evade any spot or crease despite the effort.
That night, at dinner at Ottavio’s in the Via del Moro, John and Bruno talked politics. They agreed about everything, a consolation to John who a few hours before had despaired of being understood by anyone in Italy. All of them except Bruno, it seemed, were satisfied by half measures, a patch here, a dab there. For all their talk about their precious Cimabue, their tears and hand-wringing, John sometimes felt, under the cross, brushing, scraping, and spraying, that the weight of the whole thing rested on him.
John Schofield had a week left in Florence. Then his money and time would run out. The weather had turned bitter and ice was edging farther out into the river channel. Downriver, beyond Pisa and the delta, Shelley’s storming Tyrrhenian Sea was still pitching detritus from the flood up onto the beaches; trees, of course, but also the odd incongruous natura morta, still lifes: a shoe, a café chair, a demijohn filled with sand and red wine. Now too there was a final death toll: in the province of Tuscany, 121; in Florence, 33. There were also six people missing. In Florence, of course, no one believed any of this. It was worse: it had to have been worse.
Every day John came into the Limonaia and every day there was mold on the Crocifisso. It had been black mold for a while, but now the white mold was back. Maybe it was the weather; or maybe each mold preferred a different component of the cross—wood, gesso, pigments of one shade or another, a favorite color as anyone might have a favorite color. He was not optimistic about what would happen once he left, but he hoped his absence would only be temporary. CRIA was going to give Baldini grant money to hire people to do the work John had been doing: there would be no point in finding someone new and untrained when they already had him—he who’d spotted so many problems, who took such initiative. He’d spoken to Speroni several times about coming back, and he assumed he’d talked to Baldini; that they’d see what could be done and be in touch.
In that last week he and Bruno went to see some of the artworks John had always wanted to see in Florence, but until now had been too busy to visit. They went to Santa Maria Novella and Santa Croce, using Baldini’s name to get past the guards. In the refectory at Santa Croce, he saw some mold at the bottom of the Gaddi Cenacolo that must not have been noticed. He’d remember to tell Dottore Baldini about that.
John looked at the place where the Crocifisso had hung, the sawn-off, rusting stumps of the iron that had supported it. He supposed they’d bring the cross back when they’d done whatever it was they decided on: leave it a ruin, fill in the lacunae with white or black, cover it with plastic, or even paint in the missing bits. Regardless, he imagined a lot of people would come to see it someday.
For all Baldini’s asperity, hauteur, and rumored womanizing—John had heard reports from female angeli—the dottore arranged some special favors for John and Bruno that final week. The day before John was due to leave, Baldini gave them the key to a room in a far wing of the Pitti where Donatello’s Maddalena was now being stored. The room was pitch-dark and unheated, and the Maddalena lay on her back in a far corner, a thread of light across her body from a crack in a shutter.
John and Bruno switched on the single overhead bulb and made their way toward her. Whoever was minding the sculpture (assuming anyone was) had put a swath of white paper underneath to catch the flakes of gesso, polychrome, and splinters falling off her. It looked—the light was too poor to be sure—as if they’d gotten most of the oil off. From the waist down, she was swaddled in rice paper. Her thighs were cracked, cleaved in two places as though by a hatchet.
He knew he shouldn’t, but John touched her. She was cold, colder than the room, cold as ice or damp stone. He put his hand over her hand. Her hands, unlike her face, were young; her fingers delicate, longer than his. There was a crevice where her collarbone met her neck and John put his fingers into it. That was colder still, the hollow where the sheath of her flesh met her old bones. Her eyes were blank and staring. She’d been ready for the flood: it hadn’t fazed her. She’d drowned long before.
The next day Speroni let them put Nystatin directly onto the front—previously off-limits to nonprofessionals—of the Crocifisso. There was mold along the edges that no one had treated since they’d brought it here in December. Bending down close to work, John could see Cimabue’s brushwork through the veil of the rice paper, the green-gold edge he and his assistant—Vasari had said it was Giotto, hadn’t he?—had laid down around the body of Christ. Then he checked the back again: there was, of course, mold, as there was every day. He wondered who would take care of it after he left. He wondered if he was being derelict in leaving Florence. He couldn’t imagine anyone else would bother.
His train left that night. At eight he’d met Bruno one last time on the Ponte Vecchio, and they’d walked to the station. John had done his bit for Florence. People in his family had even died for art’s sake. His uncle Peter had taken up flying gliders, and the sensation of flight—silent, as though borne on his own wings—poured into his canvases until it seemed he surely needed to fly in order to paint. One day he crashed badly on the coast of Cornwall and died of his injuries, broken like the fellow in the myth.
Baldini never did get in touch with John about coming back. He had hundreds of artworks to tend, and Florence was full of young people who wanted to save one or another of them. But on January 17, the day after the boy had left, Baldini rechecked the data on the Cimabue. It seemed things were turning around: the humidity had dropped 7 percent since they’d last measured. The cross was finally drying, evenly and steadily. Why, just now, no one could say. But soon they could begin.
By the end of January, Procacci and Baldini had sixty restorers working for them together with an incalculable number of angeli. Forty of the restorers were Italian, six British, and between two and four each from the United States, Germany, Scandinavia, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Russia.
The British dominated the salvage effort at the Biblioteca Nazionale, but Joe Nkrumah, the Ghanian—perhaps the only Ghanian in Florence—was often the most visible and ubiquitous figure. At the railway boilerhouse, Nkrumah was supervising three binders and eight apprentices plus forty-two general workers and double that number of angeli. Even now, five truckloads of books arrived each day, and it seemed there would always be an infinite supply: Casamassima figured there were 1.3 million items to deal with, not to mention 8 million cards from the catalog, without which the Biblioteca was no longer a library but a chaos, a black hole of damp paper.
There was, for the moment, sufficient money: the British Art and Archives Rescue Fund had raised £115,000 to date, primarily through Zeffirelli’s Per Firenze. But with the books, the issue was never just money, nor was it precisely labor. Book conservation, which up to now had consisted of a handful of artisan bookbinders in England and a few other places, was being more or less invented on the fly in the boilerhouse and at the Biblioteca by Waters, Cains, Clarkson, and Nkrumah. That in itself was a challenge, but the greater challenge had the features of a conundrum you might encounter in higher mathematics or physics: given a nearly infinite quantity of books—of pages and words—and a finite number of conservators, space, and time, would there ever be an end point, a time when the job would be done, or even a point of equilibrium, where input and output would be in balance?
Waters and his colleagues were at most forty years old, Nkrumah twenty-five. He’d begun his working life at the age of six in Accra, rising at three A.M. to go down to the beach to unload the fishing boats, afterward peddling newspapers in the street, and then selling yams for his mother. Between times, he’d go to the British colonial school. Work, he knew, was endless—that was life—but a single task was not; not until now, not until this one. He’d guessed it would go on for years, maybe a decade. The angeli—scarcely more than teenagers, for whom a short hitch like John Schofield’s was a long time—couldn’t even conceive of it.
