I’d been an undergraduate at the Courtauld for all of a month when the Arno burst its banks and flooded Florence on 4 November 1966. A few days later, all students were encouraged to gather in the glorious Adam room that masqueraded as our lecture hall. With its plaster ceiling roundels and monochrome wall decoration, it felt like an elegant drawing-room fallen on hard times.
The speaker that day bore little resemblance to our usual lecturers. He was a heavily handsome, determined figure – about the same age as some of the younger staff but with an air of chutzpah that no junior art historian could muster. He strode down the central aisle, inveighing on recent events in Italy which were, he said, as much of a cataclysm to us as the Spanish Civil War had been to a previous generation of students. I was puzzled by the analogy – I still am – but from then on, Robert Hughes, who died earlier this month, was surfing on our attention.
He’d been working in Italy and found himself covering the disaster for the BBC, though he didn’t tell us that. It was quite a short presentation but his drift was that anyone who wanted to could skip a couple of weeks of term, claim a return train fare and head south. I did, without hesitation, and soon found myself holed up in Violet Trefusis’s Villa Bellosguardo, high in the hills above Florence.
Trefusis, then in Paris, had donated the servants’ quarters for our use. Our meals were provided by the finishing school up the road: the girls there weren’t allowed down to the mud and destruction below. Each morning, in brilliant December sun, we zigzagged down to the city, through the vineyards in our rubber boots, heading to Santa Croce where we talcum-powdered oil out of marble (I remember treating the fat bottoms of Baccio Bandinelli’s putti and a lean well-dressed statue of Ugo Foscolo, such a contrast) and scraped oleaginous mud off heavy vellum with spatulas, among other unskilled tasks. Barmen offered us, ‘gli angeli studenti’, free coffee and pastries for breakfast as we navigated the pyramids of mud that cluttered the streets. We kept our boots on when we were invited to the first night of the reopened opera (oil slick on safety curtain).
I had the time of my life – surely this was what being a student was meant to be about – playing poker late into the night, taking excursions into the Tuscan countryside, following the Guicciardini library with its medieval manuscripts from its home in the city to the Castello di Poppiano, where the Guicciardini family, memorably ungrandiose, gave us lunch.
It wasn’t until the train journey back to England, sharing a carriage with people who described, devastatingly, how they had lost their livelihoods in workshops submerged by the floodwaters of the Arno, that I really began to understand the extent of the suffering that had come with the disaster.