Fifty years ago this month, my wife and I were living in the cramped servants’ quarters of a grand 19th-century villa above the city of Florence. Early in the morning of Nov. 4, I left there for the Kunsthistorisches Institut, the great German research library for Italian Renaissance art where I was a graduate fellow. Rain was cascading from a slate-gray sky, just as it had done for days before. As I nosed my Volkswagen Beetle toward the center of the city, I saw a torrent of water in the street. “Big water-main break,” I thought, and turned toward a bridge farther upstream.
As the Beetle crossed the Piazzale Michelangelo, I glanced toward the city below, horrified to see its historic center swamped by water from the swollen river Arno. Alarmingly the water had reached the second stories of many of its ancient buildings. There would be no crossing the Arno that day. Clearly this was a monster flood of the river that one of the souls in Dante’s Purgatorio calls that “damned and accursed ditch.”
Early on Nov. 6 I could finally enter the city. I made my way in via the Ponte Vecchio, the oldest and most famous of Florence’s bridges, and the only one to escape destruction by the Nazis during World War II. Hitler had a sentimental attachment to it, and so ordered it left intact.
But what Hitler had saved, nature had now shattered. The jewelry shops on the bridge were gutted, some of them pierced by large trees that had been uprooted upstream and hurtled through the structures like giant javelins. From the Ponte Vecchio, one could see that some of the roads on the far bank had collapsed, tumbling parked automobiles into the Arno or leaving them dangling from its embankments.
Once I was on the other side of the bridge, things looked even worse. By this time the flood had mostly receded, leaving the streets filled with sticky, brown Arno muck. Hundreds of thousands of tons of water had poured into the city and, mixed with the heating oil from the basements of countless apartment buildings, it had stained the walls of churches and palazzos, in some places up to 20 feet high. And it left an unforgettable, acrid stench in its wake.
Arriving at the Piazza del Duomo, the site of Florence’s medieval cathedral, I saw a scene of devastation. The whole area looked more like the site of some great explosion, or the aftermath of a battle, than a flood. Cars were tossed aside and overturned like so many matchsticks. Vehicles had hit the nearby Baptistery, ricocheted off, and were now sprawled on the steps of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. The water had burst open Lorenzo Ghiberti’s famous bronze Baptistery doors, dubbed the “Gates of Paradise” by Michelangelo. Some of their beautiful gilded bronze panels, masterpieces of early Renaissance sculpture, had been knocked out of their frames. Others were still intact but covered in mud.
From the cathedral, I headed for the church of Santa Croce. I was worried about the fate of the frescoes there by the little-known 14th-century painter Agnolo Gaddi, the subject of the dissertation I was researching in Florence. Gaddi’s paintings were unharmed, but in time other frescoes in the church, and throughout the city, were peeled from their walls to protect them from water damage.
Though the Gaddis had been spared, the racing Arno had blown off the doors of the church’s museum, an old refectory housing some of its greatest art. Its contents, most famously the magnificent wooden “Crucifix” (c. 1265) by Cimabue were now submerged. As the wood swelled with water, the artwork’s thin tempera paint crumbled, leaving large empty areas in what was one of the city’s most important paintings: a medieval work whose moving depiction of human pain and suffering foreshadows the realism of the Renaissance and, its creator, Giotto.
Making my way back home, I walked by the Uffizi Gallery. Its treasures on the upper floors were spared, but the Archivio di Stato, the State Archive, on its ground floor, was not so fortunate. Thousands of unique notary, tax and other civic and religious documents dating back to the Middle Ages were housed in the flooded quarters of the archive’s rooms. These, along with other rare manuscripts relating to the city’s economic, social and demographic history, were of great importance, for Florence was not only the cradle of Renaissance art, but of much of the subsequent development of European merchant banking and trade. I knew the archive well, having spent many a frustrating day there puzzling out ledgers in Latin and Italian listing Gaddi’s residences and taxes, among other records of his life.
In the next weeks, I met many conservators and scholars from all over the world who, along with the Florentine and other Italian professionals, had flocked to the city, bringing their technical know-how to rescue the city’s art. Many other volunteers came simply because they loved the storied city. It was an international rescue mission that affirmed the universal importance of art for all humanity, something worth recalling in these days of its wanton destruction by the enemies of civilization.
Eventually, the city was cleaned up, stores and cafes opened, a trickle of tourists appeared, city services resumed. Over a number of years, many of the damaged masterpieces were skillfully restored. Panels from the Gates of Paradise are now displayed in the cathedral’s museum along with other works that were damaged by the flood, most notably Donatello’s harrowing wooden statue of the emaciated Mary Magdalene (c. 1455), whose original bright gold surface was revealed during its restoration. To preserve Cimabue’s “Crucifix” as the symbol of the flood’s devastation it had become, experts stabilized the entire artwork, conserved and repaired as much of the painted surface as possible, but left the rest in its scarred state.
Several months later, I returned to the Institut to continue my research. Compared with many other inhabitants of Florence, I had lost comparatively little—nothing but time. Yet, for me, and the others who witnessed nature’s force cause suffering, death and the destruction of many of the city’s treasures, the flood was a parenthesis in one’s life, a break between the past and the future, a momentous, unforgettable physical and psychological shock.
I have been back to Florence many times since, but as the train up from Rome speeds toward the city and the great dome of the cathedral comes into view, it’s those dark days of a November half a century ago that first flood my memory.
Mr. Cole, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.