Joe Blaustein took photos out the window of the pensione’s fifth floor. “Dawn was hardly dawn. On the opposite shore I could just make out a parked yellow car and half a dozen others. The river was becoming mean, muddy, turbulent, vicious and viscous with swirling eddies of black grease and rising. Then it happened. The walls were breached…invading both shores with frightening ferocity….the water was a monster on the loose.
Topanga resident Joe Blaustein is 96. He is an internationally respected artist, the co-founder of FIG Gallery— First Independent Gallery—at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica, and a teacher who recently retired from teaching after 62 years as an adjunct professor at UCLA. His art has been shown at LACMA, as well as in a number of solo shows.
Blaustein has been called a man of vision, energy, intelligence, and humor. What he never expected to be called was “hero,” or to have a bilingual book, I Colori Dell ‘Alluvione (The Colors of the Flood), published 50 years later based around his diary and the only color photos taken of the great flood of Florence.
In his prologue, Blaustein writes: “[They say] I am a hero. Why? I saved no lives, saved no art, artifacts, dogs, cats. A hero I ain’t. Except by accident.”
The journey began in late October 1966, when Blaustein received a call from a business friend, Fitz, National VP for General Electric, for whom he had designed ads in the past. Fitz insisted that he and his wife, Paula, accompany a group of executives on an expense-paid trip to Rome and a private audience with Pope Paul VI. Joe is Jewish, non-practicing, but a Jew, nonetheless.
“I need an instant answer; we’re leaving in two days!”
Blaustein wondered, “Why me? A Jew? In a private audience inside the Vatican?”
Paula was pregnant with the couple’s second child after three miscarriages. She was on bed rest, but was determined they would go: “This time,” she said, “THIS baby is destined to be born, so dammit, tell Fitz, ‘yes’—we’ll take Junior for the ride.”
They settled their three-year-old daughter with friends, packed their bags and were comfortably ensconced aboard an Alitalia plane two days later. It was a golden opportunity for Joe to see art works he had seen only in pictures and that’s what happened the first week in Rome.
The experience of this “accidental hero” is best told in his own words taken from the diary.
“Two days later, we were in St. Peter’s Basilica…. Less than twenty feet away, facing us, was Michelangelo’s Pieta. My eyes bulged…. This one was done when he was 25—and there it was in glowing, polished marble, the nth degree of Classicism. Mary looked so tender, Christ looked so limp.
“Outside it was raining, a continuous steady downpour…. Slanting rays from the high stained-glass windows caressed Paula’s face as if in a Caravaggio. We waited in hushed anticipation…as the Pope walked slowly toward us.
“The theatrics were impressive…. I’m as religious as a salamander, but good god, I was ready to convert. Then, the oddest thing happened. The Pope, nodding, acknowledging people to his left and right, saw Paula, and stopped. She wore a deep maroon cloth coat, open, showing her swollen with child, like Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto. She was pale…breathtakingly beautiful…an idealized Botticelli madonna.
“After what seemed a long time, the Pope left the center aisle, walked slowly to her, looking at her the whole time, and stopped a foot away. Why he walked to her I don’t know…. Paula looked down, eyes lowered…. The Pope intoned something in Latin…made the sign of the cross and blessed her…. Then he turned to me…and blessed me. He stopped nowhere else.”
Joe and Paula would later excuse themselves from the group that was going on to Paris. Joe was on a “quest to see paintings…like Cimabue’s Crucifixion in Florence. So, thanking Fitz and apologizing to all, I said we’d catch up with them in Paris.”
DAY 1, NOVEMBER 3—EVENING
In Florence, the Blausteins opted for a modest pensione. It faced south, right above the Arno River, only feet from the Ponte Vecchio. On arrival, they were caught in a downpour. The rain was furious. They bought an umbrella, had dinner at the pensione, and decided to hole up and kick back for the night, giving Paula a chance to rest. They would “wander the riches of Florence for a week and meet our hosts in Paris for the flight home. The pensione was to be our base. It turned out to be our prison. Stuck…for four days.”
That night, Paula retired. Joe studied guides to plan their days to see as much as they could. What Joe really wanted to see were the Cimabue Crucifixion and Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise.
“There was a lifetime of stuff I hungered to see,” Joe writes. “We’d hole up in a cafe, people watch, and Paula could rest. This was to be merely an introduction—we’d come back when the kids were older…. Those were my plans. They were for nought. We did none of it.”
“About 4 a.m., fitful, wandering Firenze in my dreams, Paula woke me up: Something’s wrong, the bathroom light won’t turn on and the toilet is gurgling.’” There was also a powerful smell of fuel oil. Joe pulled on jeans; Paula prepared for an emergency and dressed.
“It was almost pitch black in the common room. The Signorina was alone in the dark, wringing her hands, moaning softly, muttering, ‘First the Nazis and now this’ over and over again. I found out later the Nazis had occupied her Palazzo in World War II 25 years before. The ‘now this’ I discovered, was the river. The sound—a roaring, splashing—was like a storm in the North Pacific, but this was a river.
