The Opera del Duomo
When it comes to tragic events, images narrate better than words. This is exactly the case for the photos that document the ground floor spaces of the Opera del Duomo Museum in the aftermath of the flood waters’ retreat: the wooden models for the drum of the dome and the façade of Santa Maria del Fiore are laid horizontally, wrapped in tissue paper, nearby Arnolfo di Cambio and workshop’s marble sculptures, covered in dried mud and naphtha. Some of the 19th-century drawings for the façade were also displayed on the ground floor, though the majority of them were held in storage.
One of the deepest wounds inflicted upon the museum’s varied collection was on the collection of illuminated choir books, coming from the 1300s and later. In their dedicated room, they were submerged in the mud, most of them closed inside the display cases, which had to be opened by force. Three thousand manuscripts from the 13th to 20th centuries were submerged, of which 55 were illuminated choir books. Three volumes have been added to the precious collection of illuminated codices, the only ones untouched by the waters because they were displayed on a high stand. The choir books were first moved to the Istituto Restauro Scientifico del Libro del Vaticano, later entrusted to the Istituto Statale di Patologia del Libro “Alfonso Gallo” in Rome, before finally returning to Florence. They were the subject of a long and patient recovery effort, which came to a close only in 2012.
The Santa Croce and Opera del Duomo complexes were, and still are, custodians of some of the most highly regarded and famed emblems of the flood, of a civilization that was devastated but never gave in. These are: the Cimabue’s Crucifix, irretrievably ruined in the refectory of Santa Croce; the bronze doors of the Baptistery, which were torn off by the raging waters; Donatello’s wooden Mary Magdalene, “consumed,” Vasari writes,” by fasting and abstinence” and, after five centuries, encrusted with mud.
“The panels, frescoes and sculptures of the splendid Museum of Santa Croce, all works of exceptional importance, were submerged and […] the damages were determined to be immensely grave,” wrote Ugo Procacci, then-Superintendent, remembering his inspection at dawn on November 4, 1966 of the Franciscan complex, “For me, this was perhaps the most tragic moment in those tragic days.”
Santa Croce, with its extraordinary works of art (some repeatedly hit by numerous floods over the course of Florence’s history), became a testing ground for emergency response and an international restoration laboratory, where even today there are still encounters and comparisons in cutting edge conservation theories. Some of the techniques for restoring the damaged panel paintings, developed and honed over the 50 years since the event, are recalled here through some of the museum’s works from the 14th to 16th centuries. Two large panel paintings by Carlo Portelli and Giovan Battista Naldini stand out, the recent restorations of which are presented in this exhibition; the results of the restorations are incredible, as photos coming from before the interventions can demonstrate.
On October 24, 1882, the new Florentine synagogue, known as the Tempio Maggiore, was inaugurated in the new Mattonaia neighbourhood, designed by Marco Treves, Mariano Falcini and Vincenzo Micheli. The architecture, ornamentation, lamps and some ceremonial objects were decorated in the Moorish style, common in a majority of Jewish places of worship built after the Emancipation. In contrast, the wooden furnishings were carried out in a rich Neo-Renaissance style by skilled Florentine woodworkers.
On November 4, 1966, the water invaded the Tempio Maggiore’s prayer room, reaching as high as two meters. The wall decorations were heavily damaged, the benches were dragged along by the water and destroyed, the doors of the Torah ark were thrown open, gravely deteriorating the Torah scrolls within them adorned with fabrics and sacred objects. In addition to the 15,000 volumes from the old library that were lost, so too were 92 scrolls. Some decor on display bears marks left behind by the flood and are included in a distinct selection offered by the Jewish Community.
Other places of worship
In Florence’s historical centre, the network of places of worship is dense and vast, extending into the surrounding territory. With the flood, many churches, confraternities, chapels and oratories were devastated and shattered, as the photos document.
Every work brought into this exhibition, as an example of the immense damage, has its own story, sometimes unique.
Some altarpieces, even if restored, still carry marks of the flood, like the altar with the Trinity by Neri di Bicci in San Niccolò in Oltrarno or the altar with the Madonna and Child with Saints by Francesco Bottini in Sant’Andrea in San Donnino (in the next room); this latter work was chosen as the symbol of the exhibition for its perfect division between beauty and ruin.
In-depth surveys of the storages, archival investigations and cross comparisons have recently allowed for various pieces to be identified. Such is the case for the fragments of a frame found in storage at Villa Corsini, originally part of Maestro di Santa Cecilia’s masterpiece Saint Peter Enthroned in Santi Simone e Guida. In 1966, the painting was held in the Limonaia in the Boboli Gardens, then later moved to the Fortezza da Basso for its restoration. During this phase, a portion of the lower border of the frame, dismantled, was broken. Now, after an initial intervention to assemble the pieces, the fragments are displayed here, awaiting the next restoration and their final reunification with the original panel.
The turmoil and disorder caused by the disaster brought about some surprising discoveries. This was the case in the Badia Fiorentina: while dismantling the choir, the refined 15th-century antependium was found, painted like fake fabric and bearing an effigy of Magdalene in the centre (attributed to Biagio D’Antonio): at an unknown moment in history, it was flipped over to be used as the stand for the altar.
Ironically, the flood waters reached some paintings in the Superintendency’s storage inside the Gabinetto restauri alla “Vecchia Posta,” where they were awaiting conservation. Among these were Saint Felicity by Neri di Bicci (here in the previous room), from its namesake church, and Presentation at the Temple by Fabrizio Boschi, belonging to the church of San Carlo dei Lombardi, only recently identified and brought back home.
The infiltration of water into the walls of the churches and cloisters put many fresco cycles at risk, which were getting eaten away by the dampness. A vast campaign to separate the works from the walls was necessary. In doing so, underlying preparatory sketches, known as a “sinopia,” would often come to light, with subjects that didn’t necessarily coincide with the visible, finished fresco.
In 1967, the group of restorers Rosi, Tintori and Del Serra were entrusted with separating the fresco by Andrea del Castagno depicting the Trinity with Saints Jerome, Paula and Eustochium in Santissima Annunziata. A beautiful sinopia with three saints was revealed on the underlying arriccio, later separated in its own right and put on display in the museum in the Refectory of Sant’Apollonia alongside various other works by the artist.