Dark Water: Flood and Redemption in the City of Masterpieces, by Robert Clark

December 14, 2008 at 3:46 am (Art, Book review, books, History, Italy)

darkwater I have been to Florence twice in my life, both times in the 1960’s, once before and once after the flood of 1966. I remember vividly on the second trip, standing beside a building and gazing up at the high water mark like the one in this picture:


I thought I “knew” about the flood.  Some forty years on, I realize I knew nothing. But I know more now, thanks to Robert Clark’s Dark Water.

In 2005, Clark and his family had been living in Florence for two months. On one seemingly ordinary day, he embarked on that most prosaic of errands: bill paying, which in this instance had to be done at the local post office. On his way out, he noticed, inscribed above the row of mailboxes in his apartment building, the following:




Translation:  The Arno reached this height on November 4, 1966. Beneath this inscription was a long red line. Of the sign, Clark  goes on to say:

“It was  carved in the same squarish, Roman script you see in other inscriptions on walls around the city. They usually seem to be quotations from Dante marking places where he perhaps saw Beatrice; where an eminent family or personage that he later met in Purgatory or, more likely, Hell once lived; or a simple stanza of his heroic melancholy, connected to nothing more than Florence, the glory and pity of it.

Clark adds that the line was about seven feet above the floor of the building. He then makes a somewhat amazing admission: “I didn’t make much of it.”  He remembered as a youngster seeing the pictures in Life Magazine, so “I knew about the flood.”

But the sign that had been all but invisible to him before – in his own apartment building! – now haunted him. What really happened here in 1966? This was the genesis of Dark Water.

So down that steep bank the flood
of that dark painted water descending
thundered in our ears and almost stunned us…

The Inferno, XVI, 103-105  (quote from the frontispiece of Dark Water)

I knew from reviews that this book was about the flood. What I didn’t realize is that the entire first half is devoted to a history of Florence, beginning with the lives of two men: Saint Francis of Assisi and, inevitably, the poet Durante degli’ Alighieri, known to the world as Dante. This is the first major work of art mentioned in the text:

Crucifix, by Cimabue

Crucifix by Cimabue, 1287-1288

I remembered that this work was related in some crucial way to the flood that occurred centuries later. Clark explains how – and much, much more, in Dark Water.

Clark’s history of Florence is replete with fascinating anecdote; as a re-creation of a place so central to the history of Western art, it succeeds magnificently. For instance, I  knew of Georgio Vasari as the author of Lives of the Painters. I hadn’t realized that he was a great (near-great? – Clark isn’t sure) artist in his own right.

(I am now the delighted owner of this two volume set:    vasari )

In Part Three (of six), we encounter, among others, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, John Ruskin, Henry James, and Bernard Berenson. All either visited or lived in this amazing city. I was particularly pleased to be reading about Berenson. In front of me sits his Italian Painters of  the Renaissance. This book, originally my mother’s, has sat untouched on my bookshelf for years. It is dated 1959, although it came out originally in 1952.

berenson_1 The following note appears on the verso of the title page:

“The four essays contained in this volume were first published separately from 1894 to 1907. The present, illustrated edition is published by arrangement with the Clarendon Press, Oxford, and the Oxford University Press, New York.”

A young Bernard Berenson

A young Bernard Berenson


Bernard Berenson, age 90, at the Borghese Gardens in Rome

Bernard Berenson was a fascinating man. Reading up on his background, I could see why he was one of my mother’s cultural heroes. Berenson purchased Villa I Tatti,  on the outskirts of Florence, in 1900. In his will, he bequeathed this beautiful property, along with his vast library, to his alma mater, Harvard University. Upon his death in 1959, the university took possession of I Tatti, where it now operates a Center for Italian Renaissance Studies.

Villa I Tatti

Villa I Tatti

Would I like to visit Villa I Tatti? Would I like to study there? Heck, yes – actually, I’d like to move right in! Honestly, the whole set-up is like a scenario for a Merchant-Ivory film, or a novel by Henry James or Edith Wharton.

And now, back to decidedly more somber subjects…

The first half of Dark Water concludes with a description of the desperate, courageous, and largely successful efforts to protect priceless art works during the Second World War.

And now we come to the flood of 1966.

Clark’s focus on certain individuals at the scene of the disaster helps the reader to follow the rapid unfolding of events. Ugo Procacci and Umberto Baldini were experts in art history and conservation. Born in Poland, Nick Kraczyna had been attending art school in the U.S. He’d moved to Florence in 1962 and decided he wanted to live there for the rest of his life. Nick was married to Amy. They had a baby; in 1966, Amy was pregnant with their second child.

Through their eyes, and those of many others, we watch the catastrophe unfold. The story of the race to save literally hundreds of priceless art works is every bit as gripping as that told in other great narratives of natural disasters. The challenges faced by experts and amateurs alike were formidable; in some tragic cases, insurmountable. When I use the term “amateurs,” I am referring to the volunteers who poured into Florence in the immediate aftermath of the flood. Mostly young and untutored in the intricacies of art history and restoration, these angeli del fango, or “mud angels,”  nevertheless poured into Florence,  eager to assist in the effort to save the threatened masterworks. And we’re  not talking solely about painting and sculpture. The Biblioteco Nazionale, which housed innumerable, irreplaceable  books, manuscripts and incunabula, had sustained profound damage. In some places the mud was twenty-two feet deep.

