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Art, Disaster, and Redemption in Florence

Written by Robert ClarkAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Robert Clark

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On Sale: October 07, 2008
Pages: 368 | ISBN: 978-0-385-52834-4
Published by : Anchor Knopf
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Synopsis

Birthplace of Michelangelo and home to untold masterpieces, Florence is a city for art lovers. But on November 4, 1966, the rising waters of the Arno threatened to erase over seven centuries of history and human achievement.

Now Robert Clark explores the Italian city’s greatest flood and its aftermath through the voices of its witnesses. Two American artists wade through the devastated beauty; a photographer stows away on an army helicopter to witness the tragedy first-hand; a British “mud angel” spends a month scraping mold from the world’s masterpieces; and, through it all, an author asks why art matters so very much to us, even in the face of overwhelming disaster.

Excerpt

One
I grandi fiumi sono l'immagine del tempo,
Crudele e impersonale. Osservati da un ponte
Dichiarano la loro nullitÆ inesorabile_._._.
The great rivers are the image of time,
Cruel and impersonal. Observed from a bridge
They declare their implacable nullity_._._.

--Eugenio Montale, "L'Arno a Rovezzano"

There is Florence and there is Firenze. Firenze is the place where the citizens of the capital of Tuscany live and work. Florence is the place where the rest of us come to look. Firenze goes back around two thousand years to the Romans and, at least in legend, the Etruscans. But Florence was founded in perhaps the early 1800s when expatriate French, English, Germans, and not a few Americans settled here to meditate on art and the locale--the genius of the place--that produced it. Over the next two centuries a considerable part of the rest of the world followed them for shorter visits--"visit" being derived from the Latin vistare, "to go to see," and, further back, from videre, simply "to see"--in the form of what came to be called tourism. The Florentines are here, as they have always been, to live and work; to primp, boast, cajole, and make sardonic, acerbic asides; to count their money and hoard their real estate, the stuff--la roba--in their attics and cellars, and their secrets. We are here for the view.

But it's so easy to miss so very much. The more you look, the less you see. If something is not after a fashion framed, hung on a wall, stood on a pedestal, monumentalized, encased by columns and architraves, boxed in marble, or dressed in architectural stone, it fizzles into background. If the conjunction of earth, water, and sky doesn't form a landscape--nature on exhibition--rather than mere land, they disappear, recede into the black hole, the gorga nera, the underworld of the unseen.

For example, in late October 2005 I'd already been in Florence two months, gazing at art, gazing at the opaque screen of my laptop, before I noticed the plaque. I suppose we--Carrie, Andrew, and I--had settled into a routine. We were living on the Piazza del Carmine. At one end is the church of Santa Maria del Carmine, to which our elderly neighbor--known to us only as la Signora--shuffles off to mass each day. Within the church is the Brancacci Chapel and its frescoes by Masaccio. History's first art historian, a Florentine named Giorgio Vasari, called them la scuola del mondo, "the art school of the world," the essential work that every other Renaissance artist came to study, the spark that set off the fire. The image that most of us know best is the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the harrowed and weeping figures of Adam and Eve stoop-shouldered, clutching their genitals, the shame and the pity that launched the fallen world. You look at them and for a moment it seems that all that too began just here.

At the other end of the piazza is an enormous palazzo I'd heard belonged to the Ferragamo family, the shoe and fashion dynasty from Naples to whom it's said many things in Florence belong. Sometimes you can see into the central garden and its lemon grove through the gate. Once I saw a Labrador retriever gamboling among the trees. I've never seen anyone coming or going, but then Florence seemed to me very much about boundaries and privacy--secret and hidden things. That sense was abetted by the annoyingly narrow sidewalks upon which two people can scarcely pass each other without one of them having to step off the curb. The walls of the palazzi press right up against the street, fiercely rusticated, studded with massive ring hitches and iron sconces for riders and torches that disappeared long ago. The walls ascend beyond your sight and inside the palazzi, I've heard, descend nearly as far in layers of cellars, tunnels, and strong rooms. You're not, of course, meant to see any of this. You're not even meant--so the unnavigable sidewalk seems to intend--to stop here, to consider it.

Between the church and the palazzo with the lemon grove--between the naked shame of Adam and Eve and the veiled upstart pride of the Ferragamos--is a cafe and bar called Dolce Vita. I'm told it was the chicest nightclub in Florence during the nineties and that, after a brief decline at the turn of the millennium, it's come back as il piu trendy place in the city. Unlike its unforthcoming neighbors, it spills outward into the piazza, past the jetty of the outdoor seating area, and, as the night ripens, onto the street, where the police are writing tickets for the double- and triple-parked Alfas, Mercedeses, Lamborghinis, and Ferraris. I've never stopped here--never mind gone inside--but I've pressed through the beautiful throng in the evenings and perhaps squeezed past an Italian celebrity, a soccer star, a Medici or Frescobaldi or, unbeknownst to me, a Ferragamo.

