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Waters rising: Sheila Waters marks 50-year anniversary of Florence Flood

Renowned calligrapher Sheila Waters shares memories of the disastrous Florence Flood and her husband's efforts to instil order amid chaos

In November 1966, the Arno River in Florence burst its banks and flooded the city, seeping into the basements of museums, libraries and private residences, and damaging over 100,000 books at Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze (BNCF). 

In Waters Rising: Letters from Florence Sheila Waters recounts the role her husband, renowned British bookbinder Peter Waters (1930-2003), played in organising the monumental efforts to save the books at BNCF.

To give the most complete picture of the events that occurred, Sheila presents nearly 50 of Peter’s letters written between the end of November 1966 and April 1967, in which he describes day-to-day happenings, and her letters back, which kept him informed about things at home and boosted his confidence when problems seemed to be overwhelming.

To mark the 50-year anniversary of the flood, we spoke to Sheila about her memories of Peter and her hopes for his legacy.

1. Peter was in charge of organising the efforts to save the damaged books at BNCF. How did he feel about taking on this monumental task?

Peter felt humbled that he had been chosen to lead but felt a tremendous sense of responsibility and urgency to get a working restoration system operational before public interest (and therefore funding) would wane, so he drove his team relentlessly to work long hours, never letting them forget his original vision and why they were there.

2. Given the size of the collection, did Peter feel disheartened by the seemingly endless procession of damaged books?

Peter's emotions ran the gamut as he revealed in his letters: elation when everything seemed to be going right, despair and frustration when they were not. He was realistic in knowing that restoration of 110,000 valuable books would take a level of care that would have to continue for many years. After 50 years they are still not finished and the workforce is down from 100 trained workers to about seven.


A room in BNCF after flood waters receded (Image: Waters Rising: Letters from Florence, courtesy The Legacy Press)

3. Your letters were important in boosting Peter's confidence when problems seemed to be overwhelming. Were you worried about his health? 

He constantly wrote that my letters were a great help in boosting his confidence and and in giving him comfort when he was down, which is why I wrote more than he was able to. I certainly worried about his health. He had so much on his mind that he often had sleepless nights and occasional headaches. His body/mind connection was very strong!


Peter and Sheila Waters (Image: Waters Rising: Letters from Florence, courtesy The Legacy Press)

I have always been proud of Peter's integrity and unwavering commitment to his vision, however inconvenient it might sometimes be. Apart from devotion to family, his commitment to Florence and later to the field of library conservation became the driving force of his life.

4. As a master calligrapher who has worked with many precious works – including the 7th century Lindisfarne Gospels at the age of 18! – how did you feel about the Arno disaster? 

My feelings about the flood disaster grew stronger as I became more and more involved and mostly of course through his letters, until I was able to go to work with him in Florence myself in May of 1967. I fully identified with the problems the library, the growing British team and Peter himself were facing. Fortunately, very few illuminated handwritten manuscripts were affected as they were stored above the floodline.

5. Over 1,000 people – the so-called ‘mud angels’ – flocked to Florence to help with the restoration effort. How did they work alongside conservators?

The mud angels were mostly untrained students who flocked to Florence immediately after the flood had receded to help pull the artefacts and books out of the mud. Conservators were needed for the second phase: that of restoring. They were not really known as conservators back then. From Britain, 40 bookbinders went out in relays to help set up the system and to teach students and workers. I am sure there was a great feeling of pulling together at all levels of help, trained and untrained. 

6. The flood has been described as the genesis of modern book conservation. Would you agree? 

I would agree because before then repair of books and manuscripts had been undertaken by bookbinders, especially those in private practice. It then gradually became the recognised profession that it is now. 


Conservator Joe Nkrumah and colleague washing book leaves (Image: Waters Rising: Letters from Florence, courtesy The Legacy Press)

7. Waters Rising is an illuminating account of the restoration effort. Was it a difficult decision to publish your personal letters?

It was not really a difficult decision as I felt it was important that future generations of book and paper conservators should know the origins of their craft before memories would die along with those who were there. I am not sure if Peter would have wanted all our unedited personal letters to be out in public. He always tried to deflect attention from himself so would probably feel embarrassed if he were still with us, though at the time, he wrote to me "there should be a book in this somehow". 


8. You and your son, Julian, are giving talks this year to engage people in the story of the flood. Can you tell us a bit more?

Julian and I will have presented together three times this year, with Julian reading about one third of each talk: the extracts from Peter's own words, as his voice is rather similar. In May, we presented a tight version in 30 minutes at the AIC/CAC conference in Montreal, then on 7th October we gave it to a full room at the Grolier Club in NYC. The third time is in Michigan on the actual anniversary, and the fourth time we will both be giving it to the Book and Paper Group of UCLA on 17th November. 

We may be giving the talk at the Library of Congress early next year and I'm told there is interest in Ottawa. I gave its first version, with only 20 slides, at the New York University 40th anniversary Symposium at the Villa La Pietra in Florence in 2006 (published in the book Conservation Legacies of the Florence Flood of 1966 by Archetype Publications) and again at the National Gallery in Washington DC for the 45th. About 65 photos are being shown this year, using those that are in Waters Rising.

9. In a world that is becoming increasingly digitised, do you worry that we might lose sight of classic arts like calligraphy? 

Calligraphy was supposed to have died with the invention of printing, then again with the typewriter and now with the digital age and the real death of handwriting in schools, but formal and experimental calligraphy are alive and well, pursued for the love of the art rather than for a living, except for wedding work. There has been quite a revival in bookbinding too. When I was a student, both were taught and learned only in art schools in a well-rounded art education. Sadly, that is not now the case but there are plenty of workshops and classes run by guilds if not by colleges. 

10. What do you hope for Peter’s legacy? If we should have learned one thing from his efforts, what would that be?

I hope that Peter's high standards of craftsmanship, design, and the Bauhaus concepts of "fitness for purpose" and "form follows function", spiced with a healthy sense of curiosity and innovation will continue to be the guiding forces in library conservation training and practice. That's not just one thing, though one word sums up Peter's approach to life and that is "integrity".

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Lead image: A flooded street in Florence; Public Domain


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