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The Uffizi and Santa Maria Novella are to exhibit art by Plautilla Nelli, Florence’s earliest woman artist. The exhibition at the Uffizi is the first ever by a female painter and Jane Fortune tells the story behind this landmark event
Plautilla Nelli was a Renaissance woman. Both painter and entrepreneur, she ran a successful workshop in Florence in the 1500s and the works of her conventbottega [studio of a master artist] were considered ‘magical’, as Florentine nobles believed that nun artists could infuse their devotional art with an aura of spirituality. Like fifty percent of educated, wealthy women in the Renaissance, she was a cloistered nun—but her level of culture, creativity and skill makes her a model for women today, and her legacy has already changed the lives of myriad women worldwide who have joined the quest to restore the art of Nelli and that of dozens of other historical women artists whose works have been ‘forgotten’ in Florence’s museum storehouses.
My quest to rescue and restore Nelli’s work began in 2006 with the first restoration of her
Lamentation with Saints at the Church of San Marco. In the decade since then, Nelli’s oeuvre has grown tremendously as new studies and attributions have been sparked by successive restorations. Initially, only three works were attributed to her. Now sixteen more of her works have been uncovered, that makes a total of nineteen and counting! On 8 March 2017 this ‘quiet’ but dynamic devotional artist will be emerging into the limelight for the first time ever thanks to her ground-breaking solo exhibition at the Uffizi Gallery, curated by Nelli scholar and museum curator Fausta Navarro. It spotlights ‘The Art of Devotion’ and opens an international dialogue regarding the discovery of new attributions - many of them brought to light by Dr. Navarro herself.
The overall importance of this exhibition and
the Uffizi’s future women’s exhibitions is linked to reclaiming women’s art and women as role models in history. It has taken the foresight of Eike Schmidt, the director of the Uffizi, to conceive a multi-year plan that foresees hosting temporary shows on women artists through the centuries, starting in the sixteenth century with Plautilla Nelli, a well-deserved honour, as she is the first woman painter of Florence. It has only taken 428 years for her to get her due! Advancing Women Artists (AWA), the foundation I founded ten years ago, with Nelli as our primary muse, is currently restoring five ‘new’ Tuscan works for the show, in addition to two ancient choir books (dated 1558), considered the first examples of Nelli’s painterly techniques. I am exhilarated that this self-taught artist’s work has been reclaimed and can take its rightful place in Florence’s history, finally giving her a voice!
Nelli, in fact, is ‘breaking out’ onto the Florentine art scene in various ways. AWA has also just begun a new large-scale restoration of her Crucifixion (1570) at the Andrea del Sarto Last Supper Museum in Florence. This little-known museum which, as its name implies, hosts the Del Sarto masterpiece, has become a centre for Nelli’s art in recent years, as more of her works have been revalued and pulled out of storage. Even closer to my heart is the rescue and recovery of Nelli’s Last Supper. It has been out of the public eye for over four centuries. Indeed, the work had been stored at the friars’ private refectory in the complex of Santa Maria Novella and it was in dire need of restoration. I have been waiting for this opportunity for eight years! Its conservation project will take two years to complete because
of the work’s sheer size (7 metres long), but afterwards it will be hung, permanently, in the newly renovated Santa Maria Novella Museum to be shared with the world. In March, AWA will be launching its first-ever crowd-funding campaign to restore this painting - together. I deeply feel that Nelli’s art should be shared with the world and I know that many people around the globe will want to take part in rescuing her painting from decay - but even more than that, many will want to play a hand in reclaiming the Renaissance from a female perspective. We have heard so much about the Renaissance man, it’s time to start thinking of the Renaissance woman!
Nelli’s Last Supper
Suor Plautilla Nelli (1524-1588) was daring in her creative effort to author large-scale religious panels. Her imposing Last Supper exquisitely
On 8 March 2017 this ‘quiet’ but dynamic devotional artist will be EMERGING INTO THE LIMELIGHT FOR THE fiRST TIME EVER THANKS TO HER GROUND-BREAKING SOLO EXHIBITION AT THE UFfiZI GALLERY
portrays Christ’s last meal, but most importantly, it is the only known Last Supper painted by a woman, as far as I know, until the twentieth century. This oil-on-panel follows the tradition of adorning refectories (dining halls) with religious images. Seven metres wide and two metres high, it is signed, which was most unusual for her time. Her signature, in Latin, in the painting’s upper left-hand corner, is significant: ‘ S.Plautilla, Orate Pro Pictora (Suor
Plautilla, Pray for the Paintress).’ Nelli signed this work using the female form of the word ‘painter’, thus dedicating it to her fellow nuns.
We are talking about a time when nun-artists, and women artists in general were solely producing small-scale devotional pieces (known as alterini, or small altars) not masterworks, which makes Nelli ‘equal’ to the male painters of her day, such as Da Vinci and Del Sarto. This work has not been seen by the public for over 450 years! It has hung in the friary of Santa Maria Novella since 1853, though it originally enhanced the refectory of Nelli’s convent, Santa Caterina da Siena in Florence, which no longer exists today. Nelli was a Dominican and her order was dedicated to the teachings of the ‘fire and brimstone’ preacher, Girolamo Savonarola, whom they ‘worshipped’ as a martyr. Her convent survived until monasteries were suppressed in the early nineteenth century.
The food in the painting is placed upon a long table, covered with a crisp, white linen tablecloth and follows the tenets of her convent’s diet, bearing witness to its financial position. There are no forks on the table, only six knives, a few plates and