Flood in Florence 1966. Image: Balthazar Korab, via The Library of Congress

On this day in history: Florence hit by floods six centuries apart

By Region Central Italy History of Italy News

On 4th November, Florence was hit by floods. Bizarrely, the two worst floods the city suffered occurred on the same day some 633 years apart, in 1333 and 1966.

The earliest significant documented flood of the Arno dates back to November 1333 and is reported to have claimed over 3,000 lives. This catastrophic event was meticulously chronicled by Giovanni Villani, a contemporary historian, diplomat, and banker.

Logge del mercato nuovo, statua di giovanni villani
Statue of Giovanni Villanni

According to Villani’s account, on Thursday, November 4, 1333, the Arno River unleashed a devastating flood that inundated the entire San Salvi plain by noon. As the day progressed, the eastern wall that had been holding back the surging waters sustained damage and ultimately gave way, allowing the flood to breach the city’s defences and flood the streets.

He described how the water level rose above the altar inside the Florence Baptistry, reaching more than half the height of the porphyry columns. These columns, gifted to Florence by the Pisans over two centuries prior, still bear visible marks, etched as a testament to the 1333 flood’s peak.

Villani further noted that the floodwaters reached a height of 3 meters (approximately 10 feet) in the courtyard of the commune’s palace, the residence of the podestà. Several bridges were severely impacted, with the Carraia bridge partially collapsing, leaving only two of its arches intact. Likewise, the Trinità bridge suffered a near-complete collapse, retaining only one pier and one arch near the Santa Trinità church.

The iconic Ponte Vecchio, except for its two central piers, was swept away when large logs became lodged around the structure, causing water to accumulate and surge over the arches, as Villani documented. An old statue of Mars, situated on a pedestal near the Ponte Vecchio, was also carried away by the raging Arno waters.

The 1966 flood

Fast forward to November 4, 1966, another catastrophic flood of the Arno River struck Florence, claiming the lives of 101 people and causing extensive damage to countless works of art and rare books. Regarded as the most devastating flood in the city’s history, this 1966 event had profound and lasting impacts on Florence.

A plaque situated in Via San Remigio bears witness to the purported water level reached during the flooding of 1333. Another plaque stands to commemorate the flood of 1966, which remarkably occurred exactly 633 years later.

Plaques depicting floods of 1333 and 1966. Image by Sailko under GNU Free Documentation License
Plaques depicting floods of 1333 and 1966. Image by Sailko

At the peak of the flood, streets were submerged to a remarkable depth of 6.7 meters (approximately 22 feet). While the number of human casualties remained surprisingly low compared to the events of 1333, the devastation wrought upon the city’s historical treasures was nearly beyond comprehension. It is estimated that somewhere between three to four million books and manuscripts fell victim to destruction or damage, with approximately 14,000 works of art affected to varying degrees, among which nearly 1,000 experienced severe harm.

The flood’s impact was notably harsh on two significant libraries, the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale Firenze and the Biblioteca del Gabinetto Vieusseux, as well as two distinguished archives, the Archivio di Opera del Duomo and the Archivio di Stato.

The November floods. Manuscripts from the National Library being washed and dried in the boiler room of the Florence railway station. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 IGO license. Attribution: UNESCO / Dominique Roger
Manuscripts from the National Library being washed and dried in the boiler room of the Florence railway station

Leave a Reply