Dis­cov­er­ing Florence’s first fe­male pain­ter

Florence’s first–known woman pain­ter

Timeless Travels Magazine - - CONTENTS -

A dis­cov­ery in a Floren­tine mar­ket led Jane For­tune to her first in­vis­i­ble artist, and the birth of the AWA. Here is the story of the first in­vis­i­ble fe­male pain­ter

At an an­tique book fair in Florence, just over thir­teen years ago, I chanced upon a book, Suor Plau­tilla Nelli (1524–1588), The First Woman Pain­ter of Florence, (Ed. Jonathan Nel­son, 1998). Based on a sym­po­sium spon­sored by Georgetown Univer­sity at Florence’s Villa Le Blaze in 1998, it was the first book writ­ten about Nelli in 70 years, the pre­vi­ous one, hav­ing been au­thored by Gio­vanna Pier­at­tini, in 1938. I had not heard of Nelli, but as a Re­nais­sance nun and the first rec­og­nized woman pain­ter of Florence, she fas­ci­nated me.

Plau­tilla Nelli

The self-taught artist was just four­teen, when she en­tered the Do­mini­can con­vent of Santa Ca­te­rina da Siena in Florence’s Pi­azza San Marco, now a mu­seum, where her mas­ter­work Lamen­ta­tion with Saints is cur­rently on dis­play. In 1538, when Nelli took her vows, the con­vent still de­voutly ad­hered to Fra’ Giro­lamo Savonarola’s (1452–1498) re­formist prin­ci­ples which deeply in­flu­enced the nuns’ spir­i­tual jour­ney and shaped their con­vent life, for he pro­moted de­vo­tional paint­ing and draw­ing by re­li­gious women as a way for them to avoid sloth. Thus, the con­vent— founded in 1496 by no­ble­woman Camilla Bar­tolini Ru­cel­lai (1465–1520), who also be­came a clois­tered nun—grew renowned for its nun–artists, many of whom were daugh­ters of prom­i­nent Floren­tine ar­ti­sans.

Nelli, born Pulisena Margherita Nelli, was, in­stead, the daugh­ter of a suc­cess­ful fab­ric mer­chant, Piero di Luca Nelli, whose an­ces­tors orig­i­nated from the Tus­can area of Mugello. There is a mod­ern–day street in Florence, Via del Canto de’ Nelli, in the San Lorenzo area, named for her fam­ily, and the new sac­risty of the church of San Lorenzo is the orig­i­nal site of her fam­ily’s home. Af­ter the death of her mother, and her fa­ther’s sec­ond mar­riage, both oc­cur­ring within six months of each other, Nelli and her sis­ter, Costanza (Suor Petron­illa), en­tered the con­vent. (Her sis­ter, a nun scribe, is known for tran­scrib­ing Vita di Frate the bi­og­ra­phy of Savonarola, still in print to­day.)

The fire–and–brim­stone preacher, who ‘af­firmed the value of re­li­gious art and ex­horted artists to elim­i­nate all el­e­ments that dis­tracted from sa­cred themes’ (An­drea Muzzi, 1996) was of para­mount im­por­tance to Nelli’s ca­reer, es­pe­cially in a con­text like 16th cen­tury Florence where lay­women had vir­tu­ally no chance of gain­ing artis­tic com­mis­sions from ei­ther church or state. Nelli be­came part of a vi­tal art com­mu­nity and spir­i­tual sis­ter­hood, which she even­tu­ally led, serv­ing thrice as the con­vent’s pri­oress. In­deed, she ex­e­cuted mon­u­men­tal re­li­gious works, which were most un­usual for women to paint dur­ing this time pe­riod. She also trained other nuns as artists, thus pro­vid­ing in­come for her or­der from the sale of paint­ings to out­side pa­trons.

Nelli’s paint­ings

My de­ci­sion to help sup­port the restora­tion of Nelli’s Lamen­ta­tion with Saints in 2006 was the first step in a grow­ing quest to pro­tect and pre­serve works of art by women in Florence. Nelli’s mas­ter­work de­pict­ing the raw emo­tional grief sur­round­ing Christ’s death had grown dull with the pas­sage of time, but af­ter its restora­tion, it be­came a vi­vant im­age, which emoted as­tound­ing raw emo­tional power. The red eyes, swollen noses and vis­i­ble tears of the paint­ing’s char­ac­ters are haunting and evoke feel­ings of com­pas­sion that linger long af­ter one views the paint­ing.

