Topic Essay

You will never love art well till you love what she mirrors better.
–John Ruskin

Florence is considered by most scholars to be the birthplace of the Renaissance, and there is no lack of reminders within the city itself. Art from the city’s golden age is ubiquitous. Tourists and students flock to the city every year to see and study its art and architecture. Not only have Florence’s great works remained relevant, but they have earned new meanings as they have passed through time. This exhibition presents examples of the art and iconic symbols of Florence and examines the effect of threat and destruction on its art and cultural history during World War II and the 1966 flood of the Arno River. These two twentieth century events, one natural and one man-made disaster, wreaked havoc on Florentines and their cultural heritage. But these two periods also demonstrated the great devotion to the city and its art from Florentines and foreigners alike.

During the Second World War, in anticipation of Allied air raids, the city known for its art was emptied of it. All of Florence’s treasure’s that could be moved were placed in repositories outside the city, away from main roads and railroads. No two works by famous artists were sent to the same place (Brey, 16), reminiscent of the rule barring family members from serving together to prevent families from losing all their children in one blow. Florence sustained less damage and casualties than some of its neighbors; 200 people died within the city and the majority of its art and architecture remained intact. The greatest material losses were the destruction of the bridges, excluding the Ponte Vecchio, and streets, medieval buildings and towers around the Ponte Vecchio, which were mined by the Germans to prevent Allied passage over the one remaining bridge.

The Italians had spent twenty years under a Fascist dictatorship and were briefly occupied by their own allies, the Germans. After Florence’s liberation, its residents not only surveyed the damage done to one of the most beautiful cities in the world, but to their home–a home that was intrinsically tied to its artistic and cultural heritage. This was well understood after a moment of terrible destruction. Writer Giorgio Querci wrote of smoking rubble around near bridgeless Arno, “never before had the monuments felt so much like our own monuments […] the most intimate and familiar aspect of our landscape, the face of our city, our childhood, our life, our very soul.” (Brey 148-149)

With the help of officers from the Allies’ Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives programs (MFAA), works of art were eventually recovered and returned home to Florence. The bridges and neighborhoods around the Arno would be rebuilt over the next decade. Many medieval towers and buildings around the Arno were lost forever.

Nearly two decades later, another disaster would strike Florence. While the flood was not internationally catastrophic like the War and the human cost less–33 people died in Florence with another hundred in the Valdarno–the city’s art was far more devastated. But as this disaster was singularly focused on Florence, it gained international attention. The city, which had some aid from outside in the form of Allied monuments officers and money to find and fix their art and their city during World War II, saw an overwhelming outpouring of help from all over the world in 1966. This time money was also sent to save Florence, but thousands of people, many of them young students and artists, dubbed “mud angels” flooded the city. At first these angeli del fango began cropping up from within Florence, others came or returned home from other parts of Italy. Then they came from all over the world. The restorations that followed took years, and some of it still continues today.

The list immediately after the disaster was considerable: over 321 panel paintings; 413 on canvas; 13 fresco cycles; 39 single frescoes; 31 other frescoes; 158 sculptures; thousands and thousands of manuscripts and books. (Clark, 181) While the Ponte Santa Trinita was rebuilt after 1944, certain victims of the flood remained permanently and noticeably damaged even after restoration, such as the Cimabue Crucifix. Other works of art, books, and manuscripts are still waiting to be fixed today.

Florence’s treasures have always been a part of its cultural and daily life, but the suffering and loss caused by WWII and the Arno flood serve as telling reminders how vital they really are to its identity. The twelve pieces examined herein aim to give glimpses into Florence’s Renaissance art and architecture in changing contexts, the emotional reactions of those who loved Florence—both Florentines and non-Florentines—to the threat to or loss of Florence’s art and cultural heritage, and the call to action many inside and outside the city took to save it.


• Brey, I.D. (2009). The Venus fixers: the remarkable story of the allied soldiers who saved Italy’s art during World War II. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

• Clark, R. (2008). Dark water: art, disaster, and redemption in Florence. New York: Anchor Books.

• Hartt, F. (1949). Florentine art under fire. Princeton: Princeton University Press


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