Dark Water: Art, Disaster, and Redemption in Florence

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9780767926492: Dark Water: Art, Disaster, and Redemption in Florence

Birthplace of Michelangelo and home to untold masterpieces, Florence is a city for art lovers. But on November 4, 1966, the rising waters of the Arno threatened to erase over seven centuries of history and human achievement.

Now Robert Clark explores the Italian city’s greatest flood and its aftermath through the voices of its witnesses. Two American artists wade through the devastated beauty; a photographer stows away on an army helicopter to witness the tragedy first-hand; a British “mud angel” spends a month scraping mold from the world’s masterpieces; and, through it all, an author asks why art matters so very much to us, even in the face of overwhelming disaster.

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About the Author:

ROBERT CLARK is the author of the novels In the Deep Midwinter, Mr. White’s Confession, and Love Among the Ruins as well as the nonfiction books My Grandfather’s House, River of the West, and The Solace of Food: A Life of James Beard.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

One
I grandi fiumi sono l'immagine del tempo,
Crudele e impersonale. Osservati da un ponte
Dichiarano la loro nullitÆ inesorabile_._._.
The great rivers are the image of time,
Cruel and impersonal. Observed from a bridge
They declare their implacable nullity_._._.

--Eugenio Montale, "L'Arno a Rovezzano"

There is Florence and there is Firenze. Firenze is the place where the citizens of the capital of Tuscany live and work. Florence is the place where the rest of us come to look. Firenze goes back around two thousand years to the Romans and, at least in legend, the Etruscans. But Florence was founded in perhaps the early 1800s when expatriate French, English, Germans, and not a few Americans settled here to meditate on art and the locale--the genius of the place--that produced it. Over the next two centuries a considerable part of the rest of the world followed them for shorter visits--"visit" being derived from the Latin vistare, "to go to see," and, further back, from videre, simply "to see"--in the form of what came to be called tourism. The Florentines are here, as they have always been, to live and work; to primp, boast, cajole, and make sardonic, acerbic asides; to count their money and hoard their real estate, the stuff--la roba--in their attics and cellars, and their secrets. We are here for the view.

But it's so easy to miss so very much. The more you look, the less you see. If something is not after a fashion framed, hung on a wall, stood on a pedestal, monumentalized, encased by columns and architraves, boxed in marble, or dressed in architectural stone, it fizzles into background. If the conjunction of earth, water, and sky doesn't form a landscape--nature on exhibition--rather than mere land, they disappear, recede into the black hole, the gorga nera, the underworld of the unseen.

For example, in late October 2005 I'd already been in Florence two months, gazing at art, gazing at the opaque screen of my laptop, before I noticed the plaque. I suppose we--Carrie, Andrew, and I--had settled into a routine. We were living on the Piazza del Carmine. At one end is the church of Santa Maria del Carmine, to which our elderly neighbor--known to us only as la Signora--shuffles off to mass each day. Within the church is the Brancacci Chapel and its frescoes by Masaccio. History's first art historian, a Florentine named Giorgio Vasari, called them la scuola del mondo, "the art school of the world," the essential work that every other Renaissance artist came to study, the spark that set off the fire. The image that most of us know best is the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the harrowed and weeping figures of Adam and Eve stoop-shouldered, clutching their genitals, the shame and the pity that launched the fallen world. You look at them and for a moment it seems that all that too began just here.

At the other end of the piazza is an enormous palazzo I'd heard belonged to the Ferragamo family, the shoe and fashion dynasty from Naples to whom it's said many things in Florence belong. Sometimes you can see into the central garden and its lemon grove through the gate. Once I saw a Labrador retriever gamboling among the trees. I've never seen anyone coming or going, but then Florence seemed to me very much about boundaries and privacy--secret and hidden things. That sense was abetted by the annoyingly narrow sidewalks upon which two people can scarcely pass each other without one of them having to step off the curb. The walls of the palazzi press right up against the street, fiercely rusticated, studded with massive ring hitches and iron sconces for riders and torches that disappeared long ago. The walls ascend beyond your sight and inside the palazzi, I've heard, descend nearly as far in layers of cellars, tunnels, and strong rooms. You're not, of course, meant to see any of this. You're not even meant--so the unnavigable sidewalk seems to intend--to stop here, to consider it.

Between the church and the palazzo with the lemon grove--between the naked shame of Adam and Eve and the veiled upstart pride of the Ferragamos--is a cafe and bar called Dolce Vita. I'm told it was the chicest nightclub in Florence during the nineties and that, after a brief decline at the turn of the millennium, it's come back as il piu trendy place in the city. Unlike its unforthcoming neighbors, it spills outward into the piazza, past the jetty of the outdoor seating area, and, as the night ripens, onto the street, where the police are writing tickets for the double- and triple-parked Alfas, Mercedeses, Lamborghinis, and Ferraris. I've never stopped here--never mind gone inside--but I've pressed through the beautiful throng in the evenings and perhaps squeezed past an Italian celebrity, a soccer star, a Medici or Frescobaldi or, unbeknownst to me, a Ferragamo.

My life, rather more circumscribed, was across the street. Our apartment was on the second floor of what is called a palazzo--as is any large edifice built around a central cortile--but the building is scarcely grand. I suppose it's four or five hundred years old, and the stonework is pitted and frayed. A family of emigrants from somewhere in the Philippine archipelago lives across the cortile, and adjacent to them the multifloored apartment of the aristocratic owners ranges upward to a series of terraces. There's a crest over the door and I've caught a glimpse of the gold-framed paintings inside and the fusty, once elegant furniture that signals the presence of minor nobility or old money in ebb. Then there's la Signora and us. I've never seen anyone else who lives here. In the cortile there is a heap of rubble and broken stucco. Every three or four weeks someone turns up and, unseen, hauls away a fraction of it. I suppose it will all be gone in a year or so.

