50 YEARS AGO:  Maryland Responds to Floods in Italy

Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Maryland Libraries is home to political collections such as the Spiro T. Agnew papers, the Theodore R. McKeldin papers, the Daniel Brewster papers, and the Hervey Machen papers, which contain information and interesting perspectives on local, national, and international events. One such event documented in these four collections is the effort of Marylanders to assist in the relief of Italians flooded out of their homes fifty years ago this month. In early November 1966, much of north-central Italy was inundated by flood waters. As many as 300 people may have been killed, up to 50,000 farm animals were drowned, and countless shops and buildings destroyed (1). Refugees sought shelter in makeshift housing. The cities of Florence and Venice were especially hard hit. Devastatingly, the great concentration of art, architecture, and cultural heritage found in Florence was subjected to flood waters that reached 22 feet high in some places. The National Library of Florence was underwater. Astride the Arno River, the Ponte Vecchio, which dates back 2300 years to Roman times, had been badly damaged.


The Baltimore News American collection includes photographs of the Italian floods of 1966. Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries.

The response to the 1966 flood in Florence was decidedly international, as Americans joined Europeans to help Italians with necessities, repair the city, and salvage many of its artistic and literary treasures – some 500 years old – which had been damaged by the water, mud, and heating oil released during the flood. In Maryland, the Italian flood relief efforts were headed up by two ad hoc organizations, the Maryland branch of the Committee to Rescue Italian Art (CRIA) and the Maryland Committee for Italian Flood Relief.

The national Committee to Rescue Italian Art, led by Jacqueline Kennedy, had been established soon after the extent of the flood damage became known to Americans. In Maryland, professor of art history John E. C. T. White, at Johns Hopkins, led the local committee, while outgoing Mayor of Baltimore, Theodore McKeldin, and Governor-elect Spiro T. Agnew joined the list of at least seven-eight artistic, political and religious leaders who threw their support behind the national effort to raise $2.5 million to restore the artwork of Florence and Venice (2). On December 1, Mayor McKeldin participated in a concert of Italian music held at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, where he remarked that “when disastrous floods swept the Italian cities, heavily damaging many of the finest products of human genius, the loss fell in some measure on every civilized city in the world, including Baltimore.” Pointing to the universality of the human experience as expressed through the appreciation of great art, McKeldin suggested that it did not matter “what language they spoke, what flag they saluted, what area they inhabited” (3). On December 4, Professor W. R. Rearick delivered a lecture at Johns Hopkins that featured slides of “on-the-scene photographs” and first-hand reports from American art conservators who flew to Italy to assess the damage to churches and museums (4).

On November 22, a mere two weeks after the waters had flooded Florence, the Maryland Committee for Italian Flood Relief met for the first time at the Holiday Inn in Baltimore. Representatives included members of the Italian American Civic Club of Maryland, Circolo Armonia, Italian American Organization of Maryland, Ital-Sport Association, two lodges and the grand council of the Order Sons of Italy in America, and several independent individuals. Samuel A. Culotta, a Baltimore attorney who ran for Baltimore Mayor six times and served as assistant secretary of McKeldin when he was mayor and governor, was chosen as chairman of the Maryland Committee. Working in conjunction with the American Committee for Italian Flood Relief, the Maryland Committee focused on the “alleviation of human suffering and economic losses,” not on the restoration of Italian art (5). Even at its first meeting, the Committee received financial contributions from various groups and planned to coordinate with the national committee on sending this money to the Italian people or government, as it was unclear if the donations could be deducted from federal income taxes. Some worried that direct aid to the Italian government would be held up in bureaucratic red tape.

Publicity was central to these local fundraising efforts. As a result, Chairman Culotta sent out letters to a number of important Marylanders to ask if they would serve as honorary chairs of the committee.  Among this group, Governor-elect Spiro T. Agnew responded positively to Culotta’s request, but a note indicates that Agnew did not believe he was committing himself to expending energy or “personal fundraising activity” on the project (6). Held on December 15, the second meeting of the Maryland Committee for Italian Flood Relief announced the honorary chairmen would include several political leaders, notably Agnew, U.S. Senators Daniel Brewster and Joseph Tydings, and U.S. Representatives Carlton R. Sickles and Hervey G. Machen (http://hdl.handle.net/1903.1/1691), as well as Mayor McKeldin. Life Magazine highlighted the Italian floods in the December 16th issue, and the local radio programs featured appeals from radio announcers Gaetano “Guy” Sardella (the “Voice of Italy in Maryland” on WBMD), Vincent Pastore, and Paul Marino (7).

By the beginning of January 1967, some members of the Committee for Italian Flood Relief believed that donations had been slow to accumulate. Guy Sardella groused in a statement published by the Baltimore Sun that “the campaign to save the art has been wonderful, they’re got all the publicity.” The Maryland Committee had raised just $4268.98 after three weeks of fundraising. The total had only risen to about $8000 by April, when Chairman Culotta even acknowledged that the minimum goal was just $15,000 (8). By comparison, millions were in the process of being raised to save Italian art and archival materials through painstaking conservation treatments. Still, the two organizations drew organizational and financial support from many of the same leaders in the Italian-American community in Maryland.

