Tuesday, June 25, 2013

1333 and 1966, Florence - Some Striking Parallels

Two plaques in via San Remigio, showing how high the floodwaters came in 1333 and 1966

"L'Arno è fuori!"

The Arno is out.  Out of its banks, out of bounds, out of control.  Thus did some frightened person sound the alarm at 7:00 in the morning on November 4, 1966, alerting the band of Franciscans in Florence's great church of Santa Croce that the escaped waters were barreling toward them.  The river had broken through, and a torrent of water, already tainted with oil and debris, was about to inundate Florence's lowest-lying neighborhood.

It was to be a disaster, a citywide tragedy, resulting in more than 30 deaths and enormous hardship and loss of property, including damage to irreplaceable works of art and to vast numbers of ancient books and historical records.  But it was not unprecedented.

Leonardo da Vinci:  Deluge over a city, from The Nature of Water

Rewind exactly 633 years, to the same date - November 4 - in 1333.  Here's Florentine chronicler Giovanni Villani, an eyewitness, writing of that flood:
By Thursday noon, November 4, the Arno had swollen so vastly at Florence that it covered the whole plain of San Salvi... And at the first sleep of night the water washed away the city wall above the Corso de' Tintori... Thereupon the whole volume of the flood rushed into the city with such fury that it filled all Florence.... And when [the statue of] Mars had fallen and all the houses between the Ponte Vecchio and the Carraia bridge had come down and all the streets on both banks were covered with ruins--to look at this scene was to stare at chaos.  (Translation by F. Schevill)
There had been other floods in the intervening years, many of them, but these two remain the most devastating.  

When we approach November 4, 2013, the 47th anniversary of one disaster and the 680th anniversary of the other, I will perhaps blog at length about these floods, but today I want to focus on one small aspect of both events and observe some striking parallels.

How would you feel if you were a prisoner, locked in your cell, and you heard that dreaded cry:  "L'Arno è fuori!"? 


Had you been a prisoner in 1333, your prison would have been Le Stinche, a relatively new institution (proposed in 1297, and still under construction in the early years of the 14th century).  You might have been incarcerated for true criminal activities, but you might just as well find yourself behind those formidable walls for being in debt, or for being an unruly slave or child, imprisoned at the will of your master (or father) to coerce you into more desirable behavior.  Le Stinche was a complex of one- and two-story buildings, a little northwest of Santa Croce and on low ground. 

Le Stinche

A prisoner entering Le Stinche had to stoop to get through the low door, a posture which gave rise to the ironic phrase "Fagli riverenza" (make a reverence, or bow), meaning "Now you've done it; soon you'll be in Le Stinche."

A man "makes his reverence"

Was it charity that caused the leaders of Florence to remember the unfortunate prisoners, even as the waters washed over the whole city and began to rise?  Was it the knowledge that a mass drowning of people (who, despite their incarceration, were Florentine citizens) would not go over well with the public?  Or was it, perhaps, the awareness that in such a situation the city could lose 500 lire in fines, and private creditors could lose 600-1000 florins? 

Whatever the reason, the city's Priors of the Guilds and the Gonfaloniere di Giustizia sent the four prison wardens a sealed decree, via two messengers:  release the prisoners from their cells and get them up to the roof. 

The Blessed Ranieri, freeing poor prisoners

The wardens complied, with some misgivings.  Eleven men made their escape, out somewhere into the parish of San Simone, by jumping from the rooftop.  For the others - whose ranks included any prisoners housed in the infirmary to recover from punitive amputations or the loss of an eye - help was slow in coming, but it did come, and in time.  The prisoners were removed from the area and temporary housing was found for them, just as it was found for all the other refugees forced from their homes. 

Life would not return to normal for a long time; the mills (located, naturally, on the river) were inundated, and the grain supplies destroyed.  Food was scarce; so was living space.  Estimates of the number of dead go as high as 300 (or 3000, depending on whose chronicle you read), and the number of animals who died was said to be ten times the number of people.  It would take the vast sum of 150,000 florins to rebuild.  Had the prisoners been left in their cells, the number of human casualties could easily have doubled. 


If you were a prisoner in Florence in 1966, your prison would be Le Murate, a former convent whose name means "walled," or "walled up" - equally applicable to cloistered nuns or to prisoners.   No longer a prison, today Le Murate hosts films, art exhibits, concerts, poetry readings, and other cultural activities.

The blank walls of Le Murate, today a cultural and art center
By dawn on the morning of November 4, prisoners - released from their cells - were huddled on the roof.  The jail's governor and his family, less fortunate, remained trapped.  They were eventually released by a group of seven prisoners, who also aided other prisoners who needed help to get out of their cells and to safety.  (Those men who rescued the governor later were pardoned by the President of the Republic, Giuseppe Saragut.  One of their number was a member of a Roman crime family, called by his nickname "Zanzarone" - the Big Mosquito.) 

By mid-morning, some of the men had swum away, clinging to debris.  One man drowned.  One clung to the top of a traffic signal, and was pulled into an upper story window by people who tossed him a rope made of knotted sheets.  They housed him and fed him for several days, not knowing he was a prisoner, until the police came looking for him.

There had been 83 prisoners in all.  Some of them helped to rescue other stranded Florentines.  When the waters receded, many pitched in at first-aid stations and soup kitchens, just as the other people in the neighborhood were doing.  And the people in the neighborhood, in their turn, took the prisoners in and housed them.  Only three did not later turn themselves in:  the man who drowned, and two others who ran but were eventually recaptured. 

Thus, we can find parallels between the two watery disasters, so many years apart, and spare a moment of gratitude that these two groups of prisoners were not left to drown in their cells.

To see a slideshow of the 1966 flood, click here

Images in this post:  The photos of the plaque and of Le Murate are by Sailko, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, via Wikimedia Commons.  Other images are in the public domain.


Julia H. West said...

That was fascinating, and just the sort of thinking I often do. While others think of the rich and famous, I wonder what the little people are doing. And who could be more overlooked in a situation like that than prisoners?

Dorothy said...

It was interesting and made me think of Orleans Parish Prison during Hurricane Katrina. The more things change ...

Stephanie Thornton said...

Wow. I've been to Florence and I can't imagine that beautiful city flooding, although it obviously has. A good reminder that we're often powerless against Mother Nature.

Tinney Heath said...

Julia - that is becoming my stock in trade, thinking about the little guy. It's not going to sell many books, when lots of historical fiction readers still seem to want tales of royalty, but it's what I care about. Dorothy - I thought of that example, too. Stephanie - yes, unfortunately it's happened quite a few times, these two examples being possibly the worst. I still feel haunted by the images of the 1966 flood in Life Magazine and National Geographic.