In Florence, Italy more than one million books, periodicals and journals were damaged on November 4, 1966 at 6.50am, as the Arno spilled mud and debris into the miles of stacks in piazza dei Cavalleggeri.1
600,000 tons of mud, rubble and sewage severely damaged or destroyed numerous collections of books, manuscripts and fine art. Between 3 and 4 million books and manuscripts were damaged, as well as 14,000 movable works of art.
Churches, museums and libraries, filled with works of art, were inundated with mud, to a depth in some places of 22ft.2 Young people, arriving from across the Continent, immediately began showing up to help. They became known to the Florentines as gli angeli del fango, ‘the Mud Angels’. 3
The tragedy of 1966 led to the development of one of the most impressive book restoration centres in the world. Over 33,000 volumes in the precious Magliabechi Collection have been restored (more than 52,000 were affected by the flood), as well as 6,000 (9,500 affected) in the Palatine Collection and 12,000 miscellaneous items (42,000 affected). 4
The completion of the Last Supper project marked the closing chapter of the Great Flood saga. With much fanfare, the painting was returned from the Opificio delle Pietre Dure to Santa Croce for dedication on November 4, the very day of the tragic event fifty years prior. There was no shortage of other commemorations in the city, but the Vasari was firmly at center stage, described as a "masterpiece" and its restoration as a "miracle."5
Sheila Waters. Waters Rising: Letters from Florence; Peter Waters and Book Conservation at the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze after the 1966 Flood. Introduction by Randy Silverman. Ann Arbor: The Legacy Press, 2016.
Jobs, Richerd (2017). “Florence’s Mud Angels.” History Today (Aug.8). Some of the institutions affected:
Archivio di Opera del Duomo: 6,000 volumes of documents and 55 illuminated manuscripts were damaged.
Biblioteca del Gabinetto Vieusseux: All 250,000 volumes were damaged, including titles of romantic literature and Risorgimento history; submerged in water, they became swollen and distorted. Pages, separated from their text blocks, were found pressed upon the walls and ceiling of the building.
Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale Firenze: Located alongside the Arno, the National Library was cut off from the rest of the city by the flood. 1,300,000 items (a third of their holdings) were damaged, including prints, maps, posters, newspapers and a majority of works in the Palatine and Magliabechi collections.
Archivio di Stato: Roughly 40% of the collection was damaged, including property and financial records; birth, marriage and death records; judicial and administrative documents; and police records, among others.
Library and Archive of the Italian Unification: 7,000 volumes were inundated.
Special Issue of The Book Collector Spring 1967. "Mario M. Witt, "The Flood of 4 November, 1966;" Nicolai Rubenstein, "Return to Florence, January, 1967;"Howard M.Nixon,"British Aid for Florence;" Dennis E. Rhodes, "The Libraries of Florence."