Two days after the devastating Florence Flood, November 4, 1966, the twenty-foot torrent that swept through the city was gone, but the piazzas, streets, churches homes, and businesses were buried in mud, naphthalene heating oil, mountains of waste, household goods, wrecked cars and even farm animals that had been swept down the valley. There was no potable water or electricity. Food was in short supply because most of the stores, including the massive Mercato Centrale had been flooded.
The federal government was slow to act, but first the Florentines pulled together in solidarity, neighbor helping neighbor, and then as news of the enormity of the disaster spread, volunteers arrived from the neighboring hill towns. The stream of helpers soon became another kind of flood with thousands of people coming from every region of Italy, western Europe and America, pulled by the catastrophic loss of the historic and artistic patrimony of Florence, but also to support the Florentines in their time of greatest need.
Those that came were mostly young, in their teens, twenties and thirties. They filled the hostels and pensiones and even slept in rows of sleeping bags at the train station. With an extraordinary spirit of sacrifice this youthful multi-lingual army shoveled away tons of mud, wiped sticky oil off of marble statues, rescued sodden books, and distributed food and water. Thousands of young people dedicated their time to recover from the mud paintings, books, frescoes, carvings, statues and other works of art.
They went without warm showers, heated rooms, clean clothes and hot food. Because of their dedication and solidarity they were named “Gli Angeli del Fango” (The Angels of the Mud). The name was apt also because mud was a constant companion at work, while asleep and at meals.
“You could call them volunteers, except they hadn’t volunteered or been recruited: they’d simply appeared as though from thin air and set to work.
“It was always cold and always damp where they worked, and often where they ate and slept. There was, of course, a surfeit of Chianti dispensed from immense demijohns just as there was limitless talk and laughter. People fell in love: with art; with one another; with themselves, because how often did you get to be a hero, much less an angel.”
Senator Edward M. Kennedy said in 1966:
“I remember that I was in Geneva at a conference on refugees and I wanted to see what had occurred, so I flew in to Florence for the day. I got to the library about 5 PM and I looked down into the flooded area. There was no electricity and massive candles had been set up to provide the necessary light to rescue the books.
“It was terribly cold and yet I saw students up to their waists in water. They had formed a line to pass along the books so that they could be retrieved from the water and then handed on to a safer area to have preservatives put on them. Everywhere I looked in the great main reading room, there were hundreds and hundreds of young people who had all gathered to help.
“It was as if they knew that this flooding of the library was putting their soul at risk. I found it incredibly inspiring to see this younger generation all united in this vital effort. It reminded me of the young people in the United States who responded with the same determination as they became involved in the civil rights movement.
“I was still shivering as I boarded the plane that took me back to Geneva, but I couldn’t stop thinking of the impressive solemnity of that scene – of all those students, oblivious to the biting cold and the muddy water, quietly concentrating on saving books in the flickering candlelight. I will never forget it.”
“[It] was the international community that worked to try to save Florence, this unique patrimony that belonged to the whole world,” said Mario Primicerio, former mayor of Florence on the 30th anniversary of the Florence Flood.
The fall of 2014 has been one of the wettest on record throughout northern Italy. The Arno is rising, but the cities that have seen the worst floods are Genoa and Massa Carrara. Genoa now in the eye of the storm is where a new generation of Mud Angels is coming to the aid of the port city.
Each day more Mud Angels are joining the struggle in the Liguria region. Most are high school and university students living in Genoa, but they are also from Eastern Europe and Africa and Italy.
Unlike the word-of-mouth organization of the Angeli del Fango of 1966, the modern angels are using social media, Facebook and Twitter, to put out the word about where the needs are greatest. As the rain moves east the Mud Angels will be helping in the hamlets and towns along the Po Valley. The spirit of world’s youth is answering the call of people in distress and once again they are saving great works of artistic and historical significance.