National Geographic : 1967 Jul
wandered through the ruin a few weeks later. A square-shouldered man in his fifties, he still wore the weariness of the ordeal. When the doors burst open, a thundering wave swept down the long nave and broke in a torrent of foam against the altar. Oil-black crests clawed at 15th-century masterpieces Sandro Botticelli's fresco "Saint Augustine," Domenico Ghirlandaio's "Saint Jerome" and "Madonna of Mercy." One of the priests, Father Pietro, plunged into the cold waters and struggled toward the doors, hoping to force them closed. He was driven back, numbed and exhausted, as the Arno dug at his knees and dragged him down. Oily handprint of the flood smears a 10 foot-high signpost pointing the way to a museum commemorating Michelangelo and to Santa Croce, a church he knew well. "This saved me," he said with a self-con scious smile. He held up the end of a long curtain rope that he had clutched and hung onto before his companions fished him back with the help of a cane. By early afternoon, the Arno had plunged deep into the labyrinth of Florence. A strong tide from the city swept into the church from the opposite direction, and with a final irony slammed shut the very doors the Arno had first broken through. For days afterward, the priests of Ognis santi looked down from their windows upon the devastation. And all Firenze Bella around them looked like a lake bottom, slimy and reeking, seemingly buried forever. F IRENZE BELLA. Beautiful Florence, the mother country of Western man. It is fair to say that much of what we know today of painting and sculpture, of architec ture and political science, of scientific method and economic theory, we owe to the artists, politicians, statesmen, bankers, and merchants of the Renaissance-that explosion of intel lectual and artistic energy in Italy between 1300 and 1600. And Florentines stood at the turbulent center of the Renaissance. Here the Middle Ages climaxed in the cos mic journey of exiled Dante through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise; here the wandering Petrarch sang the first sweet notes of modern poetry and inspired Boccaccio to develop the modern prose narrative. In Florence, Galileo pursued his studies of motion that would lead eventually to Newton and the law of gravity. First man to gaze through a telescope upon the moons of Jupiter and the lunar landscape, Galileo changed forever our concept of the universe. Here Machiavelli, watching in his own time the tragic progress from autocracy to repub licanism to tyranny, left a legacy of political thought that still instructs statesmen. But Florence's greatest glory was its galaxy of artists-Cimabue and his great pupil Giotto; Masaccio, Uccello, Fra Filippo Lippi, Bot ticelli, Leonardo da Vinci; the sculptors Ghi berti, Donatello, and mighty Michelangelo; the architects Brunelleschi, Alberti, Miche lozzo, to name but a few. Many of their works remain in place in a city essentially unchanged for 400 years. These thoughts of Florence were common to the world on November 4, when the first news of tragedy crackled across continents. At dawn the Arno River had risen from its banks. The sleeping city, an incomparable treasure house of art, had been engulfed in a roaring tide of silt-laden water and fuel oil. Was it possible? How did it happen? What had been lost? What could be saved? Those questions were on our minds as a NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC team-illustrations editor Tom Smith, artist Bob Nicholson, and I-hastily prepared for a sad mission. We went to Florence to record a disaster-little knowing that in the weeks and months to come we would also report a miracle. Bending to a heartbreaking task, nuns and a student volunteer join in reclaiming Florence. They clean out the sodden wreckage of a religious-articles shop near the cathedral. In one day and night, churning water that struck without warning brought incalculable grief and despoiled one of mankind's richest centers of art. But the Floren tines set in motion a miracle of recovery. Today this shop-like most others swamped by the Arno-has reopened. EKTACHROMES BY LEETHODY(ABOVE)ANDBALTHAZARKORAB© N.G.S.