Wednesday, February 4, 2009


About 15 years ago, Robert Hellenga wrote a lovely little piece of literary romantic fiction titled Sixteen Pleasures. Set in Florence in the late 60's, it centered around a young American student who goes to Florence after a devastating flood to help salvage and repair the vast collection of art and manuscripts damaged in the flood. It was a nice read, but it left me with questions about the 1966 flood: how did it happen, what was the extent of the damage, and how much was salvaged from the mud?
Dark Water: flood and redemption in the city of masterpieces by Robert Clark answers these questions and more. Clark gives the reader a history of Florence's relationship with its river - the Arno - and how that relationship influenced artists and writers over the centuries. Using the perspective of various people who came to assist rescue efforts, Clark tells a story of young students scraping muck from Renaissance texts, art historians and conservators squabbling over techniques, and Florentines trying to save one another from the rapidly rising waters.
Like all disaster stories, Dark Water has a very compelling narrative and Clark does a good job of conveying the tragedy and loss without being maudlin or extravagant. The bulk of his tale, however, is the superhuman efforts of volunteers from around the world who came to Florence to save centuries of priceless art. How bad was it? Restoration of Girogio Vasari's Last Supper is still in the planning phase, 40 years after the flood.

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