I worked in the mornings in our living room and I could see la Signora trudge by, a scarf pulled over her head, through the window that looks out onto the common corridor between our apartments. Inevitably she was looking for her cat, who had wandered into the hall. Amore, tesoro. Vieni quÆ a Mama, she'd call, pushing her lips out from the stumps of her teeth as though in a kiss. I went down to the vestibule for the mail each day around eleven, and sorted through the bills--gas, electricity, water, school lunches--each of which would have to be paid in cash at the post office, signed and countersigned, stamped and stamped again. It was on one of those trips that I noticed, above the rank of ten mailboxes, an inscription:


il iv novembre 1966
l'acqua dell'arno
arrivo a quest'altezza
and beneath it a long red line. The Arno, it said, had reached this height on November 4, 1966.
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.

The line was well above my head, a good seven or so feet from the floor. I didn't make much of it. I knew about the flood. In Minnesota, where I grew up, we'd heard about it at the time, for weeks, in issue after issue of Life magazine. But there were other such markers around the city, recording not just the crest of the great 1966 flood but those of 1177, 1333, 1557, 1740, 1844, and 1864. I supposed there would, of course, be more floods. Florence proved--in its squabbling and treacheries, its beauties arising miraculously from its corruptions; in all that Dante recorded and that drove him into exile as Adam and Eve went into exile; and in his descent to Hell, circuit of Purgatory, and return--that what goes around comes around.

Most afternoons I worked a little more and then Carrie or I picked up Andrew from school. I generally took him to a park, a large walled expanse that was once the cloistered garden of the church of Santa Maria del Carmine. Andrew played soccer with the Italian kids, and had learned to negotiate his place in the game with relative ease despite his still very basic Italian. What took time was setting up the partita in the first place, even though there were only a half dozen players. Everything had to be discussed, argued, and arbitrated, and it often seemed to me that these arrangements took longer than the game that eventually got played; nearly as long as it takes the kids' fractious elders in Rome to form a government.

So I passed much of the autumn sitting on a park bench while Andrew played, and in that time I managed to work my way through Il Piacere, the masterwork of the self-styled decadent and protofascist Gabriele d'Annunzio. The novel's argument seemed to be that a surfeit of beauty, of the aesthetic, must end in moral and spiritual bankruptcy. But who could believe that, in this city of masterpieces where I had Masaccio's Adam and Eve at one end of my block and the secret lemon grove of the Ferragamos at the other; where the light and trees even then, close on the November anniversary of that terrible flood, had scarcely begun to color?

In the evening we often ate at the Trattoria del Carmine, which is perhaps a hundred feet up the street from our door. Under an awning there is a little terrazza that extends into the piazza and there or sometimes inside we were accustomed to eat our crostini, ribollita, pollo arrosto, and tagliata di manzo, passing an hour or so with a bottle of Morellino di Scanso. It was always pretty much the same--in the mode of la Signora and her cat, of the daily mail, of the debris in the courtyard--and I liked this. So perhaps it was habit that blinded me. In any case, for more than two months I didn't notice the photograph hanging at rafter height in the trattoria's side dining room.

Maybe it didn't bear noticing: at most eleven by fourteen inches, it was faded, off kilter, and muddy in tone. The first thing that cau...

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Descrizione libro Random House USA Inc, United States, 2009. Paperback. Condizione libro: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. Birthplace of Michelangelo and home to untold masterpieces, Florence is a city for art lovers. But on November 4, 1966, the rising waters of the Arno threatened to erase over seven centuries of history and human achievement. Now Robert Clark explores the Italian city s greatest flood and its aftermath through the voices of its witnesses. Two American artists wade through the devastated beauty; aphotographer stows away on an army helicopter to witness the tragedy first-hand; a British mud angel spends a month scraping mold from the world s masterpieces; and, through it all, an author asks why art matters so very much to us, even in the face of overwhelming disaster. Codice libro della libreria AAS9780767926492

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Descrizione libro Random House USA Inc, United States, 2009. Paperback. Condizione libro: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. Birthplace of Michelangelo and home to untold masterpieces, Florence is a city for art lovers. But on November 4, 1966, the rising waters of the Arno threatened to erase over seven centuries of history and human achievement. Now Robert Clark explores the Italian city s greatest flood and its aftermath through the voices of its witnesses. Two American artists wade through the devastated beauty; aphotographer stows away on an army helicopter to witness the tragedy first-hand; a British mud angel spends a month scraping mold from the world s masterpieces; and, through it all, an author asks why art matters so very much to us, even in the face of overwhelming disaster. Codice libro della libreria AAS9780767926492

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Descrizione libro Anchor. Paperback. Condizione libro: New. Paperback. 368 pages. Dimensions: 7.9in. x 5.1in. x 0.8in.Birthplace of Michelangelo and home to untold masterpieces, Florence is a city for art lovers. But on November 4, 1966, the rising waters of the Arno threatened to erase over seven centuries of history and human achievement. Now Robert Clark explores the Italian citys greatest flood and its aftermath through the voices of its witnesses. Two American artists wade through the devastated beauty; aphotographer stows away on an army helicopter to witness the tragedy first-hand; a British mud angel spends a month scraping mold from the worlds masterpieces; and, through it all, an author asks why art matters so very much to us, even in the face of overwhelming disaster. This item ships from multiple locations. Your book may arrive from Roseburg,OR, La Vergne,TN. Paperback. Codice libro della libreria 9780767926492

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