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Dark Water: Flood and Redemption
in the City of Masterpieces

by Robert Clark

Doubleday, 354 pages, $26

Pity the writer who does all things well. Robert Clark’s first book, a biography of the food critic and chef James Beard, won a raft of awards”and he promptly went on to write a cultural history of the Columbia River ( River of the West ), a trilogy of novels set in his hometown of St. Paul, and a memoir ( My Grandfather’s House ) that mixed his own journey to the Catholic faith with a tour of his ancestors’ religion and politics since before the Reformation. Along the way, he garnered numerous accolades, including a 2005 Guggenheim fellowship.

Yet, for all this success, when I mention his name to people interested in contemporary writers, the response is a blank expression. “Your problem,” Joseph Epstein once told a friend fired by the New Yorker , “is that your writing for that magazine was merely interesting.” He couldn’t say that about Clark, for, while Clark’s writing is certainly interesting, there is no merely about it. Writers often claim that they have to keep trying new things and breaking molds, but, in truth, literary fame is most simply achieved by picking a single genre and running with it.

Clark’s problem may be that he has experimented numerous times and is not easily pegged as a biographer, historian, novelist, or memoirist. Mr. White’s Confession is at once a conventional novel, a mystery novel, and a commentary on Augustine’s philosophy of memory. Even more complicated, My Grandfather’s House is, as Philip Zaleski put it, “an odd platypus of a book, a dreamlike hybrid stitched together from half a dozen literary species, including autobiography, intellectual and social history, literary criticism, and Sunday-school sermon.” Nevertheless, Zaleski added, the platypus is “gawky and beautiful, cuddly and off-putting, and curiously compelling.”

Dark Water , Clark’s newest book, continues in the platypus tradition, and, whatever its gawkiness, it is his most compelling and beautiful book yet. The bulk of the book is an account of the flooding of the Arno River in 1966 and the resulting worldwide sympathy as people from many nations sprang to action to save the great masterpieces of art in Florence, particularly the Crocifisso of Cimabue. What makes it more interesting than a disaster-of-the-week story is the way Clark wraps this tale into a sustained reflection on the relation between art and humanity”indeed, between art and faith.

What, you might ask, has Florence to do with Jerusalem? Some early reviewers were dumbfounded by the platypus. Michael Dirda seemed peeved that the actual account of the 1966 flood does not begin until page 131, but he was truly annoyed that “Clark occasionally segues into strange, almost ­mystical passages about art and ­transcendence.”

Those passages, Dirda insisted, were “lapses.” Clark’s first chapter, however, shows clearly that his interest in the 1966 flood began not just with curiosity about his surroundings (Clark’s Guggenheim year in Florence coincided with the fortieth anniversary of the flood) but also with his study of the “self-styled decadent and protofascist” Gabriele D’Annunzio’s 1889 novel, Il Piacere , which argued “that a surfeit of beauty, of the aesthetic, must end in moral and spiritual bankruptcy.”

Clark found D’Annunzio’s argument powerful, for he came to realize that Firenze, the real Italian city in which he was living, was overshadowed by Florence, the “city of masterpieces””the nearly imaginary parody of the city that made it a museum of itself. Clark notes with rueful irony that the response to the flood was a response not to Firenze but to Florence: “More was at stake than a city, human habitations and enterprises, or even thirty-three bodies.”

As he looked at the city around him, Clark was also struggling with a darkness of faith. Clark had awaked one February day to discover, as he tells it, that “I didn’t believe in God anymore; or, rather, I had the belief but not the feeling of believing, which I suppose was to say that I had lost faith.” There, in the midst of some of the most beautiful art created by humanity”much of it created to “affect Christian worship, prayer, fear, and consolation””Clark felt no transcendence at all. The beauty of Cimabue’s crucified Christ was a cold, dead beauty that did not move him.

It is no surprise, then, that Clark begins his survey of Florentine art with Francis of Assisi’s reception of the stigmata. Francis gave the world, and thus the art world, something new: “He’d given Christ a face people hadn’t seen before, a human face, the peasant’s face. Until then Christ had been the Redeemer as the judge and king of the universe: He was painted enthroned, stern, and impassive. Now he was the Redeemer as the man of sorrows, the god who became human to the quick and the marrow in order to lay claim to human wretchedness.”