Clark calls the mass descent on Florence of the mud angels “…a proto-Woodstock of high visual culture.”

( I can’t help wondering whether a similar response would be elicited if the flood happened today. I worry that we are now immersed in a culture so debased that people do not place the same value on the world’s great art treasures that they did even forty years ago.)

The flood was also a profound humanitarian crisis. There are some harrowing tales of narrow escapes, terrible losses, and the struggle simply to make it from day to day until help arrived. (And that seemed to take forever – shades of Katrina…)

Periodically, as the story of the flood and its aftermath unfolds,  Clark returns to chronicling the desperate effort to save  the Cimabue Crucifix, which had come to symbolize the flood: “Here, it was wood and paint and brushstrokes that came to mean–that came to become–all of Florence: its beauty, its suffering, and its redemption.”

The writing in Dark Water is full of power and poetry. Toward the book’s conclusion, Clark offers these observations:

“I was thinking that Cimabue’s Crocifisso wasn’t beautiful by any normal standard of beauty. Nor was it shocking or transgressive in the manner much contemporary art claims to be. Of course there were things in it that I might have called beautiful: the majestic arc of the body like a sickle moon, broad-hipped and rounded in the belly, feminine, almost fecund in its collapse. And there was his one surviving eye–God’s eye, you could say–that was also curved in the manner of the body, shut tight, not asleep, but exhausted beyond measure. This is the vastness of the Crucifixion, the painting said; the extent of the annihilation necessary for Christ to kill Death. Now there’s nothing, no place to go. The next move belongs to God.

There is no way that I can do justice in this space to this book, a riveting combination of historical writing, art criticism, and disaster narration. For me personally, reading  Dark Water was an intensely meaningful experience. But I also believe that it is a masterwork in its own right.

And now…by some quirk of fate or timing (synchronicity?), just as I was finishing this book,  Google announced that it was making available images from the photo archives of Life Magazine. Many of these images had never been previously published. Robert Clark makes frequent mention of the documentation of the 1966 flood by Life photographer David Lees. I put “Florence flood 1966” into the search box – and there were the pictures!

Here are  three:

Humidity-tester being used on flood-damaged "Crucifix" painted by Giovanni Cimabue.

Humidity-tester being used on flood-damaged "Crucifix" painted by Giovanni Cimabue.

Michelangelo's David (Rear C) and other of his sculptures in gallery of the Accademia in wake of devastating flood.

Michelangelo's David (Rear C) and other of his sculptures in gallery of the Accademia in wake of devastating flood.

Flood-damaged "Magdalene" sculpture.

Flood-damaged "Magdalene" sculpture by Donatello

Here once again is Robert Clark:

“Mary Magdalene stood with her hands folded in supplication at the end of her decades of penance, her beauty turned cadaverous, clothed in the matted hanks of her once glorious red hair. Toothless and gaunt, her expression was the wrung-out rag of a gasp. She might have been a female Christ or Francis, for all intents dead except for the fact that she hasn’t quite yielded herself entirely to suffering, to universal pity. She’s still the particular Mary Magdalene to whom this particular trial has happened: there was still some vigor in the muscles of her arms, in the grip of her feet on thie pedestal. She’d submitted herself to penance without quite surrendering her capacity for defiance. She was still this Mary, the individual with a unique history, character, and passion, the kind of person everyone was beginning to become in the Renaissance.

Donatello made this famed sculpture near the end of his life, in the year 1454. Here are two contemporary photos:

mary_magdalen_donatello_opa_florence donatello-maddalena-firenze-museo-dellopera-del-duomo


You can click on this link and replicate my search or enter the name of David Lees in the search box to see additional photos of  “l’inondazione.”


  1. Lourdes said,

    Have you read Brunelleschi’s Dome by Ross King? Also a good book on Florence history. I’ll have to add Dark Water to my list of books to read.

  2. Roberta Rood said,

    Hi, Lourdes; no, I haven’t read the Ross King. Clark mentions it, & I’ve certainly heard of it. I want to read it but might wait till there’s a glimmer of possibility of actually getting me back to Florence…

  3. Classic short stories: Henry James « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] say that I recently selected a Henry James story to read  because Robert Clark discusses it in Dark Water, his book about Florence, Italy. James knew the city well and admired it. “The Madonna of the […]

  4. Baltimore’s jewel: The Walters Art Museum « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] (See Dark Water.) […]

  5. Joe Bott said,

    First I’ve come across young Bernard’s ( Bernhard at this stage) photo . I’m on the trail of Henry Adams. Adam’s and Berenson were friends turn 20th century . Booked marked your blog .. nice

  6. Favorite nonfiction of 2008 « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] there is  Dark Water: Flood and Redemption in the City of Masterpieces, by Robert Clark. Perhaps because of my recollections of visiting Florence before and after the […]

  7. burstallcross said,

    I’m currently reading this amazing book now and your thoughts on it are precisely right . . . thanks for putting this out there so others may also realize how fragile culture can be!

  8. Book : a brief commentary – Tina Opines said,

    […] Books To Ceiling […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: