I had dinner tonight at the apartment of Massimo and Vittoria Melandri in Florence. Their place was beautiful, a 14th-century building restructured in the 19th century, which is when they frescoed all the ceilings and the walls. Gorgeous.

The ceiling paintings in the main salon where we dined were a bit obscured by soot, since (as explained Massmimo’s 86-year-old mother, who lives on the top floor of the building and who joined us for dinner) two families were living in that small space during World War II, and as the electricity and gas were cut off, they cooked by building little fires in the middle of the room. Massimo can’t clean them up properly since they aren’t technically frescoes but rather paintings on the dry plaster, so to remove the soot would also remove the paint.

Massimo had managed, however, to clean the 20th-century whitewash off the walls, which are (buon) frescoed with tromp l’oeil architectural elements. However, the surface of the plaster is microscopically pocked and flaking, so the frescoes are milky and faded looking, unless they get wet (a state that was demonstrated with the swipe of a damp rag), at which point the colors burst off the wall again in all their 19th-century splendor, only to fade slowly again as the plaster dried.

Dinner was a penne casserole with ragu, followed by chicken breasts in a fresh porcini sauce, artichokes cooked in a bit of olive oil, and aldente cannellini beans, over which we drizzled a strong, deep green, perfectly opaque olive oil that Massimo had gathered and pressed just last Saturday at their small farm outside Casciano Val di Pesa, on the Chianti’s western edge. To wash it all down we had the ruby red wine that Massimo makes himself — he doesn’t use the communal press, but rather gathers the grapes from his few strings of vines, and has his own little press and aging facilities for making them into wine. Afterwards it was homemade crema gelato with a shot of whisky poured over it.

During dinner, we first discussed some of Massimo’s job, arranging art exhibits for the city, including a big one this past summer that placed all about town sculptures by a Bottero, famous for his paintings and huge bronzes of incredibly fat, but smooth and sort of minimalized, figures.

Since the sculptures were displayed in public spaces it created some controversy — especially those on Piazza della Signoria, which is already full of famed ancient, Renaissance, and baroque statues. But in the end the exhibit was successful. Vittoria was even saying how a famous television personality and critic said good things about it, to which Massimo replied “Of course, he was paid to do so.” But the mamma broke in with a phrase that makes sense only in a place like Italy: “Sara stato anche pagato, pero` non e stato comprato.” (He may have been paid, but he wasn’t bought.)

Then they began regaling me with stories of the 1966 Arno flood, which inundated the city with a 20-foot wave after rains in the hills dumped 19 inches in less than 48 hours. The swollen river proved too much for the Florentine embankments.

The Melandri’s street, Via Fiesolana, runs north-south for two long blocks and then ends at another street, so the water rushed up it like a river, carrying along at first bicycles and motorini, then things like the newsstand from down at the corner, then entire cars, which came flying up the street at tremendous speed, borne by the raging waters, to smash into the wall at the top end of the street, where they stayed until the water began receding again after two days.

At this point, the cars were carried by the water back down to the low end of the street, where for some reason (engine weight?) they all ended up tipped trunk-upward, with their front ends plunged deep into the ten feet of mud left behind and their back ends stuck up in the air, all lined up one after the other like dominoes frozen in the process of falling over.

When the flood first started around 7:30 a.m. and water began swirling up the street around his feet, young Massimo was sent up the block to his grandmother’s house to take her some bread, meat, and eggs. She asked why the provisions? and what was the matter?, and Massimo replied “Beh’, c’e qualcosa che non va con l’Arno, ma non si preoccupi.” (That would translate as the wonderful understatement ‘there’s a little something wrong with the Arno, but don’t worry about it’). On his way back home, minutes later, the water was already surging strongly above his waist.

His family gathered on the first floor (second story) originally, in the apartment now owned by Massimo (and where we were dining). Out the window they noticed a stunned local veteran, who had lost both legs in WWII and now had two false ones, standing on in the middle of the road, watching the waters rise around him. They called out to him, but he was in a state of shock and just stood there in the rising flood.

Since the front doors on all the buildings had already waterlogged to such a degree they had swelled shut, people lowered a rope and hauled the old veteran inside, at which point the entire population of the building removed itself to Massimo’s mother’s place on the fourth floor to escape the waters that were already rising up into the second story (they’d eventually reach about four feet up the walls of the second floor).

The building’s inhabitants continued to live together up there for a week or two, the metal hinges on the veteran’s false legs rusting up quickly and causing him to go “squeak, screech” continuously as he moved about. Luckily, it continued to rain — they say ‘luckily’ because, with their supply of fresh water cut off (water, water everywhere and not a drop…), their only recourse was to put pans on the roofs and collect rain water.

The flooded part of the city, still encumbered by more than 12 feet of mud even after the waters receded, was sectioned off by the military, who set up blockades enforced by loops of razor barbed wire to keep out looters. Of course, life had to go on outside the flooded area, and Massimo said it was eerie, especially at night, to move from the “normal” part of the city on the periphery past those guards (identification papers, please) back into the center, where everything was dark for lack of electricity and every surface was inky black.

Everyone used oil heat back then, and one of the first things the flood waters did was enter basements, fill the small private oil tanks, and float off the entire supply, creating a thick film of fossil fuel that rode on top of the flood waters. When the water started running back toward the Arno and its levels in town fell, the oil slick was deposited, inch by inch, as a solid sheet of grimy midnight on all the walls to a height of about three meters.

The shops were empty. What hadn’t been carried off by the torrents was left useless anyway, and one of the first orders of business for stricken owners was to shovel the ruinous remains of their stock into the street in growing rubbish heaps. The military drove around day and night delivering fresh water and bread rations to the houses and apartments in the flood zone.

Massimo’s mother turned to me at that point and for the first time put into heartfelt words what I had before only read about. The most incredible part of the whole flood, to her, was all these young students who came from all over — from France, and Switzerland, and Germany and other places — to help. They dug in the mud for hours on end to help locals reclaim their homes and historians liberate and save materials and art from the Uffizi, and from the thoroughly inundated state library down by the river.

“They worked like demons all day,” she said. “Quietly and seriously, then trooped up to sleep in unused train cars up at the station, still in clad their mud-caked and sweat-soaked clothes, only to came back early the next morning and start digging again.” Looking out at these hardworking “Angeli del Fango,” these Mud Angels, Massimo’s mother felt a gratitude and a tenderness she’s never experienced before or since. “They didn’t ask for anything,” she said with long-harbored respect. “Not at the time or afterward, they just did what they did to help the city, to help the people, to save Florence.”

Copyright © 1999 by Reid Bramblett.