The Florentines were used to thinking in centuries. Time passed very quickly, or seemed not to move at all, in the manner of trains rolling off from a station in opposite directions, the future stalemated by the past in a tug-of-war. It could make you take the longer view or render you shortsighted. In March Eugene Power, who’d made a fortune with University Microfilms in Ann Arbor, Michigan, offered to microfilm every single book in the Biblioteca Nazionale—the ultimate insurance policy against future disaster—gratis, for art’s sake. Casamassima, who had been so receptive to the British book restorers, turned him down. There were mysteries in Florence that surpassed both reason and art.
On February 24 there was, however, some clarification of the role of the dams on November 3 and 4. Four ENEL employees were indicted for falsifying records, but ENEL itself continued to maintain that the dams had played no role in the flood. This was conceivable. The engineers and watchmen said they’d altered the logbooks to make sure nothing could be misinterpreted, not because they’d done anything that required covering up. It was a matter of appearances, of adjusting the ratio of shadow to light, of managing the chiaroscuro. Anyone could understand it and would have done the same.
The Crocifisso of Cimabue was continuing to dry and shrink, and the mold had abated since January, almost miraculously. But the rice paper velinatura covering the painted surface had been applied when the cross was still soaked, and now the paint—adhering to the rice paper—was in danger of distorting or peeling away from the gesso and canvas underneath it as the dimensions of the cross shifted.
The cross was at war with itself, the wooden body wrenching and pulling away from its painted skin. From one point of view, it seemed imperative to save the painted image, with or without the wood underneath it, to amputate the afflicted part that was endangering the picture. Thinking aesthetically, in the mode of Berenson, Forster’s “viewy young men,” or many museum curators, the Crocifisso consisted essentially of its painted surface—or not even its physical surface but an essentially disembodied phenomenon, an impression received and reconstituted in the mind of the viewer. Yet the Crocifisso was assuredly physical, both a painting and a sculpture, a painting of Christ placed on a sculptural cross. On the raised tilted wedge that contained the head and halo of Christ, the painting erupted from its two dimensions to become three-dimensional, not quite panel or crucifix. Cimabue’s creation was no simple canvas to be hung on a wall, but a large and heavy complex of different materials and media. As a restoration problem, it was formidable.
Florence had been dealing with the conservation of its own artworks for centuries and restorers had at one time taken extraordinary liberties with the pieces under their care, not just cleaning them but brushing on concoctions to brighten them up or, alternatively, to add “patina.” They’d repainted both missing and even perfectly intact sections with an eye to “improving” them. Now such interventions seemed an outrage to the integrity of both the artist and the artwork, which surely deserved to survive in its authentic form, the one intended by its original creators and audience.
With that in mind, restauro had become a good deal more sensitive, perhaps at times to a fault. Under this newer approach the aim was not only to conserve the artwork but to keep it as close as possible to a hypothetical “mint” condition: its state as it left the studio, exactly as the artist intended, unaffected by subsequent change or mishap over time, save the natural accretion of patina. That meant, in many cases, not simply maintaining it, but undoing the work of earlier restorers: removing misguided “improvements” and any kind of overpainting that attempted to replace or replicate lost or damaged paint.
In some paintings, however, where larger areas—whole faces and bodies—had been lost and repainted, the removal of such accretions resulted in there not being much left to look at, a loss not just of detail but of recognizable figures and even subject matter. At the end of the process, you undoubtedly had an “authentic” remnant of the work, but not the work itself, whose original appearance had been lost to whatever mishaps and inevitabilities time had imposed upon it. This was perhaps good archeological practice—displaying the bones and broken pottery exactly as they’d been found at the excavation site—but what did it have to do with art, with seeing the beauty and transcendent value in these works that were supposed to make them worth looking at in the first place?
In fact the rationale for most of the art of Cimabue’s and Giotto’s time had not been aesthetic but liturgical, didactic, or devotional. The accretions in such work might have nothing to do with “improvement” but rather with allowing it to continue to serve the function for which it had been made. A crucifix or Madonna was, in the mind of Cimabue, Duccio, or Giotto, above all an aid to prayer and worship. Restauro in the name of aesthetics could conflict not only with historical truth but also with religious faith.
Procacci’s counterpart in Rome, Cesare Brandi of the Istituto Centrale per il Restauro, was perhaps the first person to attempt a theory—a set of first principles—that might govern a more sensitive restauro, and in particular the problem of the “gap,” lacunae or heavily damaged spots in an artwork in which part of the image had been lost. The gap both was and was not a part of the work: in one sense, it was a deficiency, a loss, but in another sense it became part of the artwork in the way that a scar does a body, a piece of its history if not of its original essence. To fill a gap was to falsify that history, but to leave it untreated was to falsify the work’s soul, the artist’s intent, the life of its meaning.
Brandi’s solution was a kind of neutral inpainting, designed neither to hide nor to highlight the gap, called tratteggio, “hatching,” the infilling of gaps with lines or cross-hatching in neutral tones based on the color of the intact surrounding painted surface. From a distance, the eye would fill what was missing, but close up the gaps would still be subtly but clearly gaps. The integrity of both art and history would be respected.
Not everyone was persuaded. Florence versus Rome was a perennial rivalry going back to Dante, and it would prove to be so in the field of art restoration. Ugo Procacci saw Brandi’s point, but he thought the logic of tratteggio did a little surreptitious inpainting of its own. You couldn’t simply dodge the whole engine of history or fudge the fact that Brandi’s modern restorer, the “neutral” tratteggiatore, would always and necessarily impose his own personal, time-bound preferences—his brushstrokes—on the artwork. Brandi and Procacci had disagreements about both the theory and practice of restauro. But provided neither encroached on the other’s realm—and if Italy contained half the significant art in the West and Florence contained half of that, there was plenty for both of them—they could coexist by ignoring one another.
Unlike Casamassima of the Biblioteca, where the British had been given much of the authority over the restoration work, Procacci and Baldini had complete charge of the rescued art. Americans like Frederick Hartt knew the history of Florence’s art as well as anyone, but no one at CRIA could claim to possess similar expertise—never mind experience—in restoration. Hartt, it went without saying, both liked and trusted Procacci, and felt he had been to Hell and back to save his city’s heritage, two times over. Hartt’s fellow board members had no reason to doubt him, although for all of them Baldini remained an unknown quantity. But CRIA would adopt a mostly hands-off approach beyond insisting on an adequate accounting of the funds it was dispersing.
That bookkeeping included knowing which art its money was being spent on. There was an “adoption list” of artworks on which CRIA funds could be spent, and obviously not every piece in Florence could be on it. Aesthetic judgments unavoidably got jumbled up with financial ones, as they had since the days of BB: the larger the number of famous or prestigious works CRIA could claim to be rescuing, the more funds it could raise from the public. In theory this should have meant that the money raised by promoting the masterpieces CRIA was saving would underwrite their less celebrated artistic kin, but in practice it seemed only to increase the pressure to find and repair more masterpieces. People wanted their money spent on something important, on the work of certifiable geniuses.
CRIA’s adoption list therefore had to be periodically trimmed of lesser, inessential, or unappealing art. The first deletions were made in April 1967, four months after the flood. Among the artworks that failed to make the cut was a “tavola, c. 1546, loc. Santa Croce: L’Ultima Cena di Giorgio Vasari.”
