The Arno bursts its banks (Balthazar Korab)
“I can think of better times of year to visit Tuscany,” said Napoleon, looking gloomily out at the torrential rain.
Illya felt unusual disquiet. “This road is beginning to flood badly.” There was so much water under their wheels, he was anxious to avoid aquaplaning. “Can you see the river at all?”
“There’s suddenly a mass of water going down it a lot faster than we are.”
Illya stopped the car to look. “And heading for Florence – and Pisa, too. They must have released a dam.”
“We’d better get going or we’ll be caught.”
It was late afternoon when they arrived in Florence. “I think we’ll leave the car on the other side of the river, on higher ground,” said Illya. The river was level with the parapet already when they crossed back on foot into the city. The Piazza Santa Croce was full of parked cars and all the little workshops around the square were boarded up, the craftsmen all away for the celebration of November 4’s Armed Forces Day. There would be no-one to rescue their contents if a flood did come.
“Thrush isn’t going to find it easy if the river bursts its banks, that’s something,” said Napoleon.
“No, it may dampen their ardour a little.”
“It’s certainly dampening mine. Where do we aim for first?”
“Parts of this city are very low-lying,” said Illya. “You may say I’m pessimistic, but I think we ought to buy rubber boots, just in case. Before everything closes tomorrow for the celebrations.”
Rubber boots were still available – did everyone have boots already, or was no-one aware of what was happening upstream? Illya told the salesman what they’d seen, and he merely shrugged. The Arno often floods, he said.
Awakened by screams in the early hours of the morning, they leaped out of bed, weapons in hand. Out in the corridor they found frightened hotel guests from lower floors rushing up the stairs with their belongings. Napoleon looked over the stairwell and saw water pouring into the building and filling the ground floor.
“Don’t get your hopes up about breakfast tomorrow, partner,” said Napoleon to his suddenly-despondent companion. They returned to their room and opened the window to see what was happening. They could hear water rushing along below, bringing debris with it and sweeping cars into heaps. It was rising fast.
“How high would you say we are, here?” said Napoleon.
“Eighteen feet? Something like that,” said Illya.
“Then it’s already over ten feet – it’s into the floor below. Better get dressed in case we have to move.”
Pulling on clothes and the boots, they looked out again. Even in that short time the water had risen a couple of feet. They went out into the corridor to see if anyone needed help, though there was little anyone could do till daylight – they certainly couldn’t get out.
They were trapped for a while next morning. The scene was indescribable as the waters retreated. Illya was concerned for the collections in the National Library which was right next to the river. “Let’s go there,” he said, “they’ll need help.”
But they couldn’t get to it. It was cut off by the water which carried a film of fuel oil on its surface while, underneath, very thick slippery mud was full of unseen obstacles. At Santa Croce the mess was an indication of what the rest of the city had suffered. They heard later that Cimabue’s great 13th-century cross which usually hung there had been on display in a museum near the river. It was found soaking in muddy water when the water level dropped. Someone had collected the specks of paint floating around it that contained Christ’s face and much of his body.
Visitors to the city were everywhere, desperate to help. They had no possessions or property to worry about so were free to rescue the glory of Florence from the mud – books, manuscripts, paintings, anything that could be removed from flooded buildings. Seeing the many foreigners’ unstinting labour in the cold, and without anywhere to wash, the Florentines called them ‘angeli del fango’, mud angels.
The UNCLE agents abandoned any thoughts of their mission. Illya was black to the eyebrows, Napoleon only a little less so. They finally reached the Library where more than a million books and manuscripts had been stored below ground and were beyond saving. Illya, in tears, was far from alone in his grief. “Our lives are so short,” he wept, “here is where we live for ever … here, in books – in art –and now…”
Napoleon could think of nothing to say to comfort him except, “Let’s get in and help. We can try to save some of it.”
The Florence flood disaster happened on 4 November 1966. In the preceding 24 hours, more than 17 inches of rain fell in the Arno catchment area, 7.5 inches in Florence itself. The ensuing flood burst into Florence at around 60 km/37 miles per hour, catching the whole city unawares. A river bank collapsed; central heating oil-tanks were ruptured (everything, including marble statues in the Uffizi were impregnated with it), parts of the city were flooded to a depth of about 16 feet. Millions of art works, books, the city archives, and manuscripts were destroyed or damaged – and five decades later much of it still awaits repair. American students and other visitors, whom the citizens called ‘mud angels’, helped to rescue much of what survived. Many experts and other helpers arrived to do what they could, after the flood.