Witnesses of the Watery Siege

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For most Florentines, Thursday the 3rd of November 1966 was supposed to be a bridge of everydayness linking the preceding two feast days, All Saints and All Souls, to the next holiday, Armed Forces Day on the 4th of November. It had been pouring rain for weeks. Anyone going for a late evening stroll along the Arno on the 3rd would have seen the river rising visibly. By 11 p.m., 103 phone calls reporting flooded cellars had been made to the fire brigade. A short time later, the warning of approaching danger reached a few, select people. Some, but not all, goldsmiths whose shops were on the Ponte Vecchio zeroed in from various points to hurriedly stash as many of their jewels as possible into suitcases and carry them to safety. Meanwhile, the majority of Florence’s 450,000 inhabitants slept.

By 7 a.m. on Friday the 4th of November anyone who’d managed to get hold of the early morning edition of La Nazione would have known that Florence was threatened by a flood wave. “DRAMMATICA SITUAZIONE IN CITTÀ ALLE 6 DI STAMANI. L’Arno straripa a Firenze,” “The Arno bursts its banks in Florence,” screamed the frontpage headlines. But no one reading those words, nor the journalists who wrote them, could have anticipated the scale of the catastrophe.

An hour before the paper appeared, at 6 a.m., Piazza Gavinana in the eastern part of the city was already flooded up to the height of three metres. Outside the Uffizi, the Arno was roaring along barely half a metre under the Lungarno parapet. There was virtually no motor traffic at that hour; a handful of people were waiting at tram stops – for trams that would never arrive. In S.Croce the Franciscans had just commenced mass. Water was starting to creep into the square, and it was rising, though Piazza S.Croce seemed to contain it like a wild animal in a corral – for the moment. The frightened friars bolted the church doors. That barricade would hold for three hours, until the force of the water tore them open.

At dawn, Amedeo, manager of a hotel near the Ponte Vecchio, was getting out of bed when a friend hammered on his door, bellowing that Amedeo had to go down and move his car to higher ground because the streets were filling up with water. Amedeo begged to be allowed to shave. Fortunately his friend’s insistent bellowing and hammering succeeded in convincing him of the seriousness of the situation. The two sped off in his car to Porta Romana to buy fresh food (as Amedeo did every day) for the hotel, which during that week was full to capacity with guests. They managed to buy the food, but they did not manage to drive back to the hotel. The water had by then risen to such a height that all the roads were impraticable. That night Amedeo and his friend camped out with a relative who lived near Porta Romana; the hotel guests enjoyed a candle-light dinner of hard-boiled eggs.

By 7:30 a.m. every bridge was under water and impassable. Florence was cut in two. Four minutes earlier, at 7:26, the electricity had failed. Most houses were already without heat, and soon they’d be without running water and telephone as well. Amedeo’s guests, like most other visitors to Florence, had to evacuate the hotel on the following day, because without running water the sanitary conditions were appalling, and without electricity the elevators would not work.

Richard, an American scholar, was staying in a hotel on the via Renai. When he looked out of his window early on the morning of the 4th he saw that the Arno, just a stone’s throw away, was very full, although it had not yet erupted over the banks. When he looked down into the street he saw that the hotel was nevertheless standing in a lake, an inundation caused by water coming out of the sewers (dating back to granducal times), which had burst open from the water pressure.

On the other side of the Arno, Suzy, an American art historian who rented a room in a flat in via Alfani, went out for breakfast around 10 a.m. Via Alfani was wet from the rain but nothing else. People were out in the street, behaving normally. When she arrived at via Cavour, Suzy looked to the left and saw that there was water swirling around on the street in front of Palazzo Medici. She sensed something unusual was happening but didn’t connect it with the river. By that time the flood had already thrust open the doors of S.Croce; in Piazza Ghiberti only the tops of the parked cars were visible; and the historic centre was being engulfed by a liquid abomination, the waters slimy “like a witch’s oils” as they mixed with the heating fuel gushing out of nearly every cellar. But Suzy would not hear about this for several hours. Nor would anyone else. The radio news broadcasts focused on commemorating Armed Forces Day. When they did mention Florence, it was at the very end, with a statement to the effect that there was water in some of the streets. That afternoon Suzy watched boats plying up and down via Alfani.

Marco, a student at the University of Florence, read the headlines in the morning edition of La Nazione at home, near Piazza Donatello. He looked out of the window. It was raining, but he couldn’t see any water rising in the street. Around 9 a.m. he decided to walk down to the Arno and take a look for himself. Along the ring-road, through Piazza Beccaria, the closer he got to the river the more surreal was the sight confronting him. The Arno had come up to the parapet of the Lungarno but it hadn’t yet overflowed into the street. Huge waves were rising and dipping, making it look more like a tempestuous sea than a river. Marco continued into Piazza Piave. He looked to the right, down river towards the centre. A terrifying spectacle met his eyes. The infuriated Arno had crashed through the lower-lying parapet along the Piazza Cavalleggeri and was shooting over the embankment like a cataract. Straight into the Biblioteca Nazionale.

In the outskirts of town, Fortunato, a carpenter who lived at the foot of the hill of Settignano, was completely unaware of any abnormal situation in Florence. Not until the afternoon did he begin to suspect that something was seriously wrong. Opening the door of his nearby workshop, he was hit by several cubic metres of water. Like the Arno, also the torrents pouring down the hills of Fiesole and Settignano had broken their banks.

But not everyone lost out in the flood. One shopkeeper restored his counter-top and discovered several bank notes of a very high denomination that had been squirrelled away by an unscrupulous assistant. Some institutions found themselves with twice the number of frescoes they had had before the flood, because when the restorers detached the frescoes from the wall, they exposed the original underdrawing, or sinopia, no less fascinating than the finished work. And finally, about 70 prisoners were able to make a clean get-away on the 4th of November. A few of them, to judge by the litter they left behind, were even able to celebrate en route, emptying whole bottles of liquor and gobbling up countless chocolate bars.

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This page last updated: October 28, 2006.