On May 15, 1967, Nick Kraczyna finally got his show. It was hung at the Casa di Dante, a block off the Piazza del Duomo, the physical and symbolic heart of Florence. The night of the flood—the night he’d gone to bed at three in the morning, imagining that the roar of the Arno was no more than a strong wind—he’d been working on a Pietà of Icarus, and that too was in the show. So were the rag paper drawings the printer had found crushed against his ceiling.
Among those was Nick’s Requiem in D Minor for Icarus. He’d made the drawing using an extremely fine nib to produce hairlines and a maze of cross-hatching—tratteggio in a different mode than Brandi’s—more etched than drawn. The effect was of something woven, a fabric with a whorl of bodies and limbs at the center. It might have been an image of the flood—junk and flotsam, eddies and spouts, death and consolation—prior to the flood, in the mode of Leonardo’s deluge drawings. But at the center of it, in the lap of the Madonna, there was rest: requiem, requiescat in pace; the promise that this was not the annihilation of death but mere sleep. Except for the fact it was drawn a year beforehand, you might have imagined this was Nick’s commentary on the flood and the spring that was just now following it.
Amy and Nick’s baby daughter, Anna—who had been with them, in utero, on the trembling Ponte Santa Trinità that day of November 4—had been born just before the opening. Now they were moving house, from their cold-water aerie near Santo Spirito to a stone house up the hill beyond the Porta Romana, a long way from the Arno. They’d have to furnish it, and for a moment the memory returned of the flotilla of antiques they might have netted coursing down their street on November 4. But they’d found two nice leather sofas. Of course, like so many things in Florence, they needed a little help, some restoration. But Joe Nkrumah conjured up something in his lab, and, once it was applied, like everything he touched, the sofas were practically good as new.
Between January and May 1967, David Lees had been back three times, first to the Limonaia—Procacci and Baldini’s “Painting Hospital,” as the editors in New York were going to call it—in January, again in February, and finally in May to shoot an additional feature on the restoration’s progress to date. After he’d finished at the Limonaia, he went to the Palazzo Davanzati, where Donatello’s Maddalena had been moved from its storeroom in the Pitti.
David found her laid on her back, tended by a sculptor named Pellegrino Banella. He was clad in a white coat, working under a spotlight, looking through a pair of microscope lenses with a tiny awl in his hand, bent over the Maddalena’s head in the manner of a dentist. Her face, set in its haggard rictus, seemed to be imploring the sculptor to stop; her left arm was raised, those long fingers John Schofield had compared to his own about to seize Banella’s wrist.
Banella’s work on the Maddalena would prove to be a situation in which the restauro would not only bring an artwork back to its preflood condition but perhaps even much closer to the way it looked when it left Donatello’s studio. For as long as anyone could remember—certainly before Ruskin if not Vasari—the Maddalena had been considered a monochrome sculpture, the wood ranging in color from dark umber to ebony to black. But that assumption was washed away in the course of Banella’s meticulous deep cleaning. The Maddalena was, in fact, a polychrome, scarcely gaudy, but undeniably tinted in a range of terra-cotta and flesh tones. The dirt and residues of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century restorers’ chemical concoctions had dissolved to reveal Donatello’s Maddalena rather than history’s. She was still penitent but also redeemed. Life had been restored to her flesh as well as her soul.
When she was finally put on exhibition three years later, the Maddalena would be a triumph for both the Superintendency and for CRIA. And as things stood now, in May 1967, you might have imagined it would be one of many. CRIA’s efforts were yielding both attention and cash; its chairman, Bates Lowry, curated a special exhibition, “The Italian Heritage,” while Jackie Kennedy’s favorite designer, Valentino, staged a benefit fashion show, and when they were done CRIA had raised $1.75 million to date. Such success redounded not only to the restoration work in Florence, but to CRIA’s board. At the end of the year Lowry was named a curator of the Museum of Modern Art and six months later was appointed its director, the most visible museum post in New York.
The progress thus far had been splendid, and if you doubted it, there were David Lees’s photos of white-coated restorers at work in the Limonaia in their “Painting Hospital.” But while the Limonaia looked impressive, photographs could not capture all the details, nor record the gradual deterioration in its operations over the last few months. During the summer of 1967 CRIA’s board received a confidential report that confirmed everything John Schofield had sensed earlier in the year about the Limonaia, and much worse.
To begin, the building was filthy and infested with crawling and flying insects. And while a technically advanced dehumidification plant had been installed the previous December, there was neither heat nor, with Florence’s customary infernal summer weather coming on, air-conditioning. The artworks were suffering, but, through the winter and cool spring, so were the staff. Colds and respiratory infections had become almost epidemic, and aside from the man-hours lost to sick days, people didn’t want to come in for fear of catching or aggravating something, not to mention plain dislike of the chill.
If they did come in, there was no guarantee they’d be paid. CRIA had been sending money for their wages, but the money wasn’t getting disbursed: April’s paychecks hadn’t been issued until May 20. The pay was scarcely lavish to begin with: 700 lire (a little over $1) per hour for the laborers and the angeli who’d been hired on and up to 1,100 lire (about $1.75) per hour for trained restorers. As a final insult to almost half of the staff, foreigners were paid 200 lire less per hour than their Italian counterparts. Volunteers and restorers from abroad were expected to be not only angeli but martyrs.
Bad morale of such magnitude might have prompted a mutiny but for the fact there was rarely any senior personage present against whom to revolt. Speroni, whose easygoing manner John Schofield had found congenial, was nominally in charge, but pretended in effect not to be: when asked to make a decision or issue instructions, he demurred, saying he really knew nothing about restoration or art outside his own ambit. But there was no one else to go to: one much esteemed and experienced restorer had been told that he could not approach Baldini (whose visits were increasingly infrequent and brief) directly, but only through an intermediary. The impertinente Schofield hadn’t realized quite how cheeky he really was.
The report laid the blame entirely on what it acidly called “the troika” of Baldini and his two chief restorers at the Laboratorio, Masini and Lo Vullo. There were further absurdities—one pair of tweezers and one lamp to be shared by three restorers—but one grave and overarching problem: art wasn’t being saved or even being protected from further degradation. Staff were either sick, slacking off, or quitting, and no replacements would be hired who were not considered reliable and loyal by the troika. In any case, the word was out: the Limonaia was a dirty, cold, thankless place to work and no sane restorer in Florence would now willingly take a job there.
It might be imagined that Baldini, directly or through Procacci, would be told that this state of affairs was unacceptable and be made more accountable. But Baldini was a moving target, always one step ahead: the Limonaia, to be sure, was a disaster, but Baldini was already converting buildings at the Fortezza da Basso, the huge fortress near the railway station, using funds under his rather than CRIA’s control. He’d shortly pack up the Limonaia and move the entire operation there, miles from the prying eyes of CRIA’s office at the Pitti.
