Wednesday, February 15, 2017


I have contributions from some friends from other parts of the world, among them the Italian-born artist Marco Sassone...
Here's Marco as a young man, in his native city of Florence, 1966
... who left his home country as a young man and spent many years in the United States before relocating to Canada a few years ago. From this moment in time, it seems like he made a good choice! Marco honed his skills in his home city, Florence (would that we were all so lucky!) in a line of artists descended from the Impressionists and post-Impressionists. He has enjoyed great success as a painter, adapting those traditions to the contemporary world. Much of his work addresses the very personal theme of exile--a theme that drew him to a special interest in homelessness in the streets of San Francisco, where he had a studio for 25 years.

Marco Sassone, Tim Bare Land, 2015, oil on canvas, 48x60
(One of Marco's "Homeless" series.The title is a play on words with the famous American shoe brand.)

This story is taken from a chapter in the autobiography he is now working on--with a little help from myself. A memory of the great flood of 1966 in Florence, it foreshadows the recurring preoccupation with water that appears throughout Marco's work; it might also suggest, at a deeper level, the existential insecurity that is at the root of homelessness.

by Marco Sassone

Except where otherwise indicated, images were borrowed from public domain sources

            I was woken by papa at a quarter to six in the morning. It was November 4, 1966. I looked out the window and saw a torrent of water flowing down the street below. It had been raining heavily for the last two weeks in Florence.The night before I stood on the Ponte Vecchio, the “Old Bridge”, with my friends Bruno and Rolando, and the water level had risen so high we could almost touch it from the bridge. It was dark and eerie, yet we still could not have imagined what would be coming in the next few hours.
            Florence was still asleep, and the most frightful drama of its history was by this time unstoppable.  At four in the morning, at the threshold of the city, a monster wave unloaded by the dams of Valdarno was already cascading over into the Arno River. I couldn't tell how many hours it took for the terrifying body of water to reach and destroy Florence: its volume and power made a mockery of all normal sense of time. But perhaps even a few hours' notice would have been enough to grasp the situation, to have used that dire suspension of time to choose between an orderly removal of the more valuable treasures and the chaos of attempting to escape in a car, and being swept away to death. 
It took only two hours, we learned later, for the fury of water to crash through the banks of the river and flood the streets of Florence. An ocean of muddy water cut the city in two, isolating it from the world, and making it unreachable from either sky or ground. The first victims were already lying beneath the mud. The sick, the old, the invalids, and dozens of tenants of low income housing were screaming hopeless calls for help from the roofs of their homes. There were women crazed with fear, throwing things from their windows, imploring somebody to save their children. 
Wherever the water flooded into the basements it shattered the central heating systems in the city buildings, and a river of viscous, flammable black oil was mixed in with the mud. It would be that oily black line that would leave its mark on the walls for history to recall the level of the rising flood. It would be that foul black ooze that assaulted the masterpieces of Florentine art, forcing its way everywhere, into the heart of man as well as the finest creations of his ingenuity and knowledge. It was a punishment of humiliation and obliteration.
In Italy, November fourth is a national holiday--Festa delle Forze Armate--Armed Forces Day.  The flags of Italy that graced palaces and public buildings that day were whipped by the wind and rain, and the tragedy of Florence was already standing in the wings. But the fact that it was a holiday may have saved thousands of human lives. Had it been a usual work day, many more would have found themselves like mice in a trap. Anyone going about their daily tasks would have been caught up in the avalanche of fury that was driven along the banks of the Arno, inundating those places so familiar to everyday life.
Soon the BBC in London was issuing a desperate alarm: "The world is losing one of its gems--Florence." The network television stations in New York were broadcasting hourly news of the city’s fate. 
Meanwhile, for us, from the windows of our fourth floor apartment, it seemed as if we were doomed as the deluge continued its crescendo. Light, water and gas were out. And the news was spreading, we did not know how on that frightful night. It was as though we were all hallucinating. There were stories of people drowned like rats in the underpasses of the train station, stories of whole villages, of thousands of people submerged in the flatland suburbs that surround the city.  
My father’s car, a yellow ochre Citroen, was parked on the street near the main entrance to our building.  We could still see the roof of the car. On an impulse, I decided to risk a trip down the stairs armed with a thick rope, in an attempt to secure the car to the wall of the building.  Once down, I plunged into the muddy black cold water and tied the Citroen to a large iron ring on the wall that had been used in Renaissance times to tether horses.  The attempted rescue proved later to have been a futile exercise.
The water kept surging, ripping out trees from the riverbank and vehicles from the streets.  It felt like the water level would soon reach the sky. It did not. But it reached as high as 18 feet in the Via dei Neri, our street, forcing our neighbors from the first and second floor to move to the upper floors. We were trapped for two days.  
Florence was devastated. 