My life, rather more circumscribed, was across the street. Our apartment was on the second floor of what is called a palazzo--as is any large edifice built around a central cortile--but the building is scarcely grand. I suppose it's four or five hundred years old, and the stonework is pitted and frayed. A family of emigrants from somewhere in the Philippine archipelago lives across the cortile, and adjacent to them the multifloored apartment of the aristocratic owners ranges upward to a series of terraces. There's a crest over the door and I've caught a glimpse of the gold-framed paintings inside and the fusty, once elegant furniture that signals the presence of minor nobility or old money in ebb. Then there's la Signora and us. I've never seen anyone else who lives here. In the cortile there is a heap of rubble and broken stucco. Every three or four weeks someone turns up and, unseen, hauls away a fraction of it. I suppose it will all be gone in a year or so.

I worked in the mornings in our living room and I could see la Signora trudge by, a scarf pulled over her head, through the window that looks out onto the common corridor between our apartments. Inevitably she was looking for her cat, who had wandered into the hall. Amore, tesoro. Vieni quÆ a Mama, she'd call, pushing her lips out from the stumps of her teeth as though in a kiss. I went down to the vestibule for the mail each day around eleven, and sorted through the bills--gas, electricity, water, school lunches--each of which would have to be paid in cash at the post office, signed and countersigned, stamped and stamped again. It was on one of those trips that I noticed, above the rank of ten mailboxes, an inscription:


il iv novembre 1966
l'acqua dell'arno
arrivo a quest'altezza
and beneath it a long red line. The Arno, it said, had reached this height on November 4, 1966.
It was carved in the same squarish, Roman script you see in other inscriptions on walls around the city. They usually seem to be quotations from Dante marking places where he perhaps saw Beatrice; where an eminent family or personage that he later met in Purgatory or, more likely, Hell once lived; or a simple stanza of his heroic melancholy, connected to nothing more than Florence, the glory and pity of it.

The line was well above my head, a good seven or so feet from the floor. I didn't make much of it. I knew about the flood. In Minnesota, where I grew up, we'd heard about it at the time, for weeks, in issue after issue of Life magazine. But there were other such markers around the city, recording not just the crest of the great 1966 flood but those of 1177, 1333, 1557, 1740, 1844, and 1864. I supposed there would, of course, be more floods. Florence proved--in its squabbling and treacheries, its beauties arising miraculously from its corruptions; in all that Dante recorded and that drove him into exile as Adam and Eve went into exile; and in his descent to Hell, circuit of Purgatory, and return--that what goes around comes around.

Most afternoons I worked a little more and then Carrie or I picked up Andrew from school. I generally took him to a park, a large walled expanse that was once the cloistered garden of the church of Santa Maria del Carmine. Andrew played soccer with the Italian kids, and had learned to negotiate his place in the game with relative ease despite his still very basic Italian. What took time was setting up the partita in the first place, even though there were only a half dozen players. Everything had to be discussed, argued, and arbitrated, and it often seemed to me that these arrangements took longer than the game that eventually got played; nearly as long as it takes the kids' fractious elders in Rome to form a government.

So I passed much of the autumn sitting on a park bench while Andrew played, and in that time I managed to work my way through Il Piacere, the masterwork of the self-styled decadent and protofascist Gabriele d'Annunzio. The novel's argument seemed to be that a surfeit of beauty, of the aesthetic, must end in moral and spiritual bankruptcy. But who could believe that, in this city of masterpieces where I had Masaccio's Adam and Eve at one end of my block and the secret lemon grove of the Ferragamos at the other; where the light and trees even then, close on the November anniversary of that terrible flood, had scarcely begun to color?

In the evening we often ate at the Trattoria del Carmine, which is perhaps a hundred feet up the street from our door. Under an awning there is a little terrazza that extends into the piazza and there or sometimes inside we were accustomed to eat our crostini, ribollita, pollo arrosto, and tagliata di manzo, passing an hour or so with a bottle of Morellino di Scanso. It was always pretty much the same--in the mode of la Signora and her cat, of the daily mail, of the debris in the courtyard--and I liked this. So perhaps it was habit that blinded me. In any case, for more than two months I didn't notice the photograph hanging at rafter height in the trattoria's side dining room.

Maybe it didn't bear noticing: at most eleven by fourteen inches, it was faded, off kilter, and muddy in tone. The first thing that caught my attention was a car in the upper left-hand corner. The car was leaning crazily on top of something, and that something was, I made out, an awning, and the awning upon which this car was poised was the awning of this restaurant, the awning I'd been eating under for some weeks.

Of course, you couldn't see the restaurant. What you saw were the upper stories of the surrounding palazzi, cars floating, and, everywhere, water. It was only because I was inside this restaurant and had realized that the photograph must be connected to it in some way that I was able to place its locale, to frame the image it contained within a context. It was a photograph of the Piazza del Carmine, probably taken from the top of the church. You couldn't see most of the piazza. In the lower left-hand corner the frame ended at what must be the tall double doors to our palazzo, only the lintel visible above the water. It was up to the second-floor windows in some of the more modest buildings at the very head of the piazza. In the middle, where the cobbled pavement should have been--where police were just now beginning to issue the evening's parking tickets to the patrons of Dolce Vita--a car floated, apparently in a circle, lazily spinning as though hovering over a clogged drain.

