On November 4th, 1966, the city of Florence faced one of the worst floods recorded since the Renaissance. After days of severe and heavy rainfall, the Arno River flooded and submerged the Tuscan streets.
The river overflowed its banks and floodwaters swept through the streets and into the Florentine shops, homes, churches, and museums. The river crested that day around noon. “There were about 225,000 gallons (852,000 liters) of water entering Florence every second with no place to go except into the city,” according to Dark Water: Flood and Redemption in the City of Masterpieces by Robert Clark. By that evening, the water levels had started to decrease; however, the devastation left behind was widespread. In addition to dozens of people losing their lives, a reported 20,000 people were left homeless and 10,000 cars were wrecked. Residents were without electricity, drinking water and phone service, and the streets were destroyed by the water and muck.
This city, known for its unparalled art, history, and beauty, had been ravaged by the flood. Water and mud had poured into Florence’s museums and ancient churches, destroying irreplaceable paintings, sculptures, murals, manuscripts and other precious artifacts in the very places they were housed. The mixture of the flood waters and the ruptured heating tanks in buildings around the city caused the fuel oil to spew into the water, creating a thick muddy mess. More than 1 million volumes were waterlogged, as were numerous important records at the Biblioteca Nazionale, a public library founded in the 18th century and the state archives.
Floodwaters knocked off panels from the Florence Baptistery’s “Gates of Paradise” – the 2,721 kilogram, 5-meter-tall gilt bronze doors designed by sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti in the 15th century and considered a Renaissance masterpiece. At the Basilica di Santa Croce (a church and burial site of Michelangelo and Galileo, among others), a large wooden crucifix created in the 13th century by the master Italian artist Cimabue lost the majority of its original paint in the flood. Afterward, the ravaged artwork became a symbol of the toll the deluge took on Florence’s cultural heritage.
Upon learning about the flood, volunteers from across Italy and around the world arrived to help the city and rescue the rare books, artifacts, and art. The faithful group of volunteers we’re called “the Mud Angels.” These were young adults with no special training and were not organized, nor had they been recruited. They simply showed up. Young Europeans dropped what they were doing and boarded trains or drove south. Many had already been on the road, backpacking around Europe, and rearranged their plans to spend time to help in Tuscany. Study abroad students, specifically students from Florida State University, were a celebrated group of American volunteers who helped save many precious works of art and offered aid to the city.
The global efforts reached Hollywood as Franco Zeffirelli, the famous director and Florence native was working on a movie adaptation of “Taming of the Shrew” (starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton) in Rome at the time of the flood. He quickly returned to his hometown to make a documentary about the catastrophe. The film went on to reportedly earn $20 million in aid for the devastated city. Additionally, a group of American historians and other intellectuals started the Committee to Rescue Italian Art (CRIA) in order to raise funds to restore the damaged artwork and cultural artifacts. Jacqueline Kennedy served as honorary president of the group, which was part of an international relief effort.
The flood sparked significant change in the field of art preservation and helped develope new restoration techniques and standards in the years that followed. In the U.S., many national organizations subsequently were formed to help protect museums, historic sites, libraries and other cultural institutions in natural disasters and other emergencies.
Years ago, Interi founder and creative director, Jean O’Reilly Barlow began to take interest and buy fragments found from the Florence flood out of her own fascination. She purchased them from a colleague who bought them from a wealthy Florentine man. At the time of the flood, he and his helpers took notice of the church artifacts floating through the streets and began to gather and collect as many gilded antiquities as they could. He had a place up the hill that they filled with all of the fragments. This magazzino remained completely closed for about thirty years. About 15 years ago, they allowed only a few select antique dealers and restorers in. Within a matter of five or six years, this man’s collection had entirely depleted, and no one was able to purchase any more.
After purchasing the pieces, Barlow had an idea to preserve and transform the artifacts into sculptural art. Once works of art that adorned churches throughout Florence, these fragments had been significantly distressed from the mud and water. There is still the original paint and silt left on the pieces to uphold the integrity, craftsmanship, and history of sculptural fragments. The collection is proof that there is more beauty to uncover – bringing forth a new era and context of “modern mud angels.”
“Usually, a fragment has gone past restoration but, because of its age and intricate carvings, it is still a work of art. I became interested in the fragments when I saw more than the discarded artifact, but a piece that could be made beautiful again,” says Barlow.
Each piece has been reimagined with fossil agate coral, shells, calcite crystals, tourmaline, and other rare minerals from all around the world – creating a piece that looks as though it evolved together over time. Through contemporary interpretations and artistic methods, the fragments have been given new life, just like the other masterpieces saved from the flood.
“While many of our fragment artifacts are distressed due to age, these Florence fragments stand apart. They symbolize a history that has been carried through the streets of Italy, to the storehouse, then my studio, and now to the galleries and the modern home,” says Barlow.
Each one has been recreated and reveals a new interpretation. What was submerged and stripped of its color and meaning still retains its history and beauty. What was weathered and worn is now reimagined and reborn. What was lost is now found.
Pictured left: Jean and Interi’s PR and Marketing Director, Grace Barlow at Interi’s Florence Fragment Exhibition at the at the Corridoio Fiorentino gallery of Italian international university, Florence University of the Arts in Florence, Italy this past summer.
Stay updated with Interi and where we will be exhibiting the collection next with new pieces. And click the link below to view the collection on the online store.
Florence, Santa Croce in. “Santa Croce and the Flood of 1966 – A Fearful Chronicle.” The Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, 23 Mar. 2016, https://santacroceinflorence.wordpress.com/2013/11/04/santa-croce-and-the-flood-of-1966-a-fearful-chronicle/.
Flores, Lourdes. “Remembering the Flood of 1966.” Visit Florence News, 3 Nov. 2016, https://www.visitflorence.com/blog/remembering-flood-1966/.
Nix, Elizabeth. “The Disaster That Deluged Florence’s Cultural Treasures.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 3 Nov. 2016, https://www.history.com/news/the-disaster-that-deluged-florences-cultural-treasures.
Richard Jobs | Published in History Today Volume 67 Issue 8 August 2017. “Florence’s Mud Angels.” History Today, https://www.historytoday.com/history-matters/florence%E2%80%99s-mud-angels.