Throughout the autumn letters came from New York insisting that Baldini make the nature of what he called his “consulting” for CRIA clearer; detail his “moonlighting” on who-knew-what; list his hours more precisely; and generally make the full scope of his activities known. Again and again New York implored Florence to get Baldini under control through the intercession of Procacci, but Procacci couldn’t or wouldn’t do this. He and Baldini were, if not joined at the hip, comrades in arms in the rescue of Florence’s art: that summer of 1967, National Geographic printed a fanciful, corny reimagining in pastel of the two of them salvaging paintings in the Uffizi as the rising waters swirled around them. They were a heroic and, now, iconic duo.
Not everyone was so impressed or malleable. Leonetto Tintori, perhaps the most eminent restorer in Florence, let it be known that if Baldini wasn’t reined in, he’d stop cooperating with him and the Superintendency. But by the end of the year, Procacci, far from restraining Baldini, named him director of the new and largely independent Laboratorio at the Fortezza, with authority over most of the restoration in Florence, now even freer from anyone’s interference, including Procacci’s.
Procacci himself seemed to be losing his touch. His unselfconsciously fervent love of art and Florence—an almost Franciscan compassion—that had earned and sustained his staff’s loyalty and respect was wearing away. At a meeting held on the first anniversary of the flood to thank and salute the various angeli, workers, and restorers for their labor, Procacci failed to so much as mention the entire sculpture and polychrome team based at the Palazzo Davanzati. If it wasn’t a snub—and conditions at Davanzati were at least as spartan as at the Limonaia—it was an extraordinary omission that was also utterly out of character. Who, of course, knew what the flood had really done to Procacci, especially in those first few days when he’d been so fragile, had seemed to be coming apart; who could say what it was still doing to him? On a normal day, before the flood, he bore the daily responsibility for what many people would say was the ark of Western civilization. And then there had been the flood to deal with. Maybe if you were humane enough to want to do the first job, you were insufficiently hardened to do the second. But somehow Procacci had found the strength—perhaps he found it in Baldini, for all of people’s complaints—even if he’d lost a little of his instinct for weeping or saying thank you. Maybe that gap couldn’t be restored.
By June 1968 the humidity inside the Cimabue Crocifisso was down to 25 percent after almost a year and a half in the Limonaia. It had shrunk an inch across the foot of the cross. It was time to move it to the Fortezza, time to get down to business, or at least to begin to think about it.
At the Fortezza a room had been prepared in which the ambient humidity would be maintained at the same level as in the Limonaia, albeit at a higher temperature. But within three months of the move, the cross had shrunk a further half inch, faster than the wood could withstand without cracking. The paint too was moving. With its canvas and gesso ground still adhering to the wood at some points but not at others, the paint, although still attached to its protective covering of rice paper, was being pushed and pulled in every direction: breaking apart, crumpling, flaking, overlapping, or thrusting upward like arctic ice under compression.
No one had planned on that. Baldini had assumed that the Crocifisso would be allowed to rest until, like a hospital patient, its vital signs became stable; that a gradual drying process over several years with the painted surface held in stasis by the rice paper would end with the cross ready for whatever restoration had been decided upon. But this was an emergency, and the worst option—separating the paint from the cross—seemed to be the only option. The work, performed by a restorer named Vittorio Granchi, began in October 1968.
Although the painted surface of the Cimabue and its ground of gesso were laid down on canvas rather than painted directly on the wood, it was no simple matter to detach the canvas and slip it free from the cross. The canvas was, for one thing, not a single piece of fabric but a jigsaw of irregular parts, the result both of Cimabue’s original construction and of splits and seams that had occurred over time, through previous damage, or from the previous interventions of restorers. In places, the floodwater had already dissolved the original animal glue; in others, Granchi could use a syringe to inject a neutral solvent between the canvas and the wood; and in some he simply had to pry the two apart with the thinnest of spatulas. It was nerve-wracking work.
But it was done in a month. No more difficult operation would be attempted on the Crocifisso than this trasporto, or separation, although Granchi was not much remembered when everything was finished. Credit, like heat, humidity, and glory of all kinds, tended upward. Dante, Vasari, even Icarus, could have told him so.
Now, what precisely were they going to do? There’d been talk around Florence—at least among the restorers—about what Baldini would decide. The practical and theoretical challenges were considerable, and perhaps given the Cimabue’s status as la vittima più illustre, there ought to be some sort of larger discussion among the experts—not just from Tuscany, but from the rest of Italy, even from the outside world—or perhaps a civic commission. But that was not the way the fate of artworks was decided, not in Florence. A fiat would be laid down by someone secretly or, alternatively, maybe in the manner of a force of nature, like the Arno or a Medici. A joke went around that the Superintendency should turn what was left of the Cimabue over to a certain restorer in the Via delle Belle Donne, whose studio rather blurred the line between restauro and forgery. The artisan in question was good—a master. Let him have it for six months. Then Procacci could pull the curtain off. The cross would look as good as it had on November 3, 1966, maybe a little better. Procacci could say that after careful consideration the Superintendency had determined that in fact the Cimabue wasn’t really so badly damaged after all. That would be the genuine, the classic Florentine solution.
Baldini doubtless had a plan, but he wasn’t saying what it was. At this point he had a bare wooden cross that still hadn’t completely dried out and that would need considerable repair when it finally did. And he had a detached canvas, or rather one large piece of canvas—the bulk of Christ’s head, torso, and legs—and a number of smaller pieces ranging from near scraps to larger sections of the two arms. Edo Masini, his second in command, was working on the canvas’s cleaning and consolidation, and Baldini himself might have been said to be consolidating the Fortezza; or, from CRIA’s point of view, his own position.
Baldini was also enlarging his staff and recruiting and training new talent. One was a pretty, recently married twenty-five-year-old named Ornella Casazza. She’d been a graduate student in art history and, like so many of her fellows, worked as a mud angel. She was smart and willing, she could manipulate tools and brushes with skill, and she had the theoretical grounding to write scholarly papers. Ornella bore watching. Baldini put her to work directly with Masini.
Unlike some of their predecessors at the Limonaia, Ornella and the cohort she was part of were being paid regularly, if still scarcely handsomely. The staff of the Fortezza were officially employed by the government, but when they worked on “adopted” pieces, their hours (plus what one New York official referred to as the “ so-called overtime hours of Baldini”) were billed to CRIA along with more nebulous “administrative costs.” The latter made up about a quarter of the amount invoiced, with Baldini’s personal share representing about half of that. At various times during 1968 and 1969, in addition to paying the bills for work on its “adopted” art, CRIA effectively paid the entire payroll of the Fortezza when the authorities in Rome were disinclined to meet it.
CRIA kept the Fortezza afloat for six months. The fact that Baldini was presiding over an enterprise that some people might describe as technically bankrupt seemed to have no effect on his continuing ascent nor his amalgamation of other offices and institutions: within another year, he was not only running the Fortezza but had been appointed the director of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence’s other principal restoration laboratory, which specialized in sculpture, mosaic, and decorative objects. It was a final benefice from Ugo Procacci, who retired from the Superintendency that year.
