After a prolonged period of intense rain during the first days of November 1966, two Valdarno dams burst south of Florence. During the early hours of 4th November an enormous weight of water was propelled at great speed towards Florence, as the river Arno spilled over, rushing to fill every nook and crevice. Mud, oil, fuel and filthy water spread and rose—to 22 feet (6.7 m) in Santa Croce—covering almost 7000 acres. By the evening of that very same day the waters began to recede, leaving behind some 600,000 tons of mud and debris—a ton of mud for each inhabitant—and utter devastation to the city and its people. The legacy of the flood lives on today.
Cass first visited Florence in late 2010, on a Royal Scottish Academy scholarship. He has returned regularly since 2010, and states that his artistic response to the city has gradually evolved. Inspired by artist James Hogg's letters written from Florence during November 1966 (published by S.A.C.I.) his Florence in flood artworks are as much an attempt to introduce a new topic to his practice—to his audience—as they are explorative responses to the history of this catastrophic and globally significant weather event.
The project links a past event with the present, describing the contemporary significance of the flood. Florence—an artist’s mecca—brought to its knees, made vulnerable. Vulnerable to extremes in weather, but also as a result of man. The artworks included in the project present an irony too, describing a stark contrast between the perceived image of the city (pristine and thriving) yet demonstrating the reality of its susceptibility: the catastrophic and unnecessary damage one event wreaked. The principal outcome of Cass's flood project to date is the book, Perimetri Perduti.
Perimetri Perduti officially launched on the 50th anniversary of the flood—4th November 2016—in the headquarters of the British Institute of Florence (Palazzo Lanfredini) accompanied by a selection of flood paintings. The exhibition ran for the whole of November 2016. The book was then presented in The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, in January 2017. Paintings & supporting materials were displayed, and talks given by Edinburgh's Lord Provost, and Royal Scottish Academy Academician George Donald.
The project as a whole (which consists of more than the book) aimed to illustrate the events up to and during the inundation on November 4th 1966, to describe the aftermath and destruction, and to touch upon the what if? What if this happens again: a fear that engulfed Florence during severe rain in late January 2014. A fear shared by other Italian towns, and in other locations around Europe, that have endured flooding. Historically Florence has suffered a major flood once a century. As documented in the press 'the situation has actually got worse than in 1966', according to Raffaello Nardi, who heads up a special commission responsible for safeguarding the Arno river basin. This potential risk prompts concern, in part, because of the importance of this city, what it means to the world of art and culture (both currently and historically), the irreplaceable items, objects, artefacts and architectural features its walls contain. Not to mention the intangible, the belief—thanks to the rich catalogue of those that have come before—that Florence is a (if not the) mecca of the art world. Florence exists not only for those that live there, holiday there, study there, but also in the collective memory and imagination.
Why else did the world come together in saving Florence? 'Mud Angels' travelled on their own steam, from all over the world to help in the rescue effort, others sent much-needed funds. First hand accounts from 'Mud Angels' feature in Perimetri Perduti. Cimabue’s Cross had lost over 70 percent of its paint. Donatello’s Penitent Mary Magdalene was stained with thick brown oil. Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise lost half of their golden panels. Twenty-seven thousand square feet of frescoes in Florence’s central churches and museums were damaged.
During the course of this project Cass curated four events exploring the flood. In SACI gallery, Florence (in collaboration with artist Stephen Kavanagh); a solo exhibition in The Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh; an exhibition on the banks of the river Arno in Palazzo Lanfredini; and a temporary display and presentation in The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh. These events set out to raise awareness and gauge how the project might be received—both inside the city and outside—and the results were positive. Public engagement was high, as audiences absorbed the sheer scale of the flood and its impact on art history, archiving and preservation. In the face of global extremes witnessed in recent months, Cass' flood project is of clear contemporary significance. The paintings that make up this collection received Winsor & Newton's top watercolour award in 2016.
The artist wishes for the artworks that constitute this series be kept within the pages of the book, and so the great majority of these paintings cannot be viewed online. The book in its current form is therefore a kind of mini-exhibition. A small run of a limited edition prototype was printed: only a few remain. If you would like to own a copy please visit this page:
Anthony Alioto, Vienna | Nick & Vivian Bannerman, Scottish Borders | Lesley Knox, Edinburgh | Ray & Sal Landon, County Durham | Simon & Angie Lewin, Edinburgh | Susan Mackie & Pascal Bernard, Paris | Clare Mackie, Brighton | Candia McWilliam, Edinburgh | Claire O’Connor, Somerville, MA | Daniel Rawling, London | Kirsi Sutherland, Edinburgh | Giles Waterfield, London | David & Susie Wolfenden, Scottish Borders
Collection Simon Paul: a Private Art Collection in Memory of Simon MacFadyen
Sandie Walker-Hepburn of Powder Grey: Interiors & Lifestyle (Scottish Borders) www.powdergrey.com
Thanks to all those who have contributed to this ongoing project, and particularly the British Institute of Florence (chiefly its supportive and enthusiastic director Julia Race and her team). The book title is the brain-child of Glasgow based artist Giovanni Giacoia: giovannigiacoia.com. Sponsors contributions went towards the creation of the artworks that feature in this book.