“Years later, reading about the Firenze flood I was soon to witness, I discovered that upstream in the mountains, above Florence, there was a dam. It had been raining for weeks, but two days before the flood there were several torrential downpours. The ground was saturated, and the dam filled to a dangerous level. The technicians apparently made a tragic, perhaps avoidable mistake. Florence hadn’t been flooded for centuries, so it didn’t seem a consideration when they discharged water to prevent the dam from breaking. That, added to the already swollen river, was disastrous. The river went on a rampage, out of its banks, destroying the fuel oil storage tanks above and leading to the tragic flood that followed.
“Dawn was hardly dawn…. And then it happened. The walls were breached. Once breached, the water was a monster on the loose…. Looking straight down, I saw the muddy, greasy deluge pouring into the street directly below us…filling with tarry black swirling scum. Then came tons of debris, wooden beams, floating detritus from the mountains and towns above…smashing with terrifying force into the Ponte Vecchio itself…. The sound, the stench, the blind force of water was devouring this treasure, this jewel of Florence…the Ponte Vecchio that even Hitler didn’t have the heart to destroy.
“The river had become the town, or rather, the town had become the river. But out the front, facing the Arno, it was worse. Watching, glued to the window, a helpless spectator to what I was aware was a tragedy of epic proportion…. Transfixed at the window the entire day, I shot pictures—first, of the flood’s rise, then looking down, the street below. I had limited film, so I was waiting for the chance to escape into the streets.”
“Awake before dawn, in dim light I ran to the window to check whether the flood was still raging. The water level had subsided, leaving a brown glutinous mess. Told sleepy Paula, ‘Stay in bed…looks like the water has subsided. I’ve got to go out and see….’ In the pre-dawn dark, there was silence. The light was dismal grey, still drizzling, but not one person was about. I was the first…. Cars were flipped at random everywhere, upside down, sideways, on top of another, and the saddest thing—children’s toys, clothes, washing machines, junk half buried in mud…. My shoes sucked when I’d step…. Then it hit me the extent of the tragedy. I stood there in disbelief, and not knowing what was lost ’til later, I realized what could be (and was) destroyed…and alone, in the dim light, my throat clutched, my eyes moistened, and I couldn’t help sobbing, just like the Signorina. I just stood there like an idiot and cried. These irreplaceable treasures. These beautiful Italian people.
“Guided by the Florence map in my brain, I scrambled over jammed cars, every store embalmed in mud, until I reached the Baptistry, the Giotto tower, and the Brunelleschi dome…. Opposite the Loggia del Bigallo, The Gate of Paradise, the world-renowned Ghiberti door with its ten priceless panels (which took a third of a century to complete and is one of the great sculptural masterpieces of all time), was partially gone. These priceless treasures were strewn about, like garbage, covered in oily mud, unprotected.”
Joe returned to the pensione to get his camera.
“Paula, beginning to feel cabin fever ventured with me. The rain finally abated. We heard there was a breadline and milk being handed out at the Pitti Palace. We were hungry. Paula needed something. We had not eaten for days.”
On November 7, the Blausteins heard a train from the north managed to get through to the railroad station. They grabbed their packed bags and stumbled the 20 blocks or so to the station but were too late. The train was not only full, but people were hanging on the train steps. People on the train, seeing Paula was pregnant pulled sandwiches out of purses, carryalls.
“The Italians! Crazy. Beautiful. Full of life. And the most generous people in the world—especially to a pregnant woman, a pale and exhausted but a beautiful woman, a madonna.”
They made their way to Bologna where a countess in a chauffeured limo, gave them a ride to Milan where she booked them on a sleeping car train to Paris and home. Their son, Justin, was born only months later and has grown into a six-foot-three, strong and gentle man, graceful in both body and mind.
“About 40 years after the flood experience, and 20 years after Paula died, I discovered thousands of slides in my basement. Among countless boxes was one labeled, ‘Rome, Florence flood, 1966.’ They looked as fresh as when I shot them.”
Planning another trip with students, Blaustein found a posting on the internet by Antony Finta, of a just-discovered black and white photo taken by a soldier of the flood. A year later, in 2013, he was to be in Tuscany, where Finta arranged a meeting with the head of UNESCO and city officials at the Palazzo of the Archives of Florence.
“I shoved the originals [about 99 of them] along with the digitized copy to Luca Brogioni, head of the Florence archives. In typical Italian exuberance, he embraced me—called me ‘angel,’ because I was blessed by the Pope. I was a ‘hero’ for something anyone with a camera would have done in the same circumstances.” Six months later, Blaustein and his translator were feted in Florence for a week.
“For the odd coincidence if being in the right spot at the time of the city’s greatest destruction… I was called the ‘captor of the city’s memory.’” No one else had been there to document the horror, nor anyone with color film, “…the first I believe of its kind, ASA64 Ektachrome.” And his $63 Rollei camera.
Flavia Potenza is executive editor of the Messenger Mountain News. She is also a founding member of the 40-year old Topanga Messenger that closed its doors in 2016. She can be reached at email@example.com