Later in 1969 Ornella Casazza had been joined by another young restorer-in-training, Paola Bracco, and together they assisted Masini in performing a trasporto on Allesandro Allori’s Deposition from Santa Croce. The Deposition, hung a few yards away from the Cimabue Crocifisso, had been severely damaged, and only detaching the pigment from its support could save it. Unlike the Cimabue, most of the paint on the Deposition was intact: the group of angeli and young restorers that had included Marco Grassi had secured it with rice paper and Paraloid at the same time as they had Vasari’s Last Supper. Like the Vasari, the Allori Deposition was painted directly onto wood, and as the swollen panels expanded and then began to contract back to their original size in the Limonaia, the paint underwent a microscopic but wrenching set of stresses. Now dry, the surface of the Allori was ridged and channeled, the pigments and their underlying gesso alternately bunched up and pulled apart like tiny parallel mountain ranges.
To be restored, the irregularities of the distorted surface would have to be flattened out, pressed back to their original dimensions, and only then cleaned and restored. But the painting’s surface and its underlying wood panels were no longer the same size. (In fact, the dehumidification and drying process at the Limonaia often shrank the wood to dimensions smaller than its original ones.) The only way to save the paint was to sever it from the panel beneath it, placing the Deposition facedown and scraping and gouging away all the wood, right down to the gesso. The freed surface, almost tissue-thin, was now smoothed out and reattached to a new backing, in the case of the Deposition, a single piece of canvas that was then retouched by Casazza and Bracco.
By 1972 Baldini had enough pieces of restored artwork from the flood to merit a show. He conceived it as a public demonstration of his progress so far, a celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the foundation of the Laboratorio, and a grand parting salute to the Laboratorio’s founder, Ugo Procacci. Baldini decided to house the exhibition inside the Fortezza: his laboratory would be, in a sense, the star of the show. “Firenze Restaura” opened on March 18, 1972, and was a triumph for Baldini, a deserved one. The entire enterprise had brought out the best in him: not just his energy and organizational skills, but a considerable knack for curating and structuring an exhibition. You entered through a series of rooms that laid out the history of restoration in Florence and of the Laboratorio and its beginnings as Procacci’s Gabinetto dei Restauri at the Uffizi, then continued past a succession of works rescued from the flood, including the Maddalena and the Allori Deposition, and finished in a chamber holding the naked wooden spine and crossbeam of the Cimabue Crocifisso.
“Firenze Restaura” also revealed another aspect of Baldini’s creativity. His theoretical and technical papers on restoration were inert and stuffy, but in the catalog for the exhibition—he wrote most of its 150 pages—he was a sensitive, even moving, writer. His descriptive entry for the Cimabue was a near meditation on art, spirit, and redemption. He imagined the Crocifisso at the moment when the painter began his work—“we see it as Cimabue first did”—but also as it was transfigured by the flood: “a leafless tree,” “an enormous wooden machine,” “the devastated body of Christ himself, denuded and wracked.” Baldini’s essay was a reverie in the manner of Ruskin. For all his empire-building, evasions, and pride, here was something Baldini seemed to love.
As for the Cimabue’s restoration, there would be no half measures: “Nothing, absolutely nothing more will be lost of this extraordinary first page of Italian art,” he wrote, paraphrasing Vasari. Nor would it become a “reconstruction,” which would be no more than “a copy.” Previous conceptions of restoration would be bypassed and surpassed by a new “mental reconstructive synthesis” that would take enormous quantities of labor and thought. But if they were successful, their work would cause “the sparse leaves” to bloom again on the reunified flesh of this wooden Christ.
Baldini was not promising the Crocifisso would be returned to its original condition. What, in any case, would “original” mean? Its condition the day Cimabue finished it; or just before midnight on November 3; or as it looked, dimly glazed with centuries of patina, when Vasari had it taken down from above the high altar of Santa Croce? Baldini wasn’t going to falsify history with a replica of the cross at some reconstructed moment in its past, nor would he falsify aesthetics with an artwork that manipulated rather than moved the spectator. With the surviving remnant of the Cimabue—less than a third of the original painted surface—Baldini aimed to extract its essential artistic beauty and historical truth; if not a masterpiece, then something very much to be reckoned with.
When the show closed on June 4 the bare cross went back to its laboratory. It would be almost three more years until Baldini decided it was dry enough to proceed. In the meanwhile, there were other things to do—hundreds of artworks that needed attention—and it was perhaps then Baldini and Ornella Casazza began to notice each other, not that Baldini, with his fine eye, had not yet noticed Ornella. They were not unhappy people, but they had large aspirations and impulses to go with them.
They would not run out of art to occupy them, not now or ever. The Fortezza was crammed with potentially intriguing projects as well as works that were of less interest. The Last Supper of Vasari had been hauled over when the Laboratorio vacated the Limonaia, but was taking up valuable space at the Fortezza. That same summer of 1972 it was moved to a Superintendency storage room and then, twenty years later, another one. For three decades, no one would give it a thought.
On May 21 that year, Pentecost Sunday, a Hungarian armed with a hammer leaped over an altar rail in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and attacked Michelangelo’s Pietà. He battered Mary’s face and shouted that he was Jesus. Afterward a good proportion of public opinion decried the vandalism, but others, recalling the “No more masterpieces” graffiti painted on canvases at the Louvre during the événements of 1968, interpreted it as an act of aesthetic radicalism, a protest against the twin repressive apparatuses of Christianity and cultural elitism.
David Lees was sent to photograph the damage. It was his last assignment for Life. He and Life went back twenty-five years, and there was nothing personal intended in the end of their relationship: Life had simply gone out of business. There was no longer a market for a weekly picture magazine that depended on static images—photography—and text set in type, not when you could have moving, real-time electronic images with sound. Life, too, was an artifact of the pre-1968 world that had to undergo demolition.
His talents, however, remained in demand. He still got assignments from other Time-Life publications as well as freelance work. He also had a new assistant, Lorenzo, one of his twin sons. In the manner of his own father, Gordon Craig, David was estranged from the other son, and for a long while he and Lorenzo hadn’t been close either. They hadn’t lived together for as long as Lorenzo could remember. Before he was born, before she married David, Lorenzo’s mother had been a widow. As it turned out, Lorenzo might have thought, she’d become a widow twice over.
But when Lorenzo was sixteen, in glorious, ignominious 1968, his father persuaded him to come to a shoot. David was working in Rome at the church of San Andrea della Valle, at night, as was his wont, so that he and his setups wouldn’t be disturbed. That evening Lorenzo discovered photography, and he seemed to have also discovered something about churches, and about faith.
He continued to work with his father, and David taught him photography, not just about the technical things, but about what went on in the photographer’s mind and eye. “Every picture begins here,” David would say, tapping his head. “And then you wait for it to happen, because it always willhappen.” It was like hunting, or like prayer. You held yourself still and waited for the thing—the thing as it truly was—to appear.
After Life ended David and Lorenzo worked together, mostly out of Milan, doing architectural and industrial photography. And then, in 1978, Lorenzo got his own chance to shoot for Time-Life: Pope Paul VI had died and Lorenzo photographed the funeral for Time. David had covered Paul for so long that the Pope always recognized him instantly, calling out, “How is my English Florentine friend?” Now Lorenzo would take the final pictures of that assignment.
