Just after 5 a.m. on November 4, 1966, the roiling waters of the River Arno overwhelmed its banks and rushed into the streets of Florence.
Despite the abnormally rainy season and a history of severe flooding, there had been no warnings to residents of impending disaster nor any emergency precautions taken. Within minutes of the breach, a surprised Florence was drowning.
As water gushed through the city, breaking through doors and turning cobblestoned streets into tributaries, it quickly entered the flood-prone neighborhood of Santa Croce. Hanging on the wall of the refectory of the Church of Santa Croce, a painted Crucifix by the 13th-century Florentine artist Cimabue bore witness to the devastation. The water rose and rose until it was eventually submerged.
As centuries of Florentines know all too well, the wrath be it of God or nature flashes fierce and fast. By the end of the day, the waters were already beginning to recede, but they left behind a terrible scene.
The next morning, residents woke up to streets covered in a thick sludge of mud, oil, and sewage that coated Renaissance masterpieces and modern amenities alike.
Around 100 people died, and nearly half of the records in the state archives were destroyed in addition to a conservative estimate of over 1,500 works of art and 1.5 million books that were damaged to varying degrees.
As news of the disaster spread, the horror the city faced came to be symbolized by one image: that of the water-soaked wood and chipped paint that was now Cimabue’s Crucifix.
But the Crucifix was also a symbol of hope. In the grand tradition of its painted figure, it rose again.
Volunteers who became known as “mud angels” came to help save the endangered cultural treasures. In the case of the Crucifix, the restoration took 10 years, but—through an effort that was part miracle of science and part pure miracle—it was re-installed in the Santa Croce refectory in 1976. But Cimabue’s Crucifix will forever bear the scars of its ordeal both in its wood and in the large swaths of paint that can never be fully restored.
When Cimabue received the commission to create the Santa Croce Crucifix, he was one of the leading artists in Florence. His skill as a painter helped set the stage for the developments that would lead to the Renaissance, and the prominent historian Giorgio Vasari not only started his 10-volume series on the “most eminent” artists with Cimabue, he also credited him with “having little less than resurrected painting.”
But Cimabue’s renown waned following his death in 1302 mostly due to his sin of being a good teacher. His apprentice Giotto soon outshone the master and became one of the most important artists of the 14th century, eclipsing the life and work of Cimabue.
“Thus began a process that one art historian later referred to as ‘the curse of Cimabue’: the decline in his historical and critical status, the damage to or deterioration of his existing works, and the removal of his name from important works once attributed to him,” writes Robert Clark in Dark Water: Flood and Redemption in the City of Masterpieces.
One of the only major pieces from his oeuvre that remained prominent was the crucifix he created for the Franciscans to crown the altar of their new Church of Santa Croce.
The piece is part sculpture, part painting. Cimabue crafted the cross out of wood that he sourced from the nearby forest.
Once his canvas was ready, he laid a layer of gold leaf over the cross and then painted the crucified figure over it. It was a revolutionary image with a visceral humanness displayed in Jesus’s suffering. There is a dignified, even radiant aura befitting the son of God, but he is also clearly wearied and in pain. Blood drips from his wounds, his head tips to the side too tired to hold up, and he is slouched in resignation.
The 1966 flood wasn’t the first time the Crucifix had encountered the Arno. On eight recorded occasions since 1333, Florence has been inundated with river water. It was a fact of life in the city, one that has preoccupied generations of great minds including Leonardo da Vinci, who was fascinated by the movement and mechanics of water. In an eerie coincidence, three of those disasters, including the 1966 flood, struck on November 4.
Clark writes that during the 1333 flood, Cimabue’s Crucifix was hanging in pride of place above the altar of the Church of Santa Croce when floodwaters stopped just short of reaching the base of the cross. It again faced down the rising tide in 1557.
But just over 400 years later, it wouldn’t be so lucky. The 1966 flood was by far the worst in Florence’s history, and Cimabue’s Crucifix was considered, as Life magazine put it, “the greatest single art loss” of that disaster.
The Crucifix was under water for 12 hours, its wood soaking up the moisture and swelling, which in turn caused large swaths of paint that had been applied directly to the wooden surface to chip off. There were gouges in the wood and important areas in the face and body of the painted figure were completely gone.
While the story of how the damaged Crucifix was first discovered vary, Clark says it is believed that Father Cocci first entered the refectory by boat sometime on November 5. When he got there, he saw flecks of paint and gesso floating in the murky water “some bright and gilded like tropical fish.” He made an effort to scoop up as much of the paint flecks as he could.
It at first seemed that all was lost for the Crucifix, and, in the days following the flood, Life ruled it “a masterpiece beyond repair.” But Kay Larson writing for New York magazine in 1982 noted that the damage occurred at an opportune time when developments in the field of art restoration enabled experts to treat the ruined work. It took a heroic effort, but they succeeded.
First, Larson says they removed the painted Jesus from the cross using a technique that involved gluing rice paper to the wet wooden surface and lifting it away. They took the cross apart and, over the course of two years, allowed it to dry out. Chips were filled using wood from the nearby forest and then the cross was reassembled. A fiberglass layer was laid on top of the wood to protect the painting in any future encounters with water, and then the painting was returned to its refurbished home.
The swaths of the figure that were lost could not be restored, but the conservationists filled in the missing patches with crosshatches of paint that matched Cimabue’s original colors. The Crucifix was brought back to life, though not entirely as it once was.
The River Arno has always been wild; until an effort is made to tame its periodic bouts of rage, Florence will always be in danger of flooding.
But when the next disaster strikes, Cimabue’s Crucifix will be ready. It may still carry the scars of its resurrection, but it also now carries the means of its future redemption. The Crucifix is back on view in Florence, but now it hangs from four steel cables that are connected to a pulley system. If the waters come again, it can be raised to safety out of their reach.