The morning of the 5th, we awoke to find that the water had retreated from the streets of the historic center, leaving the city enveloped in a repulsive quilt of mud and sludge.
“Where are you going?” asked my father as I put on my galoshes.
“I need to see,” I replied as I went down the stairs of the building. Once out on the street I started wading through the slimy, sticky stuff, sinking in to half way up my leg. There were men and women who had been out since sunrise, doing battle with a river that was trying to rip the city from both its past and future.

The director of the Uffizi Museum had started recovery operations immediately, organizing and moving some of the most valuable artworks to safety, including Filippo Lippi's Coronation, a Madonna by Masaccio, two works by Simone Martini from the Berenson Collection, and a painting by Giotto. Also three hundred works from the Portrait Gallery, including Botticelli's Coronation. The director of the Science Museum had begun frantically to move all of the precious instruments to the upper floors, including Edison's phonograph and numerous scientific wonders from the 1700's... 
But the fury of the Arno River was relentless. The water continued to surge, now threatening to invade the second floor of the museum. "Allora mi feci coraggio," the director recalled later: “I summoned the courage I needed and crawled out through a window on the second floor and around a cornice, reaching a window of the State Archives where I broke the glass. With the water continuing to rise, I was able to save several objects of exceptional historic value, including the binoculars of Galileo Galilei."
The friars at Santa Croce Church were terrorized. They ran into the Pazzi Chapel and pushed through to the threshold of the Cloisters, using wooden tables as floatational devices: the spectacle that greeted them there was a picture of desolation in the wake of an apocryphal deluge. Large, dark pieces of flotsam were being whipped around in the swirling whirlpools: these were the documents, the manuscripts, the papers of the National Library adjacent to the Santa Croce Church, being swept out through a bottomless door the flood had created. Beyond that door, the waters were chewing up the inestimable wealth of the library. In the ancient refectory that housed the museum, the river had smashed a wonderful golden crucifix, the gem of Cimabue that marks the passage between the medieval art and Giotto's world. This would be the greatest of the city’s artistic losses.
At the same time, the torrent of water, sludge and tree trunks hit the Baptistery in the Cathedral Square, shattering the famous Andrea Pisano door. One after the other, the bronze panels of the Doors of Paradise broke and sank beneath the mire. Fortunately their weight and their protective gates held them in place, and they would be recovered in the following days.
 I slipped and fell a few times as I wandered through an immense dead city. The water had swept everything away. There was no food available for miles around. And there was panic. Where would our next meal come from? I was the first in my family to be out on the streets, and after hours of searching I finally came up with a small package of biscotti which would be our dinner that night.
The panic lasted several days before help began to arrive, but when it finally came the response was great. Organization eventually took the place of chaos. Soldiers, officials, police - everyone who was willing to work - helped out. Students, mostly Americans from Stanford, Syracuse University and Smith College gave their precious time and labours to the city of Florence. Every day there was new light in the sky and even though there seemed to be very little progress, after two weeks we could see through to the surface of the streets.
One thing that really affected me during those first days was the media coverage devoted to the tremendous loss of art in Florence, while the loss of human life and family security was sadly neglected; even though art is my life, I felt it should take second place to human suffering. Still, once the immediate human problems were eased, we very quickly moved to the damage to the city’s art: the miracle of Florence eventually took place. We all went to work in silence, with quiet dignity, equipped with only the most primitive of tools to save the salvable...

No matter how different we might be as people, nor how quarrelsome or angry with the world, we found ourselves fraternally united in the great “Pietà” of Florence, washing and soothing the open wounds of the aching, lacerated body of a city brought to its knees.  It is this vision I recall, as both spectator and emotional participant, as the most beautiful moment of an otherwise terrible and unforgettable event; and I will always thank providence for the privilege of living it.
    In the years that followed, I carried this vision with me wherever I went.  It was an experience that left indelible memories of darkness along with a feeling of helplessness—and a new palette of colors I did not know existed...

Marco Sassone, Aftermath, 1968, oil on canvas, 71x71 inches
It was a vision that would surface unpredictably at any moment, providing the shadow that persists in my work to this day, the material for my dark series of paintings.  And often, later, it would prove a difficult paradox for my faithful collectors more accustomed to seeing my sunny landscapes.

Marco Sassone, San Francisco Marina Dusk, 1984, oil on canvas, 50x62 inches (private collection, Orange County, California)


  1. A vivid and memorable account, Marco, of a city's excruciating ordeal and its heroic recovery as those who lived in Florence and those who loved it united their labours unselfishly.

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