by Susan Glasspool
I come from Cornwall and, after having studied at the Falmouth School of Art and then completing my studies at Slade School, University College of London, I was given a grant by the Italian government to study painting and lithography at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence (it should have been a sort of postgraduate course, although that didn’t actually exist). When the Accademia reopened after the flood, I enrolled at Primo Conti’s school.
I found a place to stay at an art history professor’s house, a friend of my professor at Slade. He lived in one of the Ricci house on the road to Trespiano, just outside Florence, and he rented out his “guest” apartment to me. It was very cold and rather uninviting.
When I arrived I spoke hardly any Italian. In fact I really learned Italian during the flood. Six months later, I dreamt in Italian! A few days after I arrived it began to rain really hard, which we’d call a “constant water bomb” today. On the morning of November 4th, the rain caused a landslide by the house, totally blocking the road and bringing a lorry down the hill with it, killing some of the people inside. We didn’t immediately realise that there was flooding in Florence, thinking that the bad weather had caused a blackout, the phone lines not to work and a lack of running water, something that carried on for days and without radio and television we weren’t able to understand the magnitude of the disaster.
The worst problem in my lodgings was the lack of running water, because it was impossible to find bottled water and nobody brought water as far as Trespiano (or rather I didn’t see anyone and my landlords didn’t tell me what to do). In actual fact, I solved the problem by filling pans with rainwater that flowed down the hill towards the valley, so I’d filter it and boil it for a long time. And I solved the lack of electricity just by going to bed early!
During the day my landlord’s neighbours said that something serious had happened in Florence and my landlord asked if I could take her into the city in my car, which I’d driven from England to Italy, to see if her sister needed any help. Her husband the professor was stuck in Siena and was unable to reach the north side of Florence.
We went to the Campo di Marte area and it was immediately clear that a disaster had occurred, although we still had no idea of how serious the situation was in the centre.
The following day I went into the city centre and saw the extent of the catastrophe. There was no running water, electricity or food. One of the first things that struck me was the desperation of the people, the mountains of debris, mud and naphta and the terrible smell. It was heartrending to see the poor shopkeepers and the families that went backwards and forwards, not knowing where to begin to save what was left of their flooded homes and shops. I don’t know how the Ponte Vecchio withstood the water, completely blocked as it was with tree trunks. I honestly do not know how the city managed to recover from the deluge. At that point I still didn’t know how many works of art, monuments and books had been damaged, although I should have imagined it when I saw the Gates of Paradise. It seemed like the smell and the naphta were everywhere.
I went to the university canteen in Via San Gallo, where students were already organising working groups to send all over the city. We were sent to work every day, always somewhere different, wherever we were needed, to clear mud outside the university basements in Piazza Brunelleschi or to help clear the archives at the Uffizi, the Accademia or other parts of the University. I also worked at the Opera del Duomo, where I pulled wooden pieces out of the mud that were part of the models of Brunelleschi’s Duomo.
I still hadn’t learned much Italian at that stage, but the general feeling of helping to save Florence and its art overcame all barriers. I had to wear sandals (thankfully it wasn’t cold) rather than ruin my good pair of leather boots, because you just couldn’t find rubber boots. I have a drawing that I sent to my parents to show them my Michelin-style mud outfit.
I finally managed to buy some boots from a lorry (it was starting to get cold wearing those sandals and obviously I had to throw them away!). We all really smelt bad, because the mud had a terrible stench to it and also because we had no way of washing properly. (Even when I’d just arrived in Florence there was never any hot water in my little apartment.) At any rate, my clothes had completely absorbed the mud, fuel oil and other substances, and I had nothing to change into. Nobody ever gave me any gloves or protective clothing, although I know others received some and, after I while, due to the cold, I used the woollen gloves that my mother had hurriedly sent to me.
I also helped some people to move their things with my car, a little van, away from their flooded homes to new lodgings. We pulled books and paintings out of the mud, but after a few weeks the work became a bit less haphazard because they had given us the task of putting absorbent paper between the pages of books and Japanese paper on the paintings in the library at the Accademia, while we waited for it to reopen. Luckily, my grant was extended in order for the school to reopen.
What struck me the most was the feeling of solidarity that brought everyone together who had helped during the emergency. Nobody thought only of themselves and the usual “going after” foreign girls was utterly forgotten and, thank goodness, since it bothered many of us. We all worked together in unity.
The damage caused by the flood was terrible and it was impossible not to be involved or just to look on from the sidelines. The Florentines were wonderful. They worked more than anyone and lots of things, shops and other businesses were already active after just one week. Then I met my future husband while I was helping to clean the art at the Accademia and he was the reason I stayed in Italy. Now we always joke that we met in the mud. We married in 1968. After my year at the Accademia, I stayed in Florence and for a while I restored books in the Gabinetto Vieusseux laboratory at Certosa.
I don’t think I did anything particularly heroic, just what everyone thought was right and the natural thing to do. It was a very special, unforgettable moment, with a solidarity and fraternity that I had never experienced before – or since for that matter. Nevertheless I was involved in the recovery efforts for a long while (until the Accademia reopened, almost Christmas), and not just for a day, as many did, because schools sent students to help in shifts – an admirable thing to do – but they were also called “Mud Angels”. Perhaps I was the muddiest Mud Angel of all! I think that most of the “Mud Angels”, like me, probably have nice memories of those things, or that’s how it seemed to me when I met many of them during the 40th anniversary celebrations. For the 50th, we’ll let history decide!