The art restoration effort had also received a boost from dramatic video footage, which included documentation of the full effects of the flood on the city of Florence. On January 1, 1967, the Baltimore Sun reported that the program “Floods of Florence – Devastation and Restoration,” featuring Peter E. Michaels of the Walters Art Gallery, would be shown on local television in Baltimore (9). A month later, the Baltimore Museum of Art opened its doors for a free showing of Florence – Days of Destruction, the English-language version of a color documentary made by Italian filmmaker, Franco Zeffirelli, narrated by actor Richard Burton, and titled Per Firenze in Italian. Even without an admission charge, the film screening was intended to benefit CRIA. A discussion with Charles Parkhurst and W. R. Rearick, as well as museum conservators Kay Silberfeld and Peter E. Michaels, followed the showing of the documentary (10). Then, in March 1967, CRIA organized a benefit fashion show at the Emerson Hotel in Baltimore, which was attended by Mrs. Theodore McKeldin, Mrs. Spiro T. Agnew, Samuel A. Culotta, and Ugo Toscano, an attaché with the Italian embassy in Washington, D.C (11). By the month of May in 1967, CRIA had raised some $1.75 million dollars nationally, from donors across the United States (12). In total, it is said that Zeffirelli’s film raised over $20 million worldwide.

In Maryland, the response to the Italian flood damage drew support from a wide variety of citizens. With tens of thousands of Americans born in Italy or born to Italian parents, Baltimore in the 1960s was a center of the Italian flood relief. The participation of non-Italian political leaders, like Mayor McKeldin and Governor-elect Spiro T. Agnew, and the cooperation of cultural heritage institutions such as the Walters Art Gallery and Baltimore Museum of Art, indicated the aspirations of the flood relief efforts. Additionally, the Baltimore Council of the AFL-CIO donated funds to the committee and appealed to local unions. But it was the Italian-American fraternal organizations which locally took the lead. Indeed, the Maryland Committee for Italian Flood Relief convened at least seven meetings (13).

Beyond the political papers housed within Hornbake Library, the University of Maryland preserves an original copy (in English) of Zeffirelli’s 1966 documentary, which has been recently digitized. This year, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the work done to protect Italian artwork in the wake of the flood, the University of Maryland Libraries conservators, Carla Montori and Bryan Draper, participated in the showing of the documentary at various sites, including at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (http://www.lib.umd.edu/news/2016/09/florence-film).

Dr. Eric C. Stoykovich is Historical Manuscripts Project Archivist in the University of Maryland’s Special Collections and University Archives in Hornbake Library, where he works under the Curator on collections which tell the story of political officials and civic groups in the state of Maryland. He received his MLS from UMD’s iSchool and a PhD in American history from the University of Virginia. His interests include archival history, political development, and institutional change. 


  1. “Organizational Meeting of the Maryland Committee for Italian Flood Relief,” part of Spiro T. Agnew papers, Series 2.2, Box 2, Special Collections, University of Maryland libraries.
  2. “Italian Art Cash Sought,” The (Baltimore) Sun (Nov. 29, 1966), ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
  3. Theodore R. McKeldin papers, Series 1, Box 20, Special Collections, University of Maryland libraries.
  4. “Talk on Art Damage in Italy,” The (Baltimore) Sun (Dec. 4, 1966), ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
  5. Spiro T. Agnew papers, Series 2.2, Box 2, Special Collections, University of Maryland libraries.
  6. Spiro T. Agnew papers, Series 2.2, Box 2, Special Collections, University of Maryland libraries.
  7. Spiro T. Agnew papers, Series 2.2, Box 2, Special Collections, University of Maryland libraries. A copy of Senator Brewster’s letter accepting a role as honorary chairman can be found in the Brewster papers, Series 2, Box 56, Special Collections, University of Maryland libraries.
  8. “Italo-Americans Flood Funds go to Old Country,” The (Baltimore) Sun (Jan. 6, 1967), ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Hervey Machen papers, Series 1, Box 30, Special Collections, University of Maryland libraries.
  9. “Walters Featured on TV,” The (Baltimore) Sun (Jan. 1, 1967), ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
  10. “Museum Program: Florence Benefit,” The (Baltimore) Sun (Feb. 23, 1967), ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
  11. Gabrielle Wise, “Italians to Benefit: Fashion Aid to Art,” The (Baltimore) Sun (March 8, 1967), ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
  12. Carol Craft, “Titians and Tintorettos to aid Damaged Colleagues,” The Washington Post (May 18, 1967), ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
  13. Hervey Machen papers, Series 1, Box 30, Special Collections, University of Maryland libraries, which mentions the scheduling for an eighth meeting.

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