Reflecting on Cimabue and the Mud Angels of 1966 Florence

He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.”
St. Francis of Assisi

Cimabue's damaged Crucifix
Cimabue’s damaged Crucifix

The flood of 1966 in Florence devastated millions of art masterpieces and rare books. The Franciscan Basilica of Santa Croce was one of many buildings left in terrible conditions. Swirling river bottom mud settled inside the church, causing heavy damage to valuable works of art. It took a long time and a lot of effort to remove all of the debris. Because of its geographical location, Florence often flooded, always leaving behind a muddy mess.

Volunteers from around the globe came to clean the city of refuse, mud, and oil. They removed works of art, books and other valuables from flooded rooms. Conservators worked tirelessly to restore these pieces to as close to their original condition as possible. These volunteers became known as Angeli del fango–angels of the mud.

On my first visit to the Basilica of Santa Croce, I passed Cimabue’s Crucifix, painted in 1272. It was heart wrenching to see the degree of water damage that had altered the painting. 60% of its paint was missing. Housed in the refectory of the Museo dell’Opera di Santa Croce, the flood waters had risen to twenty feet, taking most of the paint off of the over 700-year-old Christ figure.

The wooden crucifix absorbed so much water that it expanded by three inches and doubled its weight. It took years for the cross to shrink back down to its original size. I could see spots with sections missing. The wood had cracked, it grew mold, and paint began to flake off even after it was removed from the refectory. Later on, the cracks were filled in with prepared Poplar from the Casentino Forest, where Cimabue obtained the original Poplar. Little restoration which can be seen with the eye has been applied to the Crucifix, and it still bears the effects of  water damage.

 

cimabue-best
Cimabue’s Crucifix before the flood (photo credit Wikipedia)

santa-croce

santa-croce-1
Santa Croce after the flood above, and an exasperated volunteer with Cimabue’s Crucifix (photo credit Wikipedia)

 

 

santa-croce-2
Mud Angels at work (photo credit Wikipedia)

 

“What we were doing was dictated by the desire to give back the traces of the history of the past to future generations, so that it could be used for the spiritual growth of people who perhaps had yet to be born….it was the international community that worked to try to save Florence, this unique patrimony that belonged to the whole world.”

Mario Primicerio, Speciale Alluvione

 

santa-croce-3
Majestic Basilica of Santa Croce -photo credit Wikipedia

 

As I continued my walk through the church, I felt a deep respect and appreciation for the many old works of art. They were all beautiful and rich with color, painted by famous art masters of the late medieval and early renaissance. I was touched by how an international community of caring people pitched in together to help in a time of crisis, to save a heritage that is precious to everyone. It can be said that Cimabue’s Crucifix is a part of us all.

 

Piazzale Michelangelo ~ Florence’s Renaissance Cityscape from Above

Fiery Firenze Sunset
Fiery Firenze Sunset

“Tonight the sun has died like an Emperor…great scarlet arcs of silk…saffron…green…crimson…and the blaze of Venus to remind one of the absolute and the infinite…and along the lower rim of beauty lay the hard harsh line of the hills.”  John Coldstream

I couldn’t wait to watch the sun set over Florence. After a delicious dinner in the Piazza Vecchio, I crossed the Arno River and its shops of precious jewels on to the left bank and followed the road upwards. After about 20 minutes on the Viale dei Colli, which runs through the hills that surround the central area of Oltrarno, I arrived at Piazzale Michelangelo. Extremely popular with tourists and locals alike, it has the best panoramic views of the heart of historic Florence.

Arno River with Three Bridges

The terrace lookout gives an open cityscape that is a beloved postcard photo of the city. The Palazzo Vecchio, Duomo, Baptistry and Bell Tower loom in the background.

In 1869, designer and architect Giuseppe Poggi built the Piazzale Michelangelo while Florence was the capital of Italy. As a result, it was decided the entire city needed a risanamento, a rebirth, which involved heady urban renewal of elegant proportions. Poggi’s most outstanding accomplishment, however, was the Viale dei Colli on the left bank. At eight kilometers long, the tree-lined street winds up the hill of San Miniato, ending at the Piazzale Michelangelo.

Michelangelo-Bronze Copy of the Original at his Piazzale Michelangelo

A bronze copy of Michelangelo’s David stands in the round-about, accompanied by the Four Allegories of the Medici Chapels of S. Lorenzo. The originals are in white marble. It took 9 pairs of oxen to transport the monument up from the city in June of 1873.

Old City Wall as seen from Piazzale Michelangelo

Remains of ancient city walls still surround parts of Florence in a protective embrace. From the Piazzale Michelangelo, this wall with towers runs up the side of a long hill. Begun in 1284 and completed in 1333, it is believed that it was built under the direction of Arnolfo di Cambio. The gates, no longer in existence, were embellished with religious scenes of the Madonna and Saints, standing 35 meters tall.

Most all of Florence’s history is laid out before us on the skyline. As twilight descends on this vibrant renaissance town, golden lights illuminate the stone facades of foremost landmarks. People begin to gather with iPhones and cameras ready to capture the beauty of shifting colors that begin to streak across the evening sky. All grows a bit quiet as the sun, like a golden orb, sinks slowly into the west.

Santa Croce-Gothic Style Franciscan Church with 14th C. Frescoes by Giotto and the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavellli
Santa Croce-Gothic Style Franciscan Church with 14th C. Frescoes by Giotto and the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavellli
Palazzo Vecchio-Heart of Florence's Social and Political Life for Centuries. It was here that girolami Savanarola was Burned at the Stake as a Heretic.
Palazzo Vecchio-heart of Florence’s social and political life for centuries.

My day in Florence drew to a close in the most dreamlike manner. Despite lengthy strolls through museums and dinner on the Piazza Vecchio with delicious wine, my most vivid memory is of Firenze’s dazzling rays of amber sunlight stretched out over the city in waves of crystal beauty. Breathtaking beauty….the kind that travels straight to the heart and soul, and leaves you longing for more.

Hilltop Villa

The Twilight Shift

Good Night , Florence....Buona Notte Firenze!
Good Night , Florence….Buonanotte Firenze!