At some point he and David talked about David’s absence while Lorenzo and his brother were growing up; the life—the greater part of the boys’ entire life—he didn’t share with them. But what would David have been able to do, having had the father he’d had, the genius Gordon Craig, himself the son of prima donna genius Ellen Terry? All David could tell Lorenzo was that, really, he loved Lorenzo more than his mistress, more than any of his women. He had always tried, if not quite enough: being so much under the influence of others—Craig, the art, and all the rest—he had done as he could.
As of 1972 Joe Nkrumah had been working among the damaged books of Florence for six years. He’d traveled elsewhere in his work as a now eminent conservationist, but he always came back here. Tony Cains had stayed until just last year. There was still a mountain of books to rescue—it was better not to think about how many—but they’d had some memorable experiences, heroic, moving, and absurd. In 1968, a year and a half after the flood, he, Tony, and Nick Kraczyna had gone up to Germany to buy a used Volkswagen, which they totaled on the way home. Joe finished up on crutches. But it was an adventure. It was fun. Why this should have been the case would escape any normal, sane person, anyone who hadn’t spent the last eighteen months as a mucker and navvy of books and art in Florence. It was a story with an end, a punch line, unlike the flood.
Still, things were being wound up. CRIA was closing its office, and while it would remain in business a little longer, it was looking farther afield for projects; in Venice, for example, which was in its way flooded in perpetuity, sinking into the Adriatic. The angeli, of course, were long gone: they’d left by the end of 1967, perhaps to go to Paris or another zone where 1968 was being played out. There were still students coming to Florence from abroad, but they’d come to study art or art history, as they’d been coming for 150 years. Nick was teaching them in American overseas college programs.
He was still painting, drawing, and—more and more—etching Icarus. But the Pietàs were gone. Now he was preoccupied with Vietnam, another of those things that moldered without end. He’d traded one tragedy for another, but he imagined this one as a chess game, death and power hopping from one square to another in Machiavellian gambits. Icarus was still the central figure, though this time the victim of other people’s heedless wishful thinking.
Then, in March 1978, the Red Brigades kidnapped and murdered Aldo Moro, leaving his corpse in the trunk of a Fiat in Via Fani in Rome, in what came to seem the final, shabby butt-end of the 1968 événements. For a long time afterward Nick worked on a series called Labyrinth of Via Fani.Everyone—Icarus, the Madonnas, the angeli—was trapped inside the labyrinth with everyone else, holding one another prisoner. There was no way out, no end, infinite leaves of infinite books.
In 1973 Joe finally had to go for good. The CRIA grant that had kept him, Tony Cains, and the others at the Biblioteca had run out. Perhaps it was time anyway, time to go back to Ghana and do something with art there. He’d miss Nick and Amy’s daughter, Anna, who’d been born the spring after the flood. She’d miss him too. Now six, she liked to look at him, even to touch him, and he’d laugh. She’d say, “You’re so black,” as if this was the most marvelous thing she’d ever seen, as if his lovely color was the deepest image, the labyrinth she could lose herself in.
Here is where we begin, Umberto Baldini might have thought. By the beginning of 1975 the cross was as dry as it had been before the flood, nine years before. In February it was sent to the Fortezza carpentry shop and when it emerged six months later in most respects it looked no different than when it arrived. That had been the intention. But inside, the cross was now very much the “machine” Baldini had alluded to in “Firenze Restaura”: it had been taken apart and reduced to its smallest components, in places down to nails and slivers. Cracks and fissures were filled with new but well-seasoned poplar from the same Casentine Forests that had supplied Cimabue’s timbers seven hundred years earlier.
Inside the flesh of the wood, there was now a matrix of Inox screws, resin plugs, and composite materials. To hold the crossbeam and the upright together, stainless-steel rods were threaded through the members and then every trace of their insertion removed. All these additions or alterations had been designed to disappear inside the original remnant of the cross but also to be removable. If another team of restorers needed to overhaul the Crocifisso in two hundred years, they could remove practically every trace of Baldini’s restoration and start from scratch.
By the autumn the cross and its painted surface had been reunited. In most ways the Crocifisso looked the same as the day it had been brought to the Limonaia in December 1966 save that the cleaning of the canvas had made the gaps even more glaringly visible.
As an intervention, tratteggio—hatching applied with a fine brush—would be the obvious approach and the surest bet. But no one had ever dealt with gaps like those in the Cimabue, some of them in excess of four feet long. You couldn’t fill them with one color or even several: what had originally been in the gaps was full of varying brushwork, shading, and built-up or compounded hues. Moreover, to the eye of a spectator any sizable gap not only interrupted the visual field of an artwork but dominated it, becoming what the eye most noticed, reducing the extant parts of the original to background. Filling the gap with one or another selected hue from elsewhere in the painting would only change the color of the gap.
Baldini’s idea was to infill with something that would allow the eye to keep moving in its search to apprehend the object before it; filling the gaps with something neutral that it could scan right by and through without interruption. In small, monochromatic patches, tratteggio accomplished exactly that: unless the viewer examines the infilled gap closely—in effect, scans the gap at its own level—the eye passes right over it. But a tratteggio of, say, one by three feet done in one or another selected color could scarcely disappear into the remainder of the painting.
The solution was to rely on another habit of the human eye called “the contrast of succession.” Shown one color, the eye demands its complementary color: red followed by green, yellow by violet, blue by orange. If the complementary color isn’t present, the eye—or rather the brain of the viewer—will supply it. It’s this ability that allows the eye to fabricate the “true” color from a printed image or television picture made of dots or pixels in only three primary colors.
It was not Baldini but Ornella Casazza, Edo Masini’s prize student (and by now, it was said, Baldini’s lover), who discovered how to put this principle to work on the Cimabue. Casazza realized that you could measure the relative quantities of colors in the Crocifisso, then fill the gaps with “pixels” in the same proportions, and the eye would average out the hues that ought to be in the gaps from the surviving image surrounding them. And it would create not just the color that should be in the gap but also—from the colors extant on either side of the gap—its correct gradations as it scanned by.
Instead of dots, however, Casazza would use overlapping tratteggio brushstrokes in three colors—yellow, red, and green—plus black. She’d also angle her brushstrokes to correspond with the flow of the adjacent surviving image—the curve of Christ’s head or the angle of a limb—to give the eye’s scan a boost in the right direction. Taken all together, this “chromatic abstraction” would fill the gaps with both color and a kind of guided movement.
Casazza and her regular partner Paola Bracco began work in the autumn of 1975. The aim was to finish by November 1976, the tenth anniversary of the flood. Now employed full-time by the combined Laboratorio and Opificio, the restorers were obligated to work only six hours a day, but often put in twelve. They had to cover nearly fifty square feet of gaps four times over (one application for each color plus black) with quarter-inch brushstrokes.
You could have called the gaps that needed to be filled injuries, insults, and wounds to the figure of Christ except for the fact that they were more akin to decapitation, dismemberment, or flaying. The forehead and right side of the face were destroyed. So too was the center of the torso, the breastbone and heart down to the navel; and so too the left-hand side of the rib cage, upward to the armpit. Below the waist there was still less: the left hip and the belly, the genitals, both of the upper thighs, the lower left thigh and knee, most of the right knee and upper calf, the left ankle and instep, and instep and toes of the right—all annihilated. The left arm was broken into three segments at the bicep and the upper forearm. The palms of both hands were destroyed precisely in the places where Christ’s real wounds ought to have been.
