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Florence Flood: memories of the aftermath

Designer bookbinder and Icon Member Faith Shannon shares her account of the monumental rescue efforts following the Florence Flood of 1966


I must begin by paying tribute to Peter Waters who put so much of his life and work on hold for Florence. He was one of the kindest, most thoughtful and dedicated people I have been privileged to meet and be taught by. His has been a lasting example in terms of my craft of bookbinding, as well as his personality.

Peter gave such energy and conscientious dedication to establishing some order amid the devastating chaos created within the most important collection of books and manuscripts in Italy in the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze (BNCF), brought about by the flooding Arno.

Peter’s wife, Sheila, the well-known calligrapher, has told the detailed story of the aftermath in her recent book, Waters Rising, which I recommend it for its historical value, honesty, insight and sharing of some very personal details which illustrate the story of the huge cast of people behind the purpose, all united by a passionate love of books and concern for saving as much as humanly possible from the devastating effects of that event.

This is not to forget the other much revered members of the initiating team sent out under the auspices of the British Museum through Howard M. Nixon, Keeper of Printed Books: Roger Powell and Sandy Cockerell supported by Dorothy Cumpstey, Anthony Cains, Christopher Clarkson ACR, George Kirkpatrick, Philip Smith and many other fine binders who came to give so much of their time and ingenuity to develop and refine the technology, equipment and laboratory, and all that is involved in establishing the most efficient ways of tackling such a horrendous mess of injured matter printed and written on anything from the earliest of materials to the even more challenging materials of the Industrial Age’s ‘improvements’ – oh, that machine-made wood pulp paper!

My own contribution was small by comparison. I desperately wanted to help in any way I could and although I had two very young children, I offered to go. Howard Nixon invited me to join Peter Waters and the others, and when my parents offered to come across from Belfast to look after my little daughter and son, I left for Florence – ostensibly for a month in February 1967. As it turned out, I was there for seven weeks.

Where nothing had existed, initial systems were getting into place and those who could stay to develop and establish the International Workshop in the Library went back and forth to London, with Peter establishing links, attending endless meetings, and trying to establish things with a real sense of continuity for the future.​

If one stopped to think about the amount of work involved ahead it would have been totally dispiriting

Fundraising was a huge issue and while America was seemingly pouring money into saving paintings, Britain was finding it more difficult and gradually after the initial hype of the disaster, funds were drying up. Meanwhile, treatment of the flood-damaged books still had a long way to go – a very long way.

I arrived in the biting cold weather of an Italian February with George Kirkpatrick. He and I had both been at The Belfast College of Art in the 1950s where we started our bookbinding lives under our extraordinarily wide-thinking painting tutor, Kenneth Webb, who by default also taught bookbinding then at The Royal College of Art (RCA), at different times but under Peter Waters and Roger Powell.

The sense of ‘pulling together’ was intense, although with different personalities there were bound to be tensions and disagreements – all part of being human and faced with a mind-blowing challenge ahead when so much had to be resolved from scratch.

There were problems to be solved, ideas to be proved and approaches to be developed. The teams of ‘studio’ binders, usually working individually or in their joint workshops, were used to this because every problem book, manuscript and binding tends to require its unique problem solving.

The 'Mud Angels' handled defying quantities of extremely muddy objects with a great sense of good cheer

The trade binders who formed the workshop teams with the direction of Peter Waters, Roger Powell, Sandy Cockerell and their team, were used to the repetitive, efficient system of mass production requiring a fast and high output and keeping to timetables. This was helpful to a great degree though at times needed a certain intuitive flexibility, or lateral thinking when running the workshops manned by the amazing numbers of volunteers from all over the world – nicknamed the Mud Angels because they handled defying quantities of extremely muddy objects and with a great sense of good cheer.


A fraction of the aftermath of the Florence Flood of 1966 (Image: David Lees, Life Magazine, Fair Use)

The challenges were numerous, but primarily to get the books, manuscripts, newspapers and so on dried and aired to prevent further disintegration and deterioration from moulds before further steps were taken. They were taken to a tobacco drying factory (before freeze drying techniques were evolved) and came to us for assessment as to what needed immediate treatment according to the age, types of paper – vellum, parchment, leathers etc – and the general state, some so distorted as to look more sculpturally interesting and less recognisable as books. Incidentally, some had been stored on shelves side by side so firmly that the paper was extraordinarily untouched but sometimes interleaved here and there with the thinnest of ‘sheets’ of silt which had taken on the imprint of the text on either side.

If one stopped to think about the amount of work involved ahead it would have been totally dispiriting. We just kept going and each new challenge and suggested solution required discussing and agreeing with Peter, Roger, Sandy and Anthony Cains who carried forward the next stages in establishing the restoration and conservation centre at the Library in Florence when Peter left for The Library of Congress in Washington, USA.

Christopher Clarkson, who was also at the RCA when I was there and has subsequently contributed so much to the study and treatment of vellum and parchment in bookbinding, also later went to Washington, while Anthony went on to run Conservation at Trinity College Library, Dublin, Eire.

This changing team included Dorothy Cumpsty, Don Etherington ACR and a number of others who shared the ongoing toils and excitements of handling the most beautiful books of all eras, subjects and sizes.

