"The week I spent in Florence was extremely importantfor me because it contributed towards my cultural and humanitarian maturity"
An account by Raffaele Virdis (I)
In November 1966 I was 20 years old and about to start my second year at the Faculty of Medicine. The news of the flood in Florence and the Veneto region made such a great impression on me that, a few days after the start of the disaster, I joined a group of young people from Parma who were going to travel down to Florence in a coach which had been lent by the city council.
The coach was supposed to be coming back that same evening and I left with the intention of first having a look around and then eventually coming back properly equipped and with a precise plan of action. On our arrival in Florence, whose streets were still full of mud and stagnant, slimy water, we were taken to the National Library. Here I was given a sponge and some clean water and, after a few summary instructions, told to clean away the mud from some extremely beautiful topographical maps of the Tuscan countryside, many of them drawn and coloured by hand and dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. During pauses in the work, I met some other students from Parma, who had already been in Florence for 2 or 3 days and who were housed, like many other volunteers, in railway carriages at the train depot near the Station of S. Maria Novella, right in the centre of the city.
The sights I had seen on my arrival, the general situation, and that of the arts in particular, combined with what my new friends told me, made me decide to stay on in Florence, even though I had no change of clothes or sleeping bag with me. I worked in the library alongside many other volunteers from all over Italy for 2 more days: they were all politically minded (both left and right wing) and a widespread feeling of protest was already in the air.
I took part in long discussions in the evenings in the railway coaches where we were sleeping, which were not only occupied by students but also the first hippies or beatniks and - though I hope I am not mixing this up with later memories - where the first hashish cigarettes were being passed around. Everyone seemed to have caught the general feeling of anger and protest: I remember that one day, while we were working in a human chain in the basements of the Library (passing books from one person to the next, to take them up to the upper floors for cleaning and restoration), an important politician came past on an official visit (perhaps Moro); most of us were completely indifferent to his presence, while a few others reacted with whistles and catcalls of protest.
The work in the Library did not really satisfy me because I didn't feel I was being as useful as I could and I was also "scandalized" by all the thefts being made by some of the volunteers who stole anything they could. In particular I remember having seen sheets of illuminated manuscripts, prints, drawings and beautiful sheets of music circulating in the carriages. Some other volunteers and I formed a selected work group and went around to the worst hit areas to do what we could to help there.
We went to Santa Croce on the first day and there a monk showed us around the entire building, and even took us to see Cimabue's splendid Crucifix, which had been damaged in the flood and was already laid out on trestles, ready to be taken away elsewhere to be restored; he asked us to clean the mud off some of the side altars in the Basilica and, much to my satisfaction, off some of the tombs of "the great", as they were described by Foscolo. During the next few days we lent a hand in various streets and I remember my friends and I cleaned mud out of ground floor houses, private cellars, warehouses and shops.
After a few early experiences, we began selecting our "clients" by concentrating on helping the elderly, the humbler-looking shops and the small craft workshops. After about ten days of stimulating work, I was sent home, thanks to an inexperienced doctor who thought my reaction to the vaccination that he had given me was an inguinal hernia.
Thirty years have gone by since then and I have often come back to Florence but it has never seemed as beautiful or fascinating as it did then. The week or ten days I spent there was extremely important for me because it contributed towards my cultural and humanitarian maturity and formed the basis for many other experiences in the professional and social field.
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