'Angels of the Salt': Venice volunteers save works from flooding

Thousands of young Venetians, clad in rubber boots, are wading through water to save precious sheet music from the worst flooding of their lifetimes. 

Luca Bruno/AP
Volunteers help clean up damaged books outside renowned bookstore "Acqua Alta" (High Water) in Venice, Italy, Nov. 16, 2019. High tidal waters returned to Venice on Saturday, four days after the city experienced its worst flooding in 50 years.

As soon as waters receded from last week’s devastating flood, about 50 young Venetians wearing rubber boots and gripped by a sense of determination showed up at the city’s Music Conservatory to help save precious manuscripts.

Thanks to their work, some 164 feet of archival manuscripts, dating from as far back as the 1500s, lay strewn in the conservatory’s upper floors to dry when Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini visited this weekend.

“This is our city,” said Laura Franco, a student at Venice’s Music Conservatory who showed up with a handful of friends Saturday morning.

A growing network of more than 2,000 young Venetians are responding to the worst flood in their lifetimes to help salvage what they can, wherever help is needed.

Modeling their network after the so-called “Mud Angels” who famously poured into Florence from all over the world after the 1966 flood swamped that city’s treasures with mud from the Arno, these youth are calling themselves “Angels of the Salt,” for the corrosive, destructive saline content of the lagoon water.

Social media allows them to be mustered where there is the greatest need. On Saturday that was the island of Burano and the hardest-hit area, the barrier island of Pellestrina, where one man died in Tuesday night’s floods.

The historic flooding this week was marked by three floods over 4.9 feet. Flood damage has been estimated at hundreds of millions of euros.

“We are going to bookshops, to libraries, to shops, and restaurants, giving them a hand to try to help out. And when we find a lot of trash piling up, we organize carts to clean it up so it doesn’t go in the water,” said Vittorio da Mosto.

Many have been helping out at the aptly named “Acqua Alta” bookstore, which poked fun at the frequent high tides that until recently would typically rise playfully and recede, as if another tourist attraction. But this week, the bookstore was completely swamped, with the invading lagoon nearly floating a gondola that serves as a book display and waterlogging countless books.

“I lost thousands and thousands of books, worth thousands and thousands of euros,” Luigi Frizzo said ruefully as he instructed the volunteers to bring the ruined books to a nearby boat for disposal.

Institutions like the Venice Music Conservatory limited the volunteers to current and former students after an enthusiastic first-day turnout of the so-called “Angels.”

“The problem was trying to stop all the volunteers. There were too many arriving with wet boots. We need people with some expertise,” the conservatory’s president, Giovanni Giol, said “We said thank you, but these are historic and they need to be handled with care.”

Mr. Giol said the manuscripts will be saved “thanks to the work of the volunteers.”

Irene Maria Giussani, a viola student, has been using absorbent paper to help prevent ink on the manuscripts from running, and standing up books, including precious volumes containing all of Wagner’s opera, to dry.

“It is mostly a disaster for the manuscripts, because for some there aren’t even copies,” Ms. Giussani said. “It means the music is lost forever. As musicians, we know what that means.”

The most precious manuscripts were being transported on Saturday to Bologna and Florence, where they will be frozen in order to block any mold and also help push out the salt.

The Venice Music Conservatory’s archive was one of the hardest hit in the city.

Renovated and reopened with fanfare just five years ago, it was – inauspiciously, as it turns out – put on the ground floor because the upper floors could not bear the weight, Mr. Giol said. The previous administration also believed that since the area of the city is one of the higher ones, it would be safer from Venice’s frequent floods.

That perception changed dramatically with Tuesday’s 6.1-foot tide – the highest since 1966 when Venice was flooded along with Florence. Those events created a network of international conservation groups that continue to work to restore treasures to this day.

The water only covered the lowest shelf of the archives by less than a 1/2 inch Mr. Giol said, but the paper quickly absorbed the liquid, spreading the damage. He said water damage was limited to about 5% of the documents, and just 1% of those are considered ruined.

Most of the most famous works, including by composers like Rossini, Cimarosa, and Monteverdi, were not touched by the water, Mr. Giol said.

When they renovate the library now, Mr. Giol said first consideration will be to raise the level by at least three feet.

“If it is touched again by water, that means the water would rise another 70 or 80 centimeters [27.5 or 31.5 inches], which would be a catastrophe. Books will become the last of the problems,” he said.

Damage at the nearby Accademia Gallery – home to the famed Vitruvian Man which is on loan to the Louvre for the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death – was limited to some recently acquired space in the former seat of the affiliated Fine Arts Academy.

Water seeped into the walls, up to about 4 inches, but spared a series of plaster statutes by Canova, that were on squat wooden pedestals just high enough to have avoided disaster.

The gallery was opened the day after the flood, one of the few among Venetian attractions, in a pointed signal of the city’s resilience; 800 visitors came. The Biennale, the bi-annual contemporary art fair that closes next weekend, re-opened to the public on Thursday and received over 1,500 visitors.

Accademia Gallery Director Giulio Manieri Elia said that reinforced walls prevent water from entering the recently renovated areas of the gallery, which houses masterpieces by Tintoretto, Veronese, and Giorgione, among others.

While relieved that the Canova plaster models were spared, Mr. Elia worried about the fate of the original tile floors. The real damage from the lagoon floods, as has been documented at St. Mark’s Cathedral in the lowest part of the city, comes as the salt is drawn into the brick.

“In the coming months, the floors will become white with salt,” Mr. Elia said. “I don’t have a lot of experience. I think we need to wash it with fresh water to make the salt come out.”

This story was reported by The Associated Press. 

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