Fishing in the Mud
The Museum and the Flood

Museo Galileo, Florence, 20 June-20 November 2016


The flood

After three days of unprecedented rainfall in northern and central Italy, around 6 o’clock in the morning on the 4th of November 1966, after having already invaded some quarters of the city through its sewage system, the Arno River overran its banks. Informed of the news, some residents climbed to a high point of the city – the Piazzale Michelangelo, which offers a panoramic view of the city from its terrace – and gazed with amazement at the vortex of water that was sweeping away the cars parked in the Piazza Cavalleggeri, the seat of the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, and the Piazza dei Giudici, the seat of the Institute and Museum of the History of Science. The water level would only begin to descend slowly towards evening. Before it returned to its bed, the Arno claimed a total of thirty-five lives and inundated the entire city centre, carrying with its waters a thick layer of mud impregnated with fuel oil from the city’s heating systems.

4 novembre 1966: Palazzo Castellani

4 November 1966. Curious onlookers in the Piazzale Michelangelo

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4 novembre 1966: Palazzo Castellani alluvionato

4 November 1966. Palazzo Castellani surrounded by the floodwaters

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Insegna di magistrato del 1577

Insignia of the magistrate (1577)

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The Museum as it once was

Housed in the Palazzo Castellani since 1930, at the time of the flood the Institute and Museum of the History of Science occupied half of the historic building. The scientific instruments were distributed over three floors: the basement, the ground floor, and the first floor. A part of the basement was closed off, but a few rooms held displays of the technical applications of various scientific discoveries. Located on the ground floor were the rooms dedicated to chemistry, pharmacology, medicine, and other sciences, as well as the living quarters of the Museum’s director, Maria Luisa Righini Bonelli (1917-1981). Fortunately, the most valuable pieces in the collection, including the relics pertaining to Galileo Galilei, were housed on the upper floor. The second and third floors of the palace were occupied by two other institutions: the Accademia della Crusca and the Deputazione di Storia Patria. The fact that collections were distributed over more than one floor meant that while the damage was considerable, the losses were not so catastrophic as to compromise the future of the Museum.

Palazzo Castellani

Palazzo Castellani overlooking the Arno River, ca. 1955

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Sala di farmacia e chimica al piano terreno

The room on the ground floor with the pharmacy and chemistry exhibits (now the museum bookshop)

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Storte esposte lungo la scala di accesso al piano seminterrato

Retorts on display along the staircase leading to the basement, ca. 1955

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The director’s “propaganda”

A respected scholar and expert on antique instruments, on the day of the flood Maria Luisa Righini Bonelli spared no effort to save the salvageable. Newspapers record that she courageously clambered out onto the ledge of the first floor of the Palazzo Castellani to move the most precious exhibits to the Galleria degli Uffizi, which at the time was connected with the Museum by a passageway. Aware that “out of sight meant out of mind”, she managed to transform this calamity into an opportunity to draw the attention of the media and the public to the Institute and Museum of the History of Science. A few photographs from Bonelli’s “advertising campaign” show her clutching Galileo’s telescopes and lens, even though these exhibits were actually housed on the first floor and thus were not threatened by the floodwaters. In addition to mobilizing a network of international contacts, just a few months after the flood Righini Bonelli founded the Accademia degli Infangati (Academy of Muddy People), which was dedicated to the so-called “Mud Angels”.



The recovery

The damage to which the collections had been subjected and the “propaganda” launched by the director, Maria Luisa Righini Bonelli, focused the attention of government authorities on the risks of conserving rare and antique scientific instruments in a building so close to the Arno River, which might well overflow its banks again in the future. After 1972, the Accademia della Crusca moved out to the Medici villa at Castello. Thus, the Museum exhibits were completely rearranged much as they can now be seen in the permanent exhibition inaugurated in 2010. The first floor is now dedicated to the Medici collections and the second to instruments from the Lorraine collection. Should an unexpected emergency arise, the small number of original items on display on the ground floor and in the basement can be quickly moved to safety.


The room of electrical machines on the second floor, ca. 1975

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The room containing Brambilla's surgical cases on the second floor, ca. 1975

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Exhibition organized by

Museo Galileo


Under the patronage of

Comune di Firenze


Elisa Di Renzo, Giorgio Strano, with Andrea Bernardoni

General coordinator
Museo Galileo: Laura Manetti

Exhibit graphic design
Museo Galileo: Monica Tassi

Slide shows and film editing
Museo Galileo–Laboratorio Multimediale: Monica Tassi, Fabio Corica

Museo Galileo–Unità Web: Iolanda Rolfo (coordinator), Leonardo Curioni, Elena Fani, Roberta Massaini

Photographs and films
Archivi Alinari, Florence
Archivio Fotografico Museo Galileo
Archivio Foto Locchi, Florence
Rai Teche, Rome

English translation
Lisa Chien

Exhibit installation
Civita–Opera Laboratori Fiorentini: Donata Vitali
Museo Galileo: Teresa Saviori

Educational activities
Museo Galileo: Andrea Gori (coordinator), Maria Cecilia Foianesi, Carmen Gagliardi, Karen Giacobassi, Stefano Lecci, Andrea Rabbi, Paola Scortecci

Villa I Tatti–The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies



This exhibition forms part of 2016 Progetto Firenze, the programme celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Florence flood.