The task of Cimabue and his followers was to put the dynamism of Francis’ Christ into “tempera or stone, extending the notion outward into the whole creation” so that others might “see God in all things.” Yet even so exalted an artistic task must be done by artists”which is to say, by people who often are just as interested in having themselves seen in all things. In one direction, there is the God who descended from the heavens, and in the other direction is Icarus, who wanted to raise himself above others.

For Clark, Icarus represents the high-flown power of beauty that captivates and enthralls, making people forget their fellow humans on earth. Michelangelo recognized this in old age, calling sculpture a “grave danger to the soul” and fearing that he had turned art into an idol. Sensing, too, the reality of this danger, Clark shows how the Italian city became divided into a real city where people lived, worked, and died”Firenze”and a city that became a museum where art was not created for man, but man for art”Florence. Into the real Firenze, starting around the beginning of the nineteenth century, flowed the cream of the Western literary world: Byron and Shelley, the Brownings, Henry James, John Ruskin, and the art critic Bernard Berenson. All of them were drawn to the art of Firenze, but they helped transform the city into Florence. More to the point, all of them were attracted more by Icarus than by Francis.

These dichotomies”Firenze vs. Florence, Francis vs. Icarus”are woven deep into Clark’s account of the 1966 flood, and the retelling of the rescue effort in Dark Water constantly turns to the questions of humanity’s relation to art. Clark quotes one artist’s diary, “Am I supposed to care about the Christ of Cimabue or the doors of Ghiberti before the reality of five people who could be my own family faced with darkness because they can’t even scrape together three hundred lire to buy candles”assuming there are any candles?” The celebrated rescue effort of the city, organized and funded by people in America and England, was fundamentally about the rescue of paintings and books, not about the neighbors in darkness.

Clark tells this story”the disaster-of-the-week side”very well. He includes a chronology and a glossary of names at the end of the book for the reader lost amid the detail, but the underlying narrative is clear and coherent. Dark Water moves easily from sections about the dramatic rescue of priceless paintings to hydrological questions about who was really to blame for the late warning of the tidal wave coming down the Arno. Yet Icarus and Francis are never far from his mind. How does one properly love art? By the end, his own difficulties with faith are unveiled and some conclusions are hinted at.

Early on, Clark introduces Dorothy Lees, a minor writer who conceived a child by the fin-de-siècle stage actor Gordon Craig and later converted to Catholicism. Their son, David Lees, was the photographer for Life magazine who covered the flood of 1966”the man whose magnificent photographs awakened the Western world to the treasures being lost and ignited the relief effort. David Lees himself was something of an Icarus: an artist who fathered two sons before abandoning their mother.

The author’s attraction to this story is obvious”his own father left when he was two”and so Clark tracks down one of the sons, Lorenzo, who settled in a poor section of London and works as a catechist and artist alongside his wife, while they care for their ten children, the youngest of whom is handicapped. Clark writes: “The fervency of their Catholicism made me a little uncomfortable: the enormous family; the cheerfully accepted privation of living in a blighted, dangerous neighborhood; the setting aside of larger ambitions they might have had for her painting or his photography; and this blind or half-blind child. None of it belonged to what I believed to be my life, my world of art and books and beautiful things.”

Despite his discomfort, Clark returns at the end to this handicapped child, John Paul Lees. He asks an artist who was present at the flood what he would do if he saw a Leonardo masterpiece and a baby go by in the water, and the artist surprises Clark by saying that he would rescue the child, since the child might one day become a Leonardo. Clark wonders to himself: What if the baby were John Paul Lees? He answers his own question: “But who knew what he might be or do? It was beyond imagining.”

Art, Dark Water suggests, is an icon of an icon. “You will never love art well,” Clark quotes Ruskin, “until you love what she mirrors better.” The redemption of the book’s subtitle comes when one can “pay attention, render creation its due.”

And, as Robert Clark reminds us, John Paul Lees, no less than Leonardo, is the crown of creation.

David Paul Deavel is associate editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture and contributing editor for Gilbert Magazine.