Dark Water: Flood and Redemption in the City of Masterpieces
AT THE END of Robert Clark’s nonfiction account of the 1966 Arno flood, an American expatriate artist offers what he calls “a puzzle, a labyrinth”: “The river’s flooding. And there’s a baby and a Leonardo painting floating down it. Which do I save?” I gained newfound appreciation of Clark’s storytelling in that moment, when I—a pediatrician with a professional stake in “saving” children—had to pause, unsure which to choose.
It helps that Clark has so vivid a story to tell. Stories, rather: each developing what comes before while grounding what follows, like paint on gesso on wood. To begin, Clark limns the origins of a doubled city: Firenze, “the place where the citizens of the capital of Tuscany live and work,” and Florence, “the place where the rest of us come and look.” Few modern accounts of Firenze’s artistic flowering devote such attention to Cimabue and Giorgio Vasari (lesser lights when compared to their contemporaries, though what city besides Florence has such an embarrassment of riches from which to choose?), yet, in Clark’s telling, these and still brighter luminaries (Leonardo, Michelangelo, et al.) appear against a backdrop of Firenze’s political history, its civic and moral fortunes rising and falling like the waters of the Arno.
Three centuries later, expatriate artists and writers descend on Florence, “to meditate on art and the locale—the genius of the place—that produced it.” A who’s who of English Romantics, Victorians, and a smattering of Americans transform Florence into a necessary pilgrimage stop for those who, in an age of industry, nationalism, and corrosive doubt, sought transcendence in Roman Catholic religious art. As in his family memoir, My Grandfather’s House, Clark deftly renders complex figures, bringing the reader into the salon circles they once frequented.
Not all Florence’s admirers were so refined, however. A 1938 visit to the Uffizi by Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini is rife with comic irony, with surprising insights into which Fascist had the finer eye. And who could have imagined that Hitler—or someone else quite high in the Wehrmacht—would preserve the Ponte Vecchio from ruinous Nazi efforts to slow the Allied advance up the Italian peninsula?
The historical stage set, Clark lets the lives and fortunes of Florentines and expatriate residents tell what is ostensibly his real story, the 1966 flood. Each receives a minimalist, though sympathetic, introduction, as Clark reveals his characters more through incident than description. When a rain-swollen Arno rages through and beyond its narrow channels, Ugo Procacci rushes to save a hundred thousand artworks in the Uffizi, Nick Kraczyna brings groceries and baby formula to his apartment by tiptoeing along the rim of an increasingly precarious river wall, and those living in the shadow of the basilica of Santa Croce run out of higher ground toward which they can flee. Compelling stories in themselves, they are filled with electric intensity through Clark’s command of scene and detail. A museum director escapes across the rooftops of the Uffizi carrying Galileo’s telescope. A wheelchair-bound woman near Santa Croce, unable to flee her blocked and flooding apartment, is temporarily spared when a priest passes a sheet through the window grill, raising the wheelchair and its occupant to the ceiling. The priest remains, gripping her hand through the grill, until rising waters nearly cover his head and force him to seek his own safety.
When the Arno finally recedes, Florentines quickly survey the damage: fourteen thousand artworks damaged or destroyed, miles of waterlogged archives, millions of rare books crumpled in thick, black mud. Rather than overwhelm the reader with statistics, Clark wisely concentrates his narrative on two particular works by artists now more familiar to us, Cimabue’s Crocifisso (crucifix) and Vasari’s Last Supper. Through them, we sense the depth more than the scope of the devastation. When the pastor of Santa Croce explores the building in an inflatable dinghy, we learn:
It’s said that Father Cocci saw the floating paint and gesso flecks, some bright and gilded like tropical fish; that it was only then he looked up at the Cimabue Crucifix, looming over the waters of the refectory like the creator spirit. Or rather like God reduced to shreds. It was un brandello, carni strappate fino al volto, “in tatters, the flesh ripped off up to the face.” Christ crucified and then drowned. Someone found a tea strainer or a pasta colander and began to scoop scabs of paint off the surface.
Later, when a salvage team arrives the next morning, they discover Ugo Procacci, “standing before the cross in his mud-spattered raincoat, his face angular and weeping. Then, out of terrible audacity or raw frustration, someone said, ‘If you’re crying, what are we supposed to do?’”
What follows is a complex and engaging tale of recovery, often inspiring yet riddled with human mistakes and conflict. Those familiar with postwar Italian politics will nod in recognition to learn that Florentine Communists organized a better humanitarian relief effort than elected government authorities. Less anticipated (though more miraculous) was the arrival of hundreds of volunteers eager to find, salvage, and restore Florence’s art and literature. Dubbed “angeli del fango” (“mud angels”), they carried panels and canvases to safer quarters, cleaned and dried manuscripts, and assisted in stabilizing artworks from further decomposition before commencing actual restoration. Some stayed well after the initial rescue, such as African chemist Joseph Nkrumah, who remained seven years in Florence until he returned home, where he became director of Ghana’s National Museum.
Beneath this colorful story of artistic struggle, conflict, and occasional intrigue (and here I must confess that even with a concluding chronology and glossary, I nonetheless found myself lost at times in a sea of Italian surnames), Clark digs far deeper than standard reportage or even well-told narrative. In detailing the mud angels’ painstaking, sometimes discouraging efforts to stabilize water-damaged paintings or keep mold at bay, we come face to face with the fragility—perhaps even the superfluity—of art, beauty, and faith in a fallen world.
Art, faith, and beauty: for Clark, these instances of transcendence are linked, perhaps inseparable. (At one point, Clark confesses, “I had come for the art: or rather, I was writing a book about how, for me at least, beauty and art seemed to imply faith, or something close to it.”) To question one is to doubt all three, and that’s precisely what is at stake in Dark Water. Indeed, when Clark wakes up in Florence to an unanticipated spiritual desert (“I had the belief but not the feeling of belief, which I suppose was to say that I had lost my faith.”), he sees Cimabue’s flood-defiled Crocifisso differently:
For me, the overwhelming feeling was one of devastation, of loss and absence far beyond sadness or grief. The Crocifisso now simply stated, This is death; this is suffering pressed to and beyond its limit. No wonder the Arno, in its raging self-abnegation, came looking for this particular object and drowned it with such care. They were brothers under the skin.
Clark, a modern Qoheleth, ruthlessly probes the outer reaches of vanity, owning the moral faults of his aestheticism, admitting, upon learning of the lamentable 1997 Assisi earthquake, “I was intent on other things: on art and the self I was busy discovering in art’s reflection. Sometimes beauty can blind you to the truth.”
To Clark’s credit, he arrives at no easy answers, accepts no comforting resolution. In the end, however, he does locate us, his readers, in the midst of a creation filled with creatures who have the potential—who can know in advance?—to be, in the vocabulary of the American expatriate’s puzzle, “worth a Leonardo.” And in that realization, as he wrestles with the same choice that so startled me, Clark cites one of those English inventors of Florence—that place “the rest of us come and look”—John Ruskin:
…who knew almost nothing of ordinary people or the real world, who lived from beauty to beauty—said, “You will never love art well till you love what she mirrors better.” You should look, but you should also see. You should pay attention, render creation its due.
I’m unlikely to find a better summation of Clark’s achievement in Dark Water. In a story of artistic ambition, natural disaster and heroic response, Clark renders creation—at once beautiful and savage—its due. Leonardo himself couldn’t hope for more.
—Reviewed by Brian Volck