This month, November 2016, marks the fiftieth anniversary of a devastating disaster in Florence. On the night of November 4th a series of disastrous weather combinations meant that a vast wave of water rushed through the city, with the narrow roads acting as funnels and the bridges impeding the escape of the flood. Sadly over 30 people were killed and millions of precious artworks and books damaged or destroyed. This new book by Sheila Waters, Waters Rising, is not only a fascinating personal insight to that event, but also an account of Peter Waters’ (Sheila’s husband) seminal work in Florence in book conservation. The majority of this book consists of their letters to one another during the separation while Peter worked in Florence and Sheila worked and looked after their three boys in the UK. The later letters, once Sheila had joined Peter together with two of their sons, were written to their mothers,
Peter Waters (right) was a prodigy, starting to train when he was only 14 with master binder William Matthews at Guildford College of Art in Surrey. He went on to the Royal College of Art where his talent and skills were noticed by the great bookbinder Roger Powell, and Peter later became his business partner. Sheila collaborated with Peter in many bookbinding designs, and their work is in the British Library and the V&A as well as other prestigious institutions.
It was in Florence where Peter pretty much revolutionised the process of book conservation. In that one dreadful flood, 1,300,000 items, a third of the collection of the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze (BNCF), was under water. On November 25th fifty years ago Peter was asked to select two other colleagues and travel to Florence to help. He was joined by craftspeople from many nations, some staying only for a short time and others staying years. Any secret book binding and conservation processes known only to a few individuals were freely shared when everyone saw the extent of the damage.
Peter assessed the situation and then set up a process whereby the books, which were not only damaged by water, mud and sewage but also by oil from the overflowing tanks for domestic heating, were dried, pages carefully separated, mud removed, cleaned, and their repair and rebinding prioritised. Sheila was on hand to use her artistic skills to draw diagrams of the equipment that Peter devised to deal with the situation, and she took part in the processes too. The ‘Mud Angels’ helped to rescue books and artworks, often simply handing items from one person to another, but being covered in mud in so doing! The book contains an astonishing unique collection of photographs mostly taken by Peter which gives an insight into the situation they faced and the processes which were devised in coping with such a tragedy.
One of the results of Peter’s work in Florence is that he was recruited by the Library of Congress in Washington and here he transformed the way they dealt with the conservation of their book and manuscripts treasures.
This is a highly recommended book produced to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of what could have turned out to have been a far worse disaster for the BNCF had not Peter Waters been there.