In the first week of November, 1966, half a century ago, Florence was horrifically flooded. Essentially mud and fuel oil from the overflowing Arno River, that crosses through town, covered much of the city center. In most communities this would be a tragedy. In Florence it was a catastrophe. Real art masterpieces, not just the good stuff, but the greatest of Western civilization, were harmed. Fifty years later, the restoration appears nearing its end.
I don't know if I should feel guilty for what I am about to say, but being here now, five decades later, is a remarkable experience. We have seen a photographic exhibition and a multimedia presentation of the flood and its aftermath. We attended a midnight opening of the just restored Last Supper painted by Vasari. The mud covered work was saved with essentially glued on paper that took 50 years to safely remove and then restore. Judas in pink, stunning! It now hangs with a pulley system to raise it high in a matter of seconds.
A couple of days ago, I was reading about Paolo Uccello's painting. Uccello, was the master of mathematical perspective that gave the Renaissance much of its greatness. After learning what I previously missed understanding, we returned to the Ufizi to see again his Battle of San Romano with its hobby horse calvary and empty armored dead soldiers. This guy was wonderfully weird. His name is actually a nickname. Uccello means bird, as the artist drew birds by the score and was apparently more comfortable with them than with people.
Then, today we went to see his green frescos. The book in which I was reading about Uccello, The Stones of Florence, by Mary McCarthy, was written in 1959. The flood was in 1966. And although restored, the frescos retain only a remembrance of their glory. Luckily, the most amazing, Noah's ark docked just as the waters are receding, the viewer inside the boat looking down the gang plank, is the best restored. But even it is a ghost of its past. I felt a bit like Noah, living just on the other side of a moment that can never be recaptured.