The next morning when I collected the mail I looked at the plaque again, now with much more curiosity, even with a sort of anxious urgency. I tried to imagine myself standing before these mailboxes with a foot of water over my head, paddling back to the landing just below our door while cars drifted by outside, water lapped the feet of Masaccio's Adam and Eve, and carp from the river swam among the lemon trees.

Rereading the inscription, it struck me as odd that this seemingly public monument should be placed in the unfrequented privacy of our unprepossessing vestibule, apparently for the sole benefit of the two dozen or so tenants and their guests. Was the water especially high here? It was easy to establish from a guidebook that the flood crest in this part of Florence had indeed been high, but not as high as in, say, Santa Croce, where Cimabue's crucifix was inundated along with scores of other artistic, architectural, and bibliographic masterworks. It was the fate of those objects that had brought the flood of 1966 to the world's attention. It took place in Firenze, in streets and quotidian spaces as ordinary as the vestibule where I got my mail, and left thirty-three fiorentini dead and five thousand families homeless. But in the eyes of the world it happened to this other city, to Florence, this visible efflorescence of transcendent beauty, of humanity's rarely seen better self, and nowhere more than here. More was at stake than a city, human habitations and enterprises, or even thirty-three human bodies.

Where, exactly, did this place called Florence exist? Surely not just in the imagination. Yet you could say many more people had visited Florence than had ever set foot in Firenze, even if only in their mind's eye. What was its history? Who were its founders? Could a river wash it away?

I remembered a little more. Everything I'd known about the flood came from Life magazine in 1966, when I was fourteen years old. And now it almost seems that everything I knew about the larger world then had been contained in pictures on those pages. Color television and live news reports by satellite scarcely existed, so insofar as you saw things that existed or happened far way, you saw them through photographs, and preeminently so in Life.

Perhaps that is why those years between, say, 1962 and 1968 seem to me not so much a story as a gallery, a series of two-dimensional images set in a line. If they have a theme it seems to be human goodness--or at least the desire to be good--stymied by tragedy, a world a little more optimistic about its prospects than today seems wise.

So there are space launches and supersaturated colors and youth; Selma, Carnaby Street, World's Fairs (Seattle, New York, Montreal), and the Ho Chi Minh Trail; and then the great funerals--Kennedy, King, and Kennedy. There's also a great deal of Italy, Italy being important for its historic art; for its contemporary design, fashion, film directors, and stars; and as home to a Catholic church that just then seemed in the vanguard of the era's idealism. Among the superfluity of photographs I remember from Life are shots of the papacy of John XXIII, the Second Vatican Council, Fellini, Gucci, and Loren; the funeral of Pope John and the accession of Pope Paul; the new pope's travels to America and the Near East; and then this flood. After that for me there was more television and moving images, less print, and--as my childhood ended, my youth became larger than anything in Life--much, much more me. So I stopped seeing things in that particular way, and perhaps that is why those images seem to form a unique strand--especially those from Italy--almost as if they were all by the same hand. Which, in large part, it turned out they were.


From the Hardcover edition.
Robert Clark

About Robert Clark

Robert Clark - Dark Water

Photo © Caroline Johnson

Robert A. Clark, M.D., is the medical expert in pediatric ophthalmology for the Los Angeles Unified School District. A clinical professor at the Jules Stein Eye Institute, University of California, Los Angeles, he is an award-winning researcher who also maintains a private practice in pediatric and adult ophthalmology in Long Beach, California.
Praise

Praise

“Gripping.... Clark's stories of the flood are the stuff of thrilling documentaries.” —The Washington Post Book World

“A meditation on art, religion, the power of nature to destroy man's legacy on this Earth and the against-all-odds determination of people—young and old, working class and cultured, rich and poor-to save it.” —The Seattle Times

“Lovers of Florence/Firenze will fall into Dark Water headfirst.... A formidable accomplishment.” —Frances Mayes, author of Under the Tuscan Sun

“[A] vivid canvas of a city submerged.” –Men’s Vogue

“With the skill of an investigative reporter who can write beautifully, Clark not only describes the disastrous flood but also gives a history of Florence and the story of the people from all over the world who came to help save the city and its art.” –ARTnews

“History and art criticism, with a dash of memoir.... Evocative.” –BookPage

“A wonderfully intimate evocation both of the geniuses that created Florence’s masterpieces and the teams of art experts and ‘mud angels’ who rescued them. Anyone visiting Florence after reading Dark Water will find the city all the more precious and miraculous.” –Ross King, author of Brunelleschi's Dome

“Enthralling.” –The Economist

Dark Water is not simply the best book yet about the flood that devastated Florence in November, 1966; it’s a new kind of art history–one that reflects on the transformation of a real Italian city (Firenze) into an imaginary city that’s become almost a museum of itself (Florence).” –Robert Hellenga, author of The Sixteen Pleasures

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