Aberfan's Gift to Florence

Commemorating Fifty Years since the Great Florence Flood

Fifty years ago today, on the morning of the 4th November 1966, precisely two weeks after the Aberfan disaster, a twenty foot torrent flooded the streets of Florence as the Arno river burst its banks. After weeks of heavy rain, the dam upstream gave way and the river crashed downstream. As it reached the Ponte Vecchio, the low bridge acted as a dam, sending the river sideways and across the city on either side of its banks with even greater force.

Mud Angels

The Florentines rushed to help each other and rescue people to safety, but as word spread further afield, people from all over the world started flooding in to help clear the homes, offices, museums, schools and churches that had been buried in mud, naphthalene heating oil, rubbish, household goods, cars and trees that had been swept down the valley.

These ‘Mud Angels’ as they became known, were mostly young volunteers who laboriously and persistently waded through mud and water, always cold and damp with little or no food, to rescue historic monuments, precious works of art, retrieving rare books and manuscripts, with experts from around the world volunteering their knowledge and skill.

My mother was one of these volunteers. Having attempted to come straight away from London and been dissuaded by her Florentine hosts due to lack of food and water, she arrived as soon as possible and was put in charge of distributing grants to those families that had been hardest hit. My father meanwhile, was immediately entrusted to rescue the son of friends by taking him uphill to safety, before returning to the centre to resume help bringing people out of their basements and ground floors to safety.

Aberfan’s Heart for Florence

Reading about the accounts now, the whole response feels like one of the greatest demonstrations of global solidarity and love as people instinctively responded to help. 

Across the world, a number of international committees were formed to fund the restoration programme, and generosity came from far and wide. The city of Edinburgh, twinned with Florence, sent practical help for the citizens in the form of double-decker buses to temporarily replace those which had been lost in the floods. In a 1996 interview, Primicerio, the major of Florence, offered three principal reasons as to why the Mud Angels felt compelled to help: a concern for future generations, a feeling of international unity and a pervasive sense of solidarity.

"What we were doing", he said, "was dictated by the desire to give back the traces of the history of the past to future generations, so that it could be used for the spiritual growth of people who perhaps had yet to be born...it was the international community that worked to try to save Florence, this unique patrimony which belonged to the whole world." ( Mario Primicerio, Speciale Alluvione)

One of these outpourings of love and surely the most poigniant of all, came from Aberfan itself. A few weeks after the flood, the British Consulate in Florence received boxes from the Welsh town still reeling from their tragic mudslide, packed full to the brim with children’s clothes and toys sent from those who had so recently lost their own children. 

Fifty years later, writing as one who had indeed yet to be born, who lived and grew up in Florence and to whom art history has provided much personal enrichment, (and incidentally - who now lives in a UK facing the loss of history art as a school-taught subject), I am so very grateful for such an outpouring of unity, forethought and sacrificial help for the good of so many people.