Do you guys know what Sunday was? Aside from being my Gram’s birthday and the day we all struggled to remember how to turn back the clock on the oven, November 4th was the 46th anniversary of the Florence Flood, when the River Arno overflowed in 1966, damaging over a million books and almost a thousand works of art. It was a disaster, but good rose from the flood—advancements in conservation science, renewed faith in human capacity for self-sacrifice, and the mud angels.
Conservation-restoration techniques before the flood were secret arts—each institution had its own way of doing things, and procedures were passed down like arcane traditions. All of this changed in 1966; in the wake of the damage in Florence, trade secrets were exchanged for the common good. They called them “mud angels” (gli angeli del fango): young people from every nation, who spent months rescuing waterlogged books even as the floodwaters receded. The mud angels dedicated even longer in the healing process, scraping off mud and restoring books page by page. They even brought food by basket to people stuck in their homes!
These mud angels are heroes, faithful guardians of information who represent that gorgeous strain in the human spirit which reaches out, forges bonds to overcome adversity. Reminded of their legacy by the smaller-scale flooding by Hurricane Sandy, we honor those cheerful and tireless librarians, historians, off-duty soldiers, and students who earned muddy halos in the flooded streets of Florence.