Florence Exhibition Marks 1966 Flood

Members of the 1966-67 Gonzaga-in-Florence class. (Photo courtesy of the Nancy Dunne Scrapbook; Gonzaga University Archives.)

October 28, 2016

FLORENCE, Italy – Gonzaga-in-Florence, Gonzaga University’s flagship study abroad program begun here in 1963, marked the 50th anniversary of the devastating flooding of the Arno River on Nov. 4, 1966, one of the worst in Florence history, with a special exhibition on the evening of Wednesday, Nov. 16 in the Mozilo Center.

The flood damaged or ruined masterpieces of art and rare books, although some of these works have been restored. Throughout 1966 and 1967, volunteers helped residents clean local churches, homes and museums and were called “Angeli del fango,” which translates to “mud angels.” Some of the 90 Gonzaga students studying in Florence during the 1966-67 academic year also became mud angels and helped the locals in the aftermath of the flood. Many of the volunteers struggled through waist-deep water in the piazzas, and felt the mud seep into their shoes or remove them. Oil rose to the top of the water and covered their skin. Door panels had fallen off and littered the city’s streets.

View a video of some of the GIF alumni from the 1966-67 academic year reminiscing about the flood:

Jason Houston, director of GIF, said the exhibition will include special materials and photos from the flood along with video interviews of Gonzaga students who helped in the flood’s aftermath.

“In commemorating the Flood of ’66 and the role our students played in the aftermath, we are condoling with the City of Florence. But, we are also celebrating two aspects of the Gonzaga-in-Florence program that distinguish us from other programs here in Florence: our long and continuous presence in the Tuscan capital and our past, present and future commitment to civic engagement in the Florentine community. From the memory of grief and destruction come examples of selflessness and humanity,” Houston said.

Carlo Mancini, director of the UNESCO World Heritage site “Historic Centre of Florence,” and Antonina Bargellini, daughter of former Florence Mayor Piero Bargellini, who was mayor during the flood, spoke at the exhibition. Bargellini read her personal correspondence between her late father and the late Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy, who had volunteered for flood clean-up efforts. Other speakers included former GIF Professors Patrick Burke and Francesco Vossilla.

A group of two dozen alumni from the GIF class of 1966-67 gathered recently in San Francisco for their 50th anniversary and reminisced about the flood. While most of the volunteers helped their neighbors rid their houses of mud, rotting floorboards and oil, some students, including history major Melissa Sitter who worked in a museum, helped save Florentine artifacts.

“They instructed us on how to do it and how to use these museum papers, how to dry the things out so they wouldn’t be spoiled,” Sitter said.

Alumna Maureen Sheridan remembered cleaning Italian Professor Adelaide Baldini’s home with 20 to 30 other volunteers.

“We picked up the parquet floor and threw it outside,” she said. “There wasn’t any water to hose off so we were just scraping mud. I just remember my job was trying to clean the oil off of her walls.”

The smell and sense of devastation seemed to transform Florence into an entirely different place, said alumna Mary Doherty. She had worked on the Ghiberti’s Baptistry doors, right across the steps from the city’s Duomo Cathedral.

“When something you love is damaged, you want to help,” Doherty said. “That year in Florence, we became a community of people who needed each other, who loved each other.”

On the evening of Nov. 4, the actual flood date, Houston and others took part in a candlelight procession from the Chiesa of San Miniato to Piazza Santa Croce.

For more information, please contact Jason Houston in Florence at +39 055 215 226 or via email at Houston@gonzaga.edu.

Photo courtesy of the Nancy Dunne Scrapbook; Gonzaga University Archives.