Florence has long been one of Europe’s foremost centers for art and design. Since the Middle Ages the sheer amount of art and craft that flourished in the region, and which was funded by the aristocracy there, resulted in opulent churches and halls gilt to the nines, each overflowing with priceless works of art. So it was a terrible shock when the Arno River flooded in the nighttime hours of August 4th, 1966, and again the night after. Flood waters reached 22 feet in some places, throwing many tons of mud into every nook and cranny of the city. Submerged in mud and water, it would take an army of people to rescue the historical artworks. Thankfully, there was one on hand and they became known as the “angeli del fango” (or “Mud Angels” in English).
101 people lost their lives in the flood, which stretched miles across the Arno River basin. Markers today still commemorate the flood, one of the worst in the history of Florence. Buildings were flooded and some filled up with mud and residue from the flooding. A putrid mix of water, mud, garbage, and gasoline contaminated precious paintings and statues.
The Italian Army did much to help with the flood and salvage artifacts from inside the historic buildings, but a sizable amount of the work was done by the Mud Angels who were largely comprised of both local volunteers and young people visiting from abroad. The culture of Europe in the 1920s and 1930s had become increasingly youth-oriented and as a byproduct of the art movements of the time, a series of hostels designed to shelter curious, young travelers popped up all over Europe.
Following World War II this system was strengthened as many governments and organizations urged youngsters to travel, to see Europe in more detail, and to perhaps help to rebuild areas of Europe that had been bombed out or otherwise damaged by war. By the time of the flood in 1966 many people were already in Italy from other other locales, tempted by the lure of cheap lodging and endless adventures.
It happened that a group of young people were ready to help traipse through the mud carrying Florentine art, books, and relics to safety. Such pieces as Giorgio Vasari’s 1546 painting, The Last Supper, were salvaged from the flooded buildings. Work on this particular piece had to be continuous since the 1960s, taking decades to properly restore.
Money was raised all across Europe to fund the restorations, with great sums coming from England for Florence itself, but also for a laboratory and art conservation center in Venice.
Rare books and documents were among some of the hardest to clean. In the photo below volunteers wash manuscripts and documents from the National Library in the boiler room of the Florence train station.
The Mud Angles of Florence came from all over Italy and Europe. Their help was so monumental that today the Archivio di Stato di Firenze still keeps a list of those who helped in the flood.
These names are published and added to as there is a form to have one’s name officially added to the list after the fact. Despite maintaining a list of the Mud Angels, the exact number of them is still unknown. However, it is estimated that a few thousand contributed to the efforts to save the art and history of Florence from the flood- a task they largely succeeded at, despite some inevitable losses.