Novelist and historian Clark (Love Among the Ruins, 2001, etc.) delivers a besotted, occasionally unwieldy examination of the lore surrounding Florence’s Arno River, centered around the great flood of 1966.
Living in the northern Italian city at the time of the 40th anniversary of the devastating inundation that nearly destroyed much of its vast treasure trove of artwork, the author began exploring the river as a source of inspiration for numerous artists. How, he wondered, did the geographical site of Firenze, rich in Roman and Etruscan history, become “this imaginary place, Florence,” to which tourists flocked by the 1800s to savor the art and the view? A good background in art history is necessary to follow Clark’s erratic meanderings through the archives. He begins and ends with Cimabue’s very human Crocifisso, created for the Franciscan church Santa Croce in 1288 with the help of his apprentice, Giotto. Increasingly overshadowed by the fame of his protégé, Cimabue’s work would gradually triumph after the flood of ’66 and a controversial restoration by Umberto Baldini. Clark traces the Renaissance careers of Dante, Donatello, Leonardo (who mastered hydrology, ultimately composing The Book of Water) and especially Vasari, whose Lives of the Artists canonized their stories; successive floods informed all their work. By the 19th century, the city was ready to be reborn as Florence, shrine of art, and it became the home of famous foreigners from the Shelleys and Brownings to John Ruskin and Bernard Berenson. The flood of November 4, 1966 threatened catastrophe, but thanks in part to David Lees’ photographs for Life and a film by Franco Zeffirelli, the world came to Florence’s aid, and legions of youthful idealistic volunteers called angeli del fango (angels of the mud) poured in to help save the artwork. Clark recreates the disaster both human and aesthetic, using testimony by witnesses he unearthed, in a book that is by turns riveting and stupefying.
Wildly ambitious in scope and driven by the author’s passion for the city.