On This Day: Devastating Florence floods kill 101 and ruin millions of works of art

Overwhelming torrents of water gushed through the narrow streets after nearby dams were opened amid fears their walls would rupture and cause an even greater calamity

NOVEMBER 4, 1966: Millions of art masterpieces and rare books were destroyed by devastating floods in the historic Italian city of Florence on this day in 1966.

A total of 101 people also died after heavy rain burst the Arno River’s banks and sent 600,000 tons of mud, rubble and sewage into the birthplace of the Renaissance.

Overwhelming torrents of water gushed through the narrow streets after nearby dams were opened amid fears their walls would rupture and cause an even greater calamity.

The resulting destruction – exacerbated by bridges sending streams into Florence - left around 5,000 families homeless and forced 6,000 shops out of business.

Among the 14,000 art masterpieces destroyed were Crucifix by Giovanni Cimabue, Gates of Paradise by Lorenzo Ghiberti and Magdalene Penitent by Donatello.

Around four million books and manuscripts were also damaged in a host of archives, such as those at Florence’s stunning 13th century cathedral, the Duomo.

A British Pathé newsreel reveals the horrifying scale of the destruction, which including the smashed facade of the world-renowned Ponte Vecchio.

It also filmed students helping to salvage some of the 1.3million rare books – a third of its collection – that had been damaged.

Muddy pages, ripped from the volumes by the force of the floods, were found sticking to the walls and ceiling of the building.

Business owners and families were also seen washing the mud from their property while others have aid delivered to them by helicopter.

Experts from around the world came to Florence to help recover much of the art – a job that is still ongoing today – while others raised millions for the salvage effort.

The floods remain the worst to ever hit in the city, which began flourishing as a centre of culture under the Medici family’s rule, which began in the 14th century.

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Their patronage of the arts triggered an era of enlightenment called the Renaissance - meaning “rebirth” in French - following a renewed interest in the classical era.

As a result, Florence has the greatest single concentration of important art while the rest of Italy holds 60% of the world’s masterpieces, according to UNESCO.

Yet, despite the world’s focus on the devastation of these treasures in 1966, citizens of the famous city also had to contend with the sheer terror of the floods.

“The only thing you could do was watch and be helpless,” artist Marco Sassone revealed soon afterwards.

“ Nature was master... the women became crazy with fear. They began throwing things from the windows and screaming: ‘Who is going to save my children?’”

Heavy rains had threatened a catastrophe the day before when engineers at the Levane and La Penna dams in Valdarno reported an “exceptional quantity of water”.

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By the evening 70,000 gallons of liquid per second were cascading over the walls of the two structures.

And, by 4am on November 4, workers – fearing the damns would burst under the pressure- discharged millions more.

Within six hours all of Florence – including the Piazza del Duomo – was under at least six feet of water.

At its highest, the water reached over 22ft high in the Santa Croce district and did not begin to recede until 8pm that night.

The death toll would have been greater if thousands of residents had not left the city for the Armed Forces Day public holiday commemorating Italy’s victory over Austria in the First World War.

But the mass exodus also meant many of the museums and archives were closed and hence difficult to get into rescue the art and books inside.