However many more books were awaiting attention, one could only concentrate on those brought through to us, and we shared the excitement or despair of each one

Being the only copyright library in Italy, BNCF also had stacks of newspapers which were to go to Austria for attention. These lined the corridors with propane burners blasting heat to dry them out and we had to constantly check the piles in case of combustion, by sliding our hands between the papers as we went by.

I was part of this ‘assessing’ team headed by Peter, where we went through each book, painstakingly noting damage and deciding on treatments required, sending them on to the groups in the main huge workshop who were being trained and allocated various of the immediate responsibilities, such as pulling, washing (in water or industrial methylated spirits), with the injunction to save every tiny scrap of the original for future reference.

We had to suggest, too, which books would be sent to other specialist restoration workshops – such as at the British Library. (One horror story was when another country’s early volunteers were found holding beautiful early printed books under a tap of running water to wash the mud off; not the best idea.)

We also had to be prepared to vacuum off mould as soon as possible with the then smallest available brush attachments for vacuum cleaners. Although we practised extreme care when brushing surfaces, the brush bristles were worn quite quickly because of the amount of work they had to do. This is just one example of how far conservation equipment has evolved since then.


Piazza del Duomo during the Florence Flood of 1966 (Image: Fair Use)

Peter Waters meanwhile was trying to get a Dexion shelving system set up for drying racks, with great difficulty and much frustration which was tiring and dispiriting, but despite the lack and slowness of support, the first stages of preservation and restoration got going. It was not easy.

The aforementioned Waters Rising shows how the seeds were sown for modern approaches in conservation: the need to develop detailed understanding of materials, well-informed chemistry, appropriate laboratory conditions, lateral thinking and the ability to adapt and make problem-solving tools and equipment. It also provides a very personal picture of the effects such personal concern and frustrations with bureaucracy at times of disasters can have in human terms on those who are prepared to help.

The time in Florence affected my own work profoundly. Although I do not call myself a conservator in today’s highly specialist terms (I am an artist/binder for want of a better term), I am acutely aware of the effects of my work within the use of materials, appropriate methods, adhesives and so on. I hope I will not leave a legacy creating too many concerns, though that can be inhibiting! I am always prepared to send on any specialist work to a qualified restorer or conservator. I have taught my students to be aware and to seek specialist knowledge.

Mud-bearing flood marks made us realise how the flood affected others’ livelihoods, and how much more there was to be cleaned up and restored 

My experience in Florence was otherworldly in some respects because of our daily contact with the surrounding city and its people who got used to seeing us out for our breaks and using their cafes where the high, mud-bearing flood marks made us realise how it affected others’ livelihoods, and how much more there was to be cleaned up and restored.

The churches had their share of pollution and devastation, full as they were with the history of glorious art. We were slightly amused when the Italians kept wondering at our diligence – in the Library by 8am and working through late into the evening.

“Why do you work like this on the books? There is always tomorrow and tomorrow!” they would say. Possibly, but one of the books, printed in 16th century, I happened to assess was a record of previous floods in Florence. It seemed that the Library had not learned a lesson or two about storage above possible flood levels. Apart from this gem, there was an early treatise on diseases of men, elephantiasis being particularly gruesomely illustrated with wood cuts of its effects. Another was what seemed to be a handbook for torturers with wood cut illustrations of poor beings with looks of utter resignation stretched to their limits on a rack, and other inhumane instruments.

It was a relief to have a beautiful book which was chosen for Windsor Royal Library for restoration, one of several chosen to be sent there. This particular one was a ‘mechanical’ book on designs for a stately garden with fold-out leaves of overlapping printed scenic images of the layout. The details escape me now, but in spite of the wood pulp paper it was in a hopeful state.

Generally, the earlier the book (with handmade papers), the stronger and more resilient to a remarkable amount of treatment.

From the awful event, much good has come through people pooling their individual experience and skills. 

Needless to say, the inspiringly beautiful printing of many of these made the heart sing – and what brought one especially close to previous users was the odd penned notation in the margins with a little drawing in brown ink of a pointing finger by the text.

However many more books were awaiting attention, one could only concentrate on those brought through to us, and we shared the excitement or despair of each one.

While we worked on, Peter, often with Sandy and Roger, Anthony, George and others, were in and out working endlessly on the equipment. It was a matter of being around to help wherever and with whatever was suddenly needed whilst relentlessly maintaining the flow of assessing the subjects of our concerns.

Some of us managed a day’s trip to Sienna and Rome, and of course we visited some of the flood-damaged churches in Florence, but I am not aware of Peter taking even a day off ‘duty’. Yes, there were conflicts of personalities at times but these were in a way to be expected. The successful outcome of the huge project was of far more importance and from the awful event, much good has come through people pooling their individual experience and skills.

It does seem that much of today’s approach to conservation had its beginnings in Florence after that November in 1966. I was sad not to have been able to contribute more for longer, and have been grateful for the experience.

Faith Shannon MBE ARCA ATC
Corranbeg Workshops
Argyll PA31 8QN

Lead image: Arno River; Gary Ashley, CC BY-SA 2.0
Image of Faith: Shannon Tofts 


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