Cer­tainly, Nelli’s painterly hand tugs at my heart­strings. Yet, Lamen­ta­tion with

Saints was only the be­gin­ning. Six­teen­th­cen­tury art his­to­rian Gior­gio Vasari writes of Nelli: ‘through­out Florence, there are so many [of her] pic­tures that it would be te­dious to at­tempt to speak of them all’ (1568). ‘So, where are all these works?’ I won­dered, once the restora­tion was com­pleted. Ac­cord­ing to con­tem­po­rary art his­to­ri­ans, be­sides the San Marco paint­ing, only two oth­ers were at­trib­uted to Nelli:

Pen­te­cost, in the church of San Domenico, in Peru­gia and Last Supper, hosted in the refectory of Santa Maria Novella monastery in Florence since 1853 (not on public view). Surely, there had to be oth­ers? And why was so lit­tle known about Florence’s first woman artist? Even my Ital­ian friends had never heard of her. It was time, I de­cided, for that to change! I made a per­sonal com­mit­ment to bring Nelli’s artis­tic oeu­vre to a wider au­di­ence and to pre­serve her

works through restora­tion. By found­ing the Ad­vanc­ing Women Artists Foun­da­tion (AWAF), I wanted to play a role in es­tab­lish­ing Nelli’s right­ful place in Florence’s cul­tural and artis­tic history. Nearly 430 years have passed, it’s time she got her due!


Un­de­ni­ably, Nelli was a well-re­spected artist in her time. She stud­ied and copied the paint­ings of sev­eral mas­ters who worked for the Do­mini­cans, such as An­drea Del Sarto (1486–1530), An­golo Bronzino (1503–1572) and Mar­i­otto Al­bertinelli (1474–1515). These artists’ works were easily avail­able to her be­cause, un­til 1545, she had ac­cess to the out­side world and could leave the con­vent as she pleased. (It wasn’t un­til the Coun­cil of Trent (1545–1563) that all con­vents were en­closed ( clausura), phys­i­cally iso­lat­ing the nuns within the con­fines of their own com­plexes.)

Nelli was fur­ther in­flu­enced by the draw­ings of Fra’ Bar­tolom­meo (1472–1517) also a de­voted fol­lower of Savonarola. He painted sev­eral por­traits of the preacher (his most fa­mous one can be found in the San Marco Mu­seum, Florence). Fra’ Bar­tolom­meo be­queathed his draw­ings to another Do­mini­can friar, Fra’ Paolino da Pis­toia (1490–1547), who was his men­tor and the of­fi­cial pain­ter of the con­gre­ga­tion of San Marco. The lat­ter left Bar­tolom­meo’s orig­i­nal draw­ings to Nelli, ac­cord­ing to Vasari who cites ‘…a nun who paints...’, in the sec­ond edi­tion of his Lives of the Most

Ex­cel­lent Pain­ters, Sculp­tors, and Ar­chi­tects (1568). This na­tive Floren­tine ‘nun who paints’ be­came, what I call, my first ‘in­vis­i­ble woman’. Her story struck me like a rev­e­la­tion: if Nelli was not well-known and she is the first known woman pain­ter of Florence, then how many other women artists are sim­i­larly ‘in­vis­i­ble’—with their works hid­den or de­cay­ing for cen­turies in Florence’s mu­seum stor­ages and churches? And don’t these works merit ‘a space of their own’, so the public can see and celebrate them as a vi­tal, al­beit for­got­ten, part of Florence’s cul­tural and artis­tic her­itage? Nelli be­came my muse and in­spi­ra­tion for the book In­vis­i­ble Women: For­got­ten Artists of Florence (2009) which spot­lights the 140 plus paint­ings and sculp­tures by women ex­hib­ited in Florence’s mu­se­ums and in­cludes an ex­ten­sive in­ven­tory, list­ing the over-2,000 works lan­guish­ing un­seen in the city’s mu­seum stor­ages - many of which are in dire need of restora­tion.

Nelli’s LastSup­per

One such work is Nelli’s Last Supper, the only known last supper painted by a woman artist. In ur­gent need of restora­tion, it will soon be­come the Ad­vanc­ing Women Artists Foun­da­tion’s next restora­tion pro­ject, which will take an es­ti­mated two years to com­plete. We are look­ing for­ward to new in­for­ma­tion about

I wanted to play a role in es­tab­lish­ing Nelli’s right­ful place in Florence’s

cul­tural and artis­tic history. Nearly 430 years have passed,

it’s time she got her due!

Nelli that is sure to emerge from this con­ser­va­tion pro­ject and we aim to con­tinue de­vel­op­ing a bench­mark to un­cover lost or in­cor­rectly at­trib­uted works.

Nelli’s Last Supper is part of an im­por­tant city-wide phe­nom­e­non in Florence, fa­mous for its art on this theme, mostly pro­duced in the Re­nais­sance for church re­fec­to­ries. Thus, with this paint­ing, she joined the ranks of ma­jor artists like An­drea del Sarto, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Alessan­dro Al­lori, who cre­ated stun­ning ren­di­tions of this sub­ject for the monas­ter­ies of San Salvi, Og­nis­santi and Santa Maria del Carmine re­spec­tively.

