After the deluge: An Irishman’s Diary about the Great Florence Flood of 1966

We have all heard of the heroic role Irish monks played during Europe’s Dark Ages, preserving and copying the continent’s early literature. Less well known is the work of a smaller but more recent band of missionaries who helped salvage some of the world’s cultural heritage after a disaster 50 years ago this weekend.

The Great Florence Flood was in the first place a human catastrophe, claiming dozens of lives after the River Arno burst its banks on November 4th, 1966. But in the city of Michelangelo and birthplace of the Renaissance it was a cultural calamity too, with countless works of art and literature destroyed or washed away.

The great basilica of Santa Croce was under almost 3m of water at one point, while in the Biblioteca Nazionale (National Library), near the river, more than a million books were submerged. Although the floods subsided almost as quickly as they had risen, the damage done was vast.

An international army of conservators and helpers now descended on the city for the clean-up, soon to be known as the angeli del fango, or "mud angels". And there were of course Irish people among them, including Maighread McParland, then a young chemist who had worked at the Clondalkin Paper Mills in Dublin but later became a conservationist at the National Gallery; Mary Kellegher, who worked for many years in the RDS library; and Brian Kennedy, a future head of the printing department in Bolton Street College.


Through the work of these and many others, what was salvageable of Florence's treasures was saved, although the struggle continues to this day. One of the most famous artworks damaged in the flood, Giorgio Vasari's Last Supper (1546), a five-panel painting housed in the refectory of Santa Croce, went back on display only yesterday, the 50th anniversary.

It's an ill flood that carries no good, however. So there were some long-term benefits for the world of conservation in general, but also for Ireland. The mud angels brought their experience home with them. And a few years later, we also acquired the expertise of the man who had overseen the work at the Biblioteca Nazionale, English-born Anthony Cains.

In 1974, Cains became technical director of a new conservation laboratory in Trinity College Dublin which houses many of Ireland's most precious literary artefacts. The lab, which he designed, was well above any level the Liffey might reach – it was the roof of the old library, soaring above the Book of Kells itself.

But it was not just rising rivers that threatened ancient books. They were at risk of everything from old-fashioned vandalism to new kinds of environmental pollution. The challenges in Trinity alone were endless.

Even so, from his ivory tower, Cains oversaw a world-leading facility that in time drew students from much farther afield, including London's Victoria and Albert Museum and New York's Columbia University, to learn the secrets of vellum repair and other local specialities.

The operation has since moved nearer ground level, to custom-built quarters at the Nassau Street end of campus. It is now headed by Susie Bioletti, who sounds like she might be from Florence but is actually Australian. Among its recent work was the conservation of several early-Christian books, including the oldest known Irish manuscript, the Codex Usserianius Primus, which were displayed for the first time in 2014.

Ireland has had its own gallery flooding problems in recent year. When Cork was inundated in 2009, affected areas included the basement of the Glucksman Gallery where 187 artworks were stored. That too led to a mercy mission by conservators who dropped everything and headed Lee-side to begin emergency work within hours. The inherited experience of Florence may have helped. In any case, the collection was saved.

But occasional floods apart, Ireland has at least one unusual claim to expertise with damp books. This is due to the habit among our forebears of burying treasures in bogs. One of many such interments was of the Faddan More Psalter, a book of psalms from 800AD, long-buried in a bog in Tipperary until it was rediscovered in 2006. That is now in the National Museum. But the challenges of restoring it are of international interest. And as Florence reflects on the 50th anniversary this month, among the many talks will be one by John Gillis of TCD and the National Museum, on the psalter's restoration.

Frank McNally

Frank McNally

Frank McNally is an Irish Times journalist and chief writer of An Irish Diary