“Something’s wrong. The lights in the bathroom won’t turn on and the toilet is gurgling,” she said to her husband, her voice still sleepy. A simple sentence, almost minimal. That depiction of daily life contained within itself the seed of a story begun in Los Angeles a few days before.

“The city of Florence and UNESCO awarded me a trip to Italy and they gave me a medal saying I was a hero. Why? I didn’t save any lives, I didn’t save any art, objects, dogs, cats. I’m not a hero, at least not on purpose,” Joe would write almost 50 years later.

We’re in Florence. The sun still hasn’t risen on November 4, 1966. Paula, Joe Blaustein’s charming wife, is pregnant with their fourth child. She spoke those words to her husband, still half asleep. In that pensione overlooking the Arno, which they chose carefully after giving up on the idea of a more comfortable stay in the Hotel Excelsior, the young woman woke up in the middle of the night and realized something wasn’t right. And what was she worried about? The lights in the bathroom that wouldn’t turn on and the sinister sound of flowing water. She had no idea what was about to happen, but she sensed that the river’s waters were agitated just standing beside the door frame of the bathroom in a Florentine hotel.

Joe and Paula arrived in Florence the evening before, almost by chance. He was a university professor, as well as an artist and publicist. Bearing the latter title, he was invited by General Electric, whose image he had curated, to participate in a private audience with Pope Paul VI.

He wasn’t the company’s first choice. The official delegation had been fixed for some time, but someone pulled out just two days before departure. What would it look like if General Electric presented itself to the pope with a few people missing? Really bad. That’s when the company thought about Joe Blaustein and his wife.

“The pope blessed me, a blasphemous atheist, 30 years after my bar mitzvah. And three days later, I found myself stuck in the worst flood in Italian history.”

This kind of company trip included a week in Rome and two traveling around Europe. In the capital for the first time, Joe Blaustein found himself in front of Michelangelo’s Pietà. He was stunned and fascinated. It was raining outside, a constant downpour that didn’t look like it would let up anytime soon. Having received the pope’s blessing, he remembers and talks about the Roman streets, the flirting they encountered and his wife being felt up from behind during the ride up in the elevator.

It was a mix of beauty and eroticism. Sacred and profane blended together in this strange and unexpected vacation that two Americans undertook by chance in the mid-1960s. A vacation that, after Rome and before Paris, included another stop: Florence.

“As soon as we arrived, we noticed that the rain was violent. It was worse than in Rome.”

And so, we return to that night when the bathroom light wouldn’t turn on and the toilet was gurgling. It was the night of the flood. Joe Blaustein was there, right at that time, with his son on the way and a vacation to finish. But these aren’t the reasons Joe Blaustein went down in history. What made his name eternally famous was an old, used Rolleiflex and ten rolls of Ektachrome 64 colour film. Ten rolls, twelve shots each, 120 photographs, all in colour.

“On the other side of the river, the yellow car I had seen and photographed shortly before began to move, float and then whirl around in the flood. The same happened with the other cars. It was bizarre to see them floating around and knocking into one another upside down in the river….”

Stuck in the hotel overlooking the Arno, on the first day, he took photos from the window. Then he went down to the street at sunrise on the second day, when no one was out yet, not even the emergency responders. In those photographs – exceptionally in colour and the only ones of that kind taken during the devastating event – Joe Blaustein captured all the first stages of the flood: the river as it swelled and poured over its banks, the devastation that emerged as the waters retreated.

His is a surprising documentation, an enormous patrimony that remained buried under dust and behind garden tools and old boxes for over 40 years.

“It’s crazy but once I was back in sunny California, in Palisades, too busy teaching university and working, paying my bills and watching Paula grow, I forgot to develop the film until a month later, maybe more. When I saw what I had in my hands, I called the magazine Time Life. These were the first photos of the flood as it was happening, and in colour.”

But the American magazine wasn’t interested in the subject anymore. It was old, done (not an entirely forward-thinking thought, judging in retrospect). And so, the photos remained in the garage, long-forgotten and later rediscovered by chance 20 years after his wife’s death. Joe Blaustein, now 90 years old, did well to return the photos to their legitimate owners: the city of Florence.

He donated them to the city’s Archivio Storico, where two exhibitions were organized, along with lectures and press conferences. A book was also released (I colori dell’alluvione, edited by Filippo Giovannelli and Giuseppe Sabella, which included Joe’s photos and narration). And he, who experienced a period of unexpected celebrity in his old age – as unexpected as that trip to Italy – even became the protagonist of a documentary by Alan Griswold (Joe Blaustein and the Flood of Florence).

gianluca testa