by Allie Newman
Florence, Italy has been known as a cultural center for centuries, earning such grand attributes as “The Athens of the Middle Ages” and “The Birthplace of the Renaissance”. Once the home of the affluent and powerful Medici family, and later the capital of the Kingdom of Italy, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the public and private collections of the city were home to some of the world’s most precious artworks, books, and records. The city also fostered the establishment and growth of world-renowned institutions such as the Uffizi, the Archives of the Opera del Duomo, and the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale. Unfortunately, in spite of all of its positives, Florence had one very large strike against it: it was complacent.
The River Arno, which runs through the heart of the city, burst its banks in 1557, causing a great deal of damage as well as loss of life. This was before the beginning of the construction of the Uffizi and less than 100 years after the rise of the Medici family, so it was considered to be an issue of the past- after 409 years, the destructive nature of the Arno had largely been forgotten. However, in November 1966, Florence became quickly and harshly reacquainted with the river’s bad side. After a period of heavy rain, flood waters rushed through the city in the early hours of the morning, ultimately rising to 22 feet in some areas. The water was damaging enough, but the floodwaters also carried with them oil and sewage, which added a new dimension of contamination.
When the water receded, it left behind a recovery project the likes of which the world had never seen. Tragically, tens of thousands of artworks, books, and records were completely destroyed, with no hope of recovery. Tens of millions of others were severely damaged, and needed immediate attention in order to stop active degradation, particularly in the badly affected Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale. Into this grim situation descended hundreds of volunteers willing to assist in any way they could, as well as a host of expert conservators. Figures that would go on to lead the field of book conservation, such as Christopher Clarkson and Nicholas Pickwoad, helped to develop and implement some of the first batch paper conservation at the Biblioteca, including mass deacidification and mass drying. In addition, a nine step system was developed in order to give books and papers the treatment they required as quickly as possible.
The flood, while devastating, caused somewhat of a Renaissance of conservation not only in Florence but throughout the world. Institutions, horrified at the destruction in Florence, rushed to hire conservators and construct detailed disaster plans. The flood and recovery efforts became the fodder for thousands of field-advancing journal articles and lectures, and damaged books allowed binding structures and materials to be studied in ways that would have been impossible otherwise. Pickwoad refers to the flood as “the birth of modern book conservation and bibliography,” and historians tend to agree with him. It is difficult to view a flood or any other disaster as anything but terrible and destructive, but in fact they can provide amazing opportunities for the development of skills and the improvement of the field as a whole.