All that would be covered in chromatic abstraction—in what from a distance would look like a loosely woven mat of green-gold flesh—and perhaps abstraction was precisely the right word. Because when on the tenth anniversary of the flood the Crocifisso was returned to Santa Croce, you could not say it had been restored in the sense that something that had once been part of it and lost had now been put back; nor could you say that the wounds had been closed or healed. Rather, they’d become like the phantom limbs of an amputee: they were, for all their self-evident absence, still there, still palpable to the eye even as the eye registered the space they’d once occupied and moved on. In sum, what was once concretely present and then concretely absent in the Crocifisso was now present again, but as an abstract presence. You couldn’t put your finger or eye on it, but your mind grasped its reality, the specter of what had been lost.
December 14, 1976, was a Wednesday night in Advent, all chill expectation, and it was the last time they would gather in this particular constellation, the living and the dead, the restorers and restored; at the foot of the Borgo Allegri, in the once-upon-a-time shadow of Cimabue’s studio; Bargellini in his library a block away, worrying his books and his prayers; Ruskin’s ghost sprawled in ecstasy on the paving stones of the Peruzzi Chapel; and Francis, Francis and his brothers, watching over them all, looking down with Christ from the tattered heaven of the Crocifisso.
The same truck piloted by the same driver who’d brought the Crocifisso from Santa Croce to the Limonaia ten years and a week ago drove it back today from the Fortezza. Then he and a work crew hung it in the sanctuary of the church for the first time since Vasari’s day. Art, it often seemed, was the province of geniuses and scholars, but as had been true ten years ago, it was just as much about laboring men: haulers, hod carriers, and carpenters—all heavy lifters, good at plodding and grunt work, the people the Casa del Popolo was supposed to shelter. They carried that carpenter’s cross this night, hefted it and bore it up.
The organist played Bach, and the restorers sat in the half-light of the cold church flanked by Michelangelo, Galileo, and Machiavelli. Then a film was shown, a documentary that recorded the work of the last decade: Procacci at the Limonaia, misting the cross with fungicide; Baldini pacing the Laboratorio, willing it back to life; Casazza in a lab coat and pearls, hand suspended over a gap with brush cradled in her long Maddalena fingers.
At the end the organist played more Bach, the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, and perhaps it was the wrong choice. Virtuosic and darkly majestic, even bombastic, it was a magnificent end to an evening celebrating an accomplishment for which, however fine, magnificent was not quite the right word. The Crocifisso, after all, was ultimately meant to be an emblem of humility, of God brought low on account of his love for humans, lodged in the church of the humble Francis. It had been shunted into the refectory by Vasari and into art historical oblivion by Berenson and his ilk. Then it was drowned, muddied, stripped, and bloated by the Arno, humbled still more. Now it had been pieced back together, its skin grafted with hatching, and for a few days it would get to preside over its old home before returning to the refectory. It was not made for glory.
Baldini was proud of what they’d accomplished. Of the completed Crocifisso he wrote:
In spite of irretrievable losses, it is now once again recognizable in that indescribable beauty which—now, more than ever, owing to an interpretation deeper than any before—justifies its position as the absolute masterpiece of Italian painting.
That judgment was one not even Ruskin would have rendered. Until 1966 art historians had not much mentioned the Crocifisso at all, except as a milepost on the way to greater things. Now Baldini seemed to be according it the status of, say, Duccio’s Rucellai Madonna.
Perhaps he meant that it now was the masterpiece of Italian painting. In the same passage he’d said the restoration “produced a genuinely new painting.” Maybe he meant this new painting was in some way a greater painting than the preflood Crocifisso. It was a short step to assuming that, on account of the “interpretation deeper than any before” they’d formulated, the authors of this new masterpiece were Baldini and Casazza.
The Cimabue was an important painting, its restoration one of the major projects in the history of restauro, and Baldini himself was a large target. He was, like Procacci, respected, but he was not revered. For all his insistence on his own work’s rigor and even scientific basis, restauroremained a personal and therefore subjective business: the final and unanswerable criterion in evaluating someone’s work was to ask how someone else—most probably yourself—would have done it.
By the end of 1976 and into 1977, there had been not a few comments from highly placed restorers and art historians suggesting that the job indeed could have been done differently, which was to say better; which was to say, more implicitly but no less clearly for that, that Baldini had botched it. Paolo and Laura Mora—Baldini and Casazza’s counterparts at the Istituto Centrale per il Restauro in Rome—felt that chromatic abstraction did rather the opposite of what it claimed; that in its desire to avoid falsification of the artwork it drew attention to itself, especially with the coarse hatching of its tratteggio, which a less decorous person might have described as chicken scratchings. The prominent Florentine restorer Dino Dini was blunt: “They can do it if they want to,” he allowed. “I don’t care for it.”
Those amounted to disagreements, even quibbles, over technique. Others would raise the question of whether restauro of this kind should be carried out at all. Chief among them was Alessandro Conti, a young art historian at the University of Bologna who was building a considerable reputation as a historian of restauro itself. He intended, in the tradition of the Casa del Popolo, to foment civic discourse and published a screed in the Florence evening paper.
Contrary to the mood expressed in the public events held the previous November, Conti said the return of the Crocifisso to Santa Croce was not a triumph but a tragedy. A treasured piece of Florence’s heritage had indeed been injured by nature in 1966, but the Laboratorio had destroyed and defiled it. An “inattentive” Superintendency (which, in fact, had no jurisdiction over the restoration) had allowed “a rash restorer to jeopardize the very physical essence of a work of art, indeed to make such a mess of it that there’s scarcely anything left to see.”
Baldini and Casazza had defenders, and powerful and influential ones at that. In the journal Critica d’Arte Procacci’s eminent old colleague Carlo Ragghianti pointedly wrote, “I have to say . . . that the skepticism and nay-saying in this matter are entirely unfounded and prejudiced, based on ignorance or a deficiency of knowledge of the historical and cultural conditions of artistic endeavor.”
Baldini himself didn’t respond to his critics, indeed scarcely seemed to be conscious of their existence. Florentine restauro had never taken much interest in the world beyond the city walls, and wasn’t going to begin now. And if the world wanted to know what Baldini thought, he obliged them the following year in his theoretical masterwork, Teoria del Restauro e Unità di Metodologia (“Theory of Restoration and Methodological Unity”). The first rule, Baldini’s existential imperative, was “The intervention should happen!” without “alibi[s]” founded on theoretical dithering or cowardice in the face of practical obstacles.
And with that, he continued on his way, and so did Casazza. Her and Baldini’s respective divorces came through, and to cap that year of 1978, they were at last married. Together, they continued to make interventions happen, and at a very high level. For a long time Baldini had had his eye on the Brancacci Chapel and its Masaccios at the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine in the Oltrarno. Vasari had called its frescoes la scuola del mondo, “the art school of the world,” the essential foundation that every great Renaissance artist had studied and learned from.
