Mud Angels: The Israelis Who Restored a Michelangelo With a Toothbrush

An enormous flood in 1966 destroyed a central part of Florence's history, recall 10 Bezalel alumni marking the anniversary of the rescue of a trove of cultural treasures.

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Israel's restoration team in Italy in 1966.
Israel's restoration team in Italy in 1966.Credit: Courtesy of Yoram Rozov

In the days after the huge flood that inundated Florence in November 1966, when the city’s streets turned into rushing rivers, cars were washed away like rubber rafts, and ancient churches filled with a mix of water, fuel oil and mud; “Brutus,” the statue by Michelangelo from 1538, received some rather unusual personal treatment from a young foreigner.

Joram Rozov, a 28-year-old Israeli who headed a delegation of students to the Tuscan capital to aid in saving the city’s cultural treasures, cleaned the statue gently, removing layers of filth.

“I cleaned Michelangelo’s statue with a toothbrush and my own hands,” Rozov says with pride.

The Israeli delegation sent to Florence to help restore its flood-damaged art treasures.Credit: Courtesy of Yoram Rozov

Another member of the Israeli group who came to Florence with him, Danny Tal, climbed up to clean another Michelangelo called “Bacchus.” Rozov recalls with a smile how Tal poured water into the bowl that the wine god held in his hand, and used a sponge to wash the entire naked body.

Last Saturday delegation members received recognition and a special thanks, including from the present mayor of Florence Dario Nardella, at an evening in Tel Aviv marking the 50th anniversary of the flood. The event was organized by the Italian Cultural Institute in Tel Aviv and the Italian Embassy.

The rain outside provided the appropriate atmosphere for the stories and memories inside. The flooding of the Arno River, which reached a height of 50 meters at its peak, caused the deaths of 35 people and left thousands homeless. The flooding also severely damaged the historic center of the city, considered the birthplace of the Renaissance, and its treasures. In addition to the ancient churches, the waters flooded the lower floors of the Uffizi Gallery art museum and damaged other important museums. More than a million books and around 1,500 works of art were damaged.

The team was featured on the cover of 'Angeli del Fango', published by Giunti. From right to left: Buki Zuker, Danny Tal, Avishay Eyal, Joram Rozov and Gali Hoss.Credit: GIUNTI

Rozov, who at the time was the dean of students and taught at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, organized and led a group of nine art students who flew to Florence to help in the rescue and restoration effort that followed the disaster. They spent 12 days there working from morning til night. The Israeli delegation concentrated on cleaning statues in the Bargello national museum, moving very large damaged paintings from churches to places where they could be restored, and removing ancient manuscripts from the archives of the Jewish community, which had been flooded with thick sludge.

In addition to Rozov, the group included architects Buki Zuker and Uri Markoza; painters Maurice Hayoun, Eli Tsarfati and Prof. Avishay Eyal; graphic designers Gali Hoss, Yoram Klein and Moshe Perry; and Tal, who has since passed away.

The stars of the evening, silver-haired Israeli men today, were shown in black and white photographs as robust young men carrying art works through the flood-stricken city, their clothes covered in mud and grime.

Via Ricasoli in Florence, Italy on November 4, 1966 after it has been completely flooded by the waters of the Arno. In background the famed bell tower of Giotto.Credit: AP

The Israeli group joined thousands of volunteers from Italy and other countries. Armed with buckets and hoes, they removed enormous amounts of sediment and debris, rescued documents hundreds of years old from ruined archives and treated important works of art by such masters as Botticelli, Donatello and Ghiberti.

The volunteers became local heroes, and the Italian press called them “Mud Angels” (Angeli del fango), a term still used to this day. “I came to express the gratitude of all the citizens of Florence to the Mud Angels who came from Israel,” said Nardella at the event. “They, like the many other young people at the time, felt a moral obligation to drop everything in their lives and come in order to save Florence, because they understood that Florence belongs not just to its residents but to all of mankind.”

The square in front of the Basilica of Santa Croce after the banks of the River Arno overflowed and flooded the city.Credit: AP

Rozov, now 79, says the idea to enlist Israeli students arose because the flood took place a few days after an earthquake in Turkey where Israeli medical students had been flown to help with the rescue effort.

“I didn’t waste a minute,” says Rozov. “I asked myself why, similar to the medical students’ initiative, couldn’t art students contribute their part to saving the artistic treasures of the beautiful city, the cradle of Western culture.”

It had helped that he knew the city well, because he had studied art there a few years beforehand. They received emergency supplies and equipment from Magen David Adom. El Al and Alitalia airlines provided them with free flights. The Italian government refused to grant the group visas due to fears of epidemic outbreaks after the flooding, but the Italian national students association helped them enter the country, and members hosted them in Florence.

Four members of the Israeli delegation in Italy in 1966. Credit: Courtesy of Yoram Rozov

Rozov says Florence looked, as if “after a battle, or earthquake. The cars that had been swept away like matchsticks blocked all the roads and passageways. Art studios, businesses and workshops were either in basements or on street level, and the floods burst the metal shutters and washed everything into the street. It looked like barricades during wartime,” said Rozov.

Painter Eli Tsarfati was 23 and a second year student at Bezalel when he joined the delegation.

“Florence was one of the classic cities in the history of art. We didn’t think twice.” Tsarfarti worked part of the time on cleaning the bronze doors of the Florence Baptistery, created by Lorenzo Ghiberti in 1452, which Michelangelo named the “Gates of Paradise.”

“The water got into the heating systems that ran on diesel fuel, so the city was washed with fuel that floated on top of the water,” Tsarfati says. “When the water receded, the fuel oil was smeared on all the walls, paintings and statues. We needed to clean it all by hand, using toothbrushes and special materials.”

Because most group members were veterans of army combat units, many wore IDF uniforms and army boots, and even used their army towels. “It led to some tension with volunteers from Arab countries, with whom we shared meals with every day in the dining hall of the University of Florence,” he said.

“It was before the Six-Day War, and the education we had received was that all the countries surrounding us were enemy nations, so that when we met Arab volunteers in the line for food, the feeling was that we were meeting the enemy. There was never any violence, but you could feel the tension in the air,” said Tsarfati.

The work alongside one another did not inspire a feeling of closeness: “If it had happened today, I would do much more to get closer to them,” he added.

One of the most famous artworks severely damaged by the flooding was the Crucifix by Cimabue in the Basilica of Sante Croce in Florence, one of the earliest and most influential Italian painters from the 13th Century. To this day, the work still bears the scars of the disaster and the long restoration process it underwent; and the sections that were damaged are intentionally emphasized in comparison to the original, untarnished parts of the work.

The unveiling of Giorgio Vasari's 'Last Supper' in November 2016.Credit: TONY GENTILE/REUTERS

Many of the works remained in storage for decades because experts had yet to invent the techniques needed to restore them. Florence is now considered an important world center for art restoration, very much an outgrowth of that disaster.

The last major work to undergo restoration was the very large 16th century painting by Giorgio Vasari called the “Last Supper.” For years it was thought to be irreparable, and it waited 40 years for restoration work done only in the past decade. It has been returned to its original site in Sante Croce, just in time for the 50th anniversary of the flood.

In the center, five of the Israeli "Angeli del Fango" in Tel Aviv, January 14, 2017Credit: Avshalom Halutz