The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 20, Number 8
Dec 1996


Americans Who Helped in the Florence Flood Rescue Effort

When you look back in the 1966 and 1967 issues of the IIC-AG Bulletin, predecessor of the Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, you learn that dozens of Americans responded to the call for help in rescuing the art and artifacts of Florence.

The issue of Vol. 7 #1, October 1966, was actually published after the November 4 flood, because it summarizes a newspaper story about it in the November 6 New York Times. It goes on to say:

The Institute of Fine Arts at New York University was made the headquarters of the Committee to Rescue Italian Art (CRIA). Professor Lawrence Majewski, of the Conservation Center, was put in charge of gathering a group of conservators to go to Florence, and about 16 went to Florence with him on Monday, November 14. More will follow at a later date. Miss Jean Volkmer has been put in charge of ordering supplies of facing paper, synthetic resins, and other necessary materials....

On page 2 of the October 1967 issue (Vol. 8 #1), there is a little review of the published "Stories of Conservation in Florence" that had appeared in print during the past year.

...At the Annual Meeting in Ottawa, IIC-AG had a chance to see photos and hear reports of the conservation problems in Florence from four of those who were in Florence in the months after the initial crisis had passed. Of the written reports, we personally enjoyed the article by Caroline Horton in the Wilson Library Bulletin of June, 1967. Her description of what it was like to work on the library problems in the second week after the flood was extensive and instructive. Her clear and unemotional description of the people and of the problems and the methods used to solve them is one of the particularly fine reports prepared by professional colleagues who had the opportunity to be there and to help. Harold Tribolet's "diary" account of his activities in Florence from November 17 to 25, 1967, entitled "Restoration in Florence," was published in pamphlet form by R. R. Donnelley & Sons, 2223 South Park Way, Chicago, Illinois, 60616. We also enjoyed the accounts given in the July 1967 National Geographic Magazine and the Saturday Review (Katherine Kuh) for July 27, 1967.

Reports to CRIA from Bernard Rabin and Marilyn Weidner are reprinted on pages 27-30 of the same issue. Rabin was invited to Florence early in June to direct the work of 17 conservation students and three professional conservators. The students arrived early in June 1967, from the Conservation Center at New York University and the art history departments of various universities in the U.S. The professional conservators were Gustav Berger from New York, Kay Silberfeld of the Baltimore Museum, and Mary Lou White of the Walters Museum in Baltimore. The students spent three months cleaning and restoring works of art, including panel and canvas paintings, sculpture, furniture, musical instruments and leather objects.

Marilyn Weidner's report covered the work done on books, archives and works of art on paper by volunteers at the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale (BNC) for the period June 12-29. She noted that a small fund for purchase of mending supplies would be appreciated, and that Peter Waters (who was heading the work at the BNC) had "anxiously requested the return of Carolyn Horton and also Stella Patri and Miss Pennebacker."

Weidner was aware of the historical and professional significance of the occasion:

Because of the international character of the situation in Florence, results of tests conducted here could very well prove of tremendous importance not only to the preservation of the flood damaged materials but also to books, archives, and works of art on paper throughout the world. The meetings at the Library and the Archives pointed up drastically the diverse opinions in regard to quality and permanence in the materials we use and the lack of thorough investigations of these materials throughout the world.

Richard F. Young's account of his experiences was published in the Library of Congress Information Bulletin for April 25, 1968, and also in The Antiquarian Bookman. It was entitled "An American Bookbinder's Work in Florence-A Brief Account of His Experience." He too was invited by the Study Committee on Book Conservation of CRIA to restore flood-damaged library materials at the BNC. He was given leave of absence from his job as rare book conservator at the Library of Congress, and left for Italy on August 25, 1967, after being briefed by Paul Banks, conservator at the Newberry Library and Chairman of the Study Committee for the Rescue of Italian Art.

On arriving in Florence, he was astounded by the immensity of the task. Something like a million books from the BNC alone, including hundreds of thousands of old and rare books, had been damaged by the flood. Although all the books had been dried by early 1967, he estimated that it would take a staff of about 100 working on book restoration for another 20 years at the Library just to undo the worst of what the Arno River had done in minutes.

Emanuale Casamassima was the Director of the Library at that time, and Peter Waters (who had not yet joined the Library of Congress) was providing technical direction. The treatment process began by documenting the book's condition, scraping off mud, taking the book apart, washing pages, drying them on racks in cabinets, and mending with Japanese paper or heat-set tissue. They were then sewn, bound and finished. Facilities were available for deacidifying, bleaching, and resizing of paper.

Richard Young helped plan the hand-binding operation and supervise the paper mending department. There were about 100 other people already at work there when he arrived, most of them Florentines. Four other binders were there: two from Germany, George Baer from the Cuneo Press, and Stella Patri from San Francisco. (It is not known how long any of them, including Young, stayed in Florence.)

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