For perhaps the first time in his career, Baldini met resistance, and from a formidable opponent: the Istituto Centrale per il Restauro in Rome. With both Cesare Brandi and Procacci retired, the longstanding mutual nonaggression pact between Florence and Rome was null. The Brancacci was, after the Sistine Chapel, the biggest prize in Italian restauro, and the Istituto wanted to claim it. It pressed its case with the national government, citing its putative jurisdiction over any and all churches in the country as well as its unrivaled expertise with fresco. But the Istituto hadn’t reckoned with Umberto Baldini. Not satisfied with simply snatching back the Brancacci from the Roman carpetbaggers, he seized control of the Istituto and got himself appointed its director.
On leaving in 1982 for his new post in Rome, Baldini put Casazza in charge of the Brancacci. She and Paola Bracco had just completed another high-profile restoration, the Primavera of Botticelli, and her qualifications for another important project seemed unquestionable. But Casazza had never, in fact, worked on fresco. Alessandro Conti, who’d decried their restoration of the Cimabue Crocifisso, issued a public plea not to let them touch the Brancacci. But the project went forward as Baldini intended, with Casazza in charge.
The Crocifisso, meanwhile, had scarcely been forgotten. Baldini sent it on a world tour, underwritten by the Olivetti Corporation, first to the Metropolitan in New York and the Louvre in Paris in late 1982, and then to the Royal Academy in London and the Prado in Madrid the following spring. When the cross came back to Florence, he persuaded Olivetti to underwrite the restoration of the Brancacci too. In that year, 1984, you might have commissioned a vast mural to commemorate a great man at the height of his powers, The Apotheosis of Umberto Baldini, which lacked only a Giorgio Vasari to paint it.
Casazza, however, seemed to some observers a little weary. She was in fact doing an extremely credible job at the Brancacci. But when visitors or journalists came by, wanting a look at the most important restoration project in Italy, she was curiously dispassionate, flatly reciting the theory of chromatic abstraction by rote. Asked if she was excited, she’d say she didn’t get emotionally involved in her restorations. There was always, she said, another one waiting.
Casazza was perhaps tired, but, at age forty-four, she was scarcely old. Baldini, on the other hand, being an employee of the state and age sixty-five, was compelled to retire in 1987. The Brancacci still wasn’t finished, but he was no longer in charge. He didn’t like it. Ugo Procacci seemed amused at how his protégé had ended up: “This is what happens to a historian when he retires. He loses all his influence. It happened to me. And now it has happened to Baldini.”
The Brancacci restauro was completed at the end of February 1991. Ugo Procacci had died a week earlier. Baldini remembered the last time he’d seen him, perhaps a year before. They’d talked as two old men, retirees, about the past. Procacci was, as ever, “a limpid, transparent man”—there was nothing hidden, least of all his passion for art—and of course as they talked, as they untwined the past together, he cried.
A few months later Frederick Hartt passed away in America. He’d died an eminent man, his textbook on the Renaissance still the standard work in its field. In retirement he’d turned his expertise to connoisseurship and paid authentication, and had a final, unintended Berensonian moment: learning he’d taken a commission on the sale of a Michelangelo sculpture he’d also authenticated, a London newspaper branded him an unscrupulous art hustler in the mode of BB. Hartt sued and was awarded a token settlement. But the judge opined that Hartt had acted “dishonorably” if not illegally in a technical sense.
It was perhaps the only stain on a career that was in every other respect remarkable for its idealism and unselfishness. And perhaps this one blemish was only the acquisition late in life of a kind of birthmark, a baptism as a vero fiorentino in the waters of the Arno where art and money mingled so promiscuously. His memorial service was held in San Miniato, overlooking the city, and his body was brought from America and buried nearby.
Nearly seven hundred years after he’d painted his last panel, Cimabue, or at least his reputation, knew no rest. He’d had his Maestà reattributed to Duccio nearly a century ago, and now, in 1997, another art historian was saying that not only was Cimabue not Duccio’s teacher but that he hadn’t even influenced him. It was the other way around: Cimabue had seen Duccio’s work and incorporated it into his own style, including, presumably, the Crocifisso. The following year another art historian, Luciano Bellosi, published a huge monograph designed to rehabilitate Cimabue’s reputation and put his work back in its Vasarian position as the “first page of Italian art.” But Bellosi felt the need to pause to regret the unfortunate tampering with the Crocifisso by means of “so-called chromatic abstraction”: even those charged with saving Cimabue’s masterpiece could not be trusted to treat him respectfully. Another standard text cited the Crocifisso as an egregious example of a restauro “dominating the original work of art” which “cannot be accepted.”
Nor was nature done with Cimabue. Thirty-one years after the flood, on September 26, 1997, an earthquake struck Assisi. Inside St. Francis’s basilica, plaster and the frescoes painted on it rained down. Among the works demolished was Cimabue’s Saint Matthew, part of the cycle that had convinced Ruskin that “before Cimabue, no beautiful rendering of human form was possible”; that he was the master “even more intense, capable of higher things than Giotto . . .”
Cimabue’s greatest gift, Ruskin had thought, was his compassion, and perhaps compassion, conpassione, must always be accompanied by passione, “submission to suffering.” That was what Francis had meant all along; that love consists of coexisting with the pain borne by others. Maybe Cimabue had known exactly what to expect, exactly what he had bargained for.
One hundred and twenty thousand pieces of Cimabue’s fresco were found in the wreckage of the basilica at Assisi. The job of sifting and sorting them was given to the Istituto Centrale per il Restauro. In 2006 the fresco was reinstalled on the ceiling of the basilica using 25 percent of the original painted fragments, with the lacunae infilled with a “neutral” hue based on the color range of the surrounding painting.
Baldini and Casazza might have shrugged, and perhaps that explained Casazza’s apparent indifference or resignation when she was working at the Brancacci: there would always be another artwork that needed restoring, so it was foolish to get too excited about or attached to any one project. Beauty, like truth, was supposed to be timeless, but the fact was that beauty was always falling apart or decaying. It needed constant shoring up, and the labor could make you weary. Beauty was, al fondo, in the final analysis, very like human flesh and bone. In Florence, where they’d made so much of it, there was that much more of it to break or injure. Left alone, without restauro, it would all eventually disappear. Really, art was always dying, beauty forever decaying. “I had not known death had undone so many,” Dante marveled.
Ugo Procacci and Frederick Hartt believed that saving art was worth crawling through rubble under sniper fire. Thousands of angeli fought the mud and the mold under the same conviction, and for a while it seemed that almost the entire world joined them, as though culture, true to its linguistic root, really was the soil of our humanity. But if Adolf Hitler had donned his sunglasses and spent his ten days incognito in Florence among the masterpieces, might anything really have been different? Is the world a different, better place because the Cimabue Crocifisso survived the flood of 1966, however altered?
But the art in an artwork might not be located precisely where you thought it was. Perhaps it was just as much in the damage and decay as it was in the intact original. Perhaps it was in the gaps—in contemplating and tending those insults and injuries—that we find ourselves, by compassion; by bandaging, however imperfectly, those wounds. Art may be a species of faith, the assurance of things hoped for. It contains nothing so much as our wish that we persist.