Saturday, November 3, 2012

When the Waters Rise

The modern Ponte Vecchio
One of the famous sites in Florence, Italy, is the Ponte Vecchio, the bridge over the River Arno. Ponte Vecchio means "old bridge," and it's true: it is old. It is believed that the bridge that first appears in records in 996 was built in Roman times. That wooden bridge collapsed in 1117; its stone replacement survived until 1333, when the Arno experienced one of the worst floods in its known history.

Giovanni Villani (c.1276-1348) was a Florentine banker who wrote the Nuova Cronica (New Chronicles), a year-by-year account of happenings in Florence in the 14th century. He wanted to make Florence as well-documented as Rome in terms of political events, historic buildings and monuments, and natural disasters. He reports on a flood that started on 3 November 1333.

By noon on the 4th, the waters overtook the banks and spread across the plain of the church of San Salvi, 1000 feet from the riverbanks. Florence, like many cities at the time, was walled, and Villani reports that by nightfall the city wall, which had been holding back the majority of the surge, crumbled from the force of the waters, allowing the rising tide to flood the city. Supposedly, there are scratches high up on columns in the Florence baptistry that survive to this day, showing the height reached by the water. According to Villani, the water flooded the courtyard of the commune (the seat of local government) to a height of 10 feet.

The Arno floods Florence again in 1966
Bridges on the Arno—the Carraia and the Trinità—both collapsed. The Ponte Vecchio stood a little longer, but logs and debris floating own the flood piled up against it, damming the river, which rose higher and flowed over the bridge, eventually bringing all but two central piers down.

All in all, 3000 people are reported to have died because of the flood. While it is often difficult to sympathize with casualties from so long ago and so far away, very recent events on the northeast coast of North America make for an apt comparison across the centuries of two tragedies. But there's even a third tragedy that needs mention here: 1333 was not the first, nor the last, time that the Arno flooded. A devastating flood in Florence in 1966 caused enormous damage; fortunately, modern methods of warning and rescue meant the casualties were kept to 1% of the 1333 totals. But the interesting footnote on the 1966 flood, when compared to 1333: it took place on 3-4 November!

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