In England, early November is usually associated with fire: 5 November, Guy Fawkes, gunpowder, treason, and all that. From a conservation point of view 4 November marks a more recent – and sombre – anniversary due to another ‘element’: water. On that date the River Arno inundated the city of Florence, with flood-waters reaching nearly 7m in some places. As well as killing over 100 people, the 1966 flood also did massive harm to the rich cultural heritage of this famous centre of the Renaissance. Collections particularly badly affected included the Archivio di Opera del Duomo, the Biblioteca del Gabinetto Vieusseux, the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze, and the Archivio di Stato di Firenze. Hundreds of thousands of records, books, and other art and artefacts were damaged prompting a huge international conservation effort. Volunteers were known as ‘mud angels’. The challenge of this immense operation prompted innovation, and the flood became a key moment in the development of modern conservation, with new concepts like ‘phase conservation’ and methods such as mass deacidification deployed.
The Chantry holds the proceedings of a symposium to mark the 40th anniversary of the flood: Conservation legacies of the Florence flood of 1966 (Con/Spa).
If this might seem a grim moment to commemorate such a disaster; perhaps it can serve as a reminder of the cooperation and innovation that these sort of events can prompt. The next ‘Ask of conservator day‘ on 18 November is being held in remembrance of the Florence flood, following in the ‘spirit of that international collaboration and exchange of knowledge’. Use the #AskAConservator hashtag on social media platforms then to engage with conservators in the 21st century.