Orig­i­nally hung in Nelli’s con­vent in the room where the nuns had their meals, her hor­i­zon­tal work is 16 feet long. Her ren­di­tion of Christ and the apos­tles is wor­thy of men­tion. Nelli’s re­li­gious vo­ca­tion ob­vi­ously pro­hib­ited her from study­ing the nude male, thus her male fig­ures have softer, more fem­i­nine char­ac­ter­is­tics than those of her male col­leagues. Un­like most Last Sup­pers cre­ated in her era, it is an oil-on-can­vas work, rather than a fresco, since fresco paint­ing was con­sid­ered a ‘man’s job’. Another rar­ity: though it was un­com­mon for women dur­ing that time to sign their works, Nelli in­cludes her very vis­i­ble sig­na­ture.

In the up­per left-hand cor­ner of this mag­nif­i­cent and mystic work, she places a pe­ti­tion-of-sorts: ‘S. Plau­tilla, Orate Pro Pic­tora’, (Pray for the Pain­ter). In­ter­est­ingly, ‘ pic­tora’, in Latin, means ‘paintress’, em­pha­siz­ing the fact that the paint­ing’s maker is fe­male. Some art his­to­ri­ans zero in on the de­tail with which she ‘sets’ the Last Supper ta­ble as a fac­tor that fur­ther em­pha­sizes the pain­ter’s gen­der. Nelli’s choice of food, which she placed on a creased white linen table­cloth, fol­lows the reg­u­la­tions of her con­vent and sug­gests the eco­nomic level it en­joyed. There are no forks, only knives, Chi­nese porce­lain bowls, fava beans ( bac­celli), wa­ter, wine, salt cel­lars, bread and lamb. Some­what sim­i­lar to a peas­ant meal, it is painted with very de­scrip­tive re­al­ism.


The Last Supper restora­tion will soon be­come the key­note pro­ject in a long string of ‘Nelli restora­tions’ sup­ported by the Ad­vanc­ing Women Artists Foun­da­tion in the last few years. Hap­pily, re­cent re­search ef­forts sur­round­ing the Floren­tine artists’ life and works have paid off! Nine of her draw­ings de­pict­ing the hu­man fig­ure were dis­cov­ered at the Uf­fizi’s Prints and Draw­ings Depart­ment and re­stored in 2007 (writ­ten per­mis­sion is nec­es­sary to view them). Ad­di­tion­ally, since 2006, six ‘new’ Nelli paint­ings have emerged from obliv­ion in­clud­ing San Salvi’s small but in­tense Pained Madonna and a lovely

Saint Cather­ine with a Lily (re­stored 2013). Nelli’s works dis­tin­guish them­selves from those who in­flu­enced her be­cause of the height­ened sen­ti­ment vis­i­ble in each of her char­ac­ters’ ex­pres­sions and the very red lips of her fe­male fig­ures. In touch­ing ways,

her works, like these small-scale ex­am­ples, ex­ude a de­vo­tional na­ture with sim­plic­ity and clar­ity—val­ues that Savonarola preached and pro­moted.

Saint Cather­ine Re­ceiv­ing the Stig­mata, which show­cases Nelli’s note­wor­thy chiaroscuro tech­niques is another newly at­trib­uted work, as is Nelli’s Saint Do­minic Re­ceives the Rosary which com­mem­o­rates Vir­gin Mary’s ap­pari­tion to the founder of Nelli’s or­der. Res­cued from stor­age and re­stored in 2009, both paint­ings can now be viewed in the San Salvi Mu­seum, a sug­ges­tive ex­monastery on the out­skirts of Florence. The at­trib­uted, of­ten over­looked, Cru­ci­fix­ion in the Cer­tosa di Gal­luzzo Monastery is the third cen­tral panel in this se­ries. It is our hope that this three-piece work will even­tu­ally be united as the artist orig­i­nally in­tended.

I firmly be­lieve that many more ‘in­vis­i­ble’ works by Nelli are await­ing re­dis­cov­ery, af­ter all, Vasari in­sists she painted pro­lif­i­cally for ‘the houses of gen­tle­men in Florence’, as well as for the con­vent, where she dwelled for over fifty years. May the quest con­tinue!

Suor Plau­tilla Nelli, Lamen­ta­tion with Saints, XVI cen­tury, San Marco Mu­seum, Florence

Suor Plau­tilla Nelli, Pained Madonna, XVI cen­tury, San Salvi Mu­seum, Florence

Suor Plau­tilla Nelli, Saint Cather­ine with a Lily, XVI cen­tury San Salvi Mu­seum, Florence

The restora­tion of Suor Plau­tilla Nelli’s Saint Cather­ine with a Lily

Suor Plau­tilla Nelli’s Last Supper, XVI cen­tury, Santa Maria Novella Com­plex, Florence

Saint Cather­ine Re­ceives the Stig­mata, dur­ing restora­tion by R. Lari

San Salvi’s Di­rec­tor and AWA’s Founder un­veil­ing Nelli’s Saint Do­minic Re­ceives the Rosary

St Cather­ine be­fore restora­tion

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