Bridges over troubled waters: the Florence Flood 1966

I HAVE JUST finished reading a book about an incident that made a great impression on me and my close family many years ago. The slender volume, “Florence. Ordeal by Water” was written by Kathrine Kressman Taylor (1903-1996), who was an eye-witness to the event that troubled our family so much. The book was first published in 1967.

During my childhood, my parents, who were keen on the art of the Italian renaissance and Italy in general, took my sister and me to the city of Florence every year (until about 1969), except 1967. Visiting churches, museums, and art galleries was not exactly my ‘cup of tea’ when I was a child, especially when I knew that my best friend was enjoying what sounded to me like a far more exciting holiday than mine. Now with the benefit of hindsight, I realise that the experiences that my parents gave me were actually far more valuable than anything I could have gained from annual holidays at a seaside resort in North Wales, where my friend went every summer.

I mentioned that in 1967, we did not make our annual visit to the city on the River Arno, Florence (Firenze). This was because the city was severely affected by a flood in November 1966. This inundation was caused by heavy storms and ill-advised opening of a dam on the River Arno upstream from Florence. The water caused much damage. I remember that when my parents heard that it had happened, they appeared to be as devastated as if a close, much-loved friend or relative had died suddenly.  They decided that visiting the stricken city in 1967 was inadvisable, so we returned in 1968. What we found in 1968 was distressing. The flood water, which had become mixed up with central heating fuel oil, had stained the walls of the city’s buildings, leaving a tide line at the often-high levels that it had reached. These marks remained for several years. In low-lying parts of the city, the water had reached the upper floors of buildings. In addition to damaging the buildings, the water also destroyed many irreplaceable works of art. Dad was particularly upset about the heavy damage suffered by a crucifix painted in about 1265 by Cimabue, which hung in the Church of Santa Croce. He used to mention this often. I felt that this affected him more than the damage to the rest of the city.

Miraculously, the surging waters of the Arno in spate and laden with tree trunks and other heavy debris did not significantly damage any of the many lovely bridges that cross the river. This is unlike what happened at the end of WW2 when the retreating Germans destroyed all the bridges except the Ponte Vecchio.

Kathrine Kressman Taylor, whose book I have just read, was living in a palazzo in Florence when the great flood hit the city. Her book is a diary of what she and the Florentines experienced when the waters of the Arno almost destroyed the city, and the aftermath. It is a compelling account of the tragedy, filled with vignettes and anecdotes that illustrate the true horror of what happened. What shines out in her account was that despite overwhelming odds, the Florentines refused to be defeated by the events that rendered many homeless and caused an even greater number to lose all their worldly possessions and their livelihoods. As soon as the oil-filled, filthy waters began to subside, the citizens of Florence as well as foreigners who had become trapped there began to work on restoring the city.

Reading Kressman Taylor’s account has given me a much clearer idea of the extent of the disaster than I had as a youngster just after it had happened.

By the way, I must mention how I ‘stumbled’ across this marvellous book about Florence. A friend had given me a copy of the recently republished novella, “Address Unknown”, by Kressman Taylor. First published in 1938, this book subtly drew her readers’ attention to the plight of Jewish people in Nazi Germany. Having read and enjoyed it, I looked to see what else the author had written. When I saw that she had written about the flood that had upset us so much in 1966, I had to read it, and I am pleased that I did.

Reform and destruction in an English cathedral

SPLIT IN FORMER Yugoslavia, now in Croatia, is a city that developed in the ruins of a great establishment, the Roman Diocletian’s Palace. Likewise with the city of Ely in Cambridgeshire: it developed within the remains of another great establishment, the large Abbey of Ely, which was dissolved by King Henry VIII in 1539. By 1541, after having its charter renewed by the king, its then bishop, Thomas Goodrich (1494-1554), instigated an orgy of iconoclasm, to which I will return soon.

In 1975, I visited the city of Prizren in the former Yugoslavia, now in Kosovo (Kosova). I was impressed by what I saw in one of the place’s fine mediaeval churches. The caretaker showed me that the frescos on the walls inside the building were badly damaged, but only up to a certain height above the ground, Above this, they were as intact as one could hope for paintings of that age. He explained to me that many centuries ago, the Ottoman soldiers were ordered to destroy the figurative images depicted on the walls. They used the tips of their spears to do the job, but they only destroyed what they could reach from the ground (i.e., without using ladders). Sadly, the iconoclasts working under the orders of Henry VIII and Bishop Goodrich were more diligent in their destructive activities.

Under Goodrich’s orders, first the shrines to Anglo-Saxon saints were mutilated. Then, the vandals attacked all the stained glass and many of the statues in the cathedral, before getting to work on the large Lady Chapel on the north side of the body of the church.

The spacious, airy, light-filled, Lady Chapel is at first glance a magnificent example of 14th century gothic architecture, which was created in 1321. The excellent article in Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ely_Cathedral) describes an important and interesting aspect of the chapel:

“Below the window line, and running round three sides of the chapel is an arcade of richly decorated ‘nodding ogees’, with Purbeck marble pillars, creating scooped out seating booths. There are three arches per bay plus a grander one for each main pillar, each with a projecting pointed arch covering a subdividing column topped by a statue of a bishop or king. Above each arch is a pair of spandrels containing carved scenes which create a cycle of 93 carved relief sculptures of the life and miracles of the Virgin Mary. The carvings and sculptures would all have been painted.”

When we entered the Lady Chapel, we were in so much awe of its beauty that we did not at first notice something, which a church official soon pointed out to us. In each of the booths or alcoves lining the walls, the statues are either missing their heads or their faces have ben erased crudely. The deliberate damage to these statues was ordered by Bishop Thomas Goodrich. He also removed some of the larger statues that once adorned this fine chapel. It was seeing this destruction that reminded me of my trip to Prizren so long ago.

After looking at the Lady Chapel, we explored other parts of the cathedral, where I found other examples of statues that had lost either their faces or their heads. The iconoclasm that occurred in the so-called Reformation, which began in the 1530s, can be seen in many English churches, especially with regard to the acres of stained glass that were wantonly destroyed during that period of religious reform. Maybe, this destructive era should also be known as the ‘de-formation’. Some valuable examples of the pre-Reformation stained-glass can be seen in Ely Cathedral’s fascinating Stained-Glass Museum, which is well worth visiting. Incidentally, apart from European stained glass from across the centuries, the museum has recently acquired a fine example of stained glass from the USA, depicting a black African American.

Although I have concentrated on aspects of destruction, there is plenty of Ely Cathedral left for the visitor to enjoy, including fine gothic and pre-gothic (Norman) architecture. Many mediaeval and Tudor buildings that were once part of the abbey still exist and are now part of the daily life of modern Ely, just as some parts of Diocletian’s Palace in Split are still in use today. Some of these buildings in Ely are used by Kings School Ely, which was one of about 12 schools founded by Henry VIII. These few schools were the only part realised of a more ambitious plan to build many more schools and other new establishments.

We spent a whole day in Ely but could easily have stayed longer without being able to see all of its attractions. Prior to our departure for the city, a friend had told us that it was an unlikeable place not worth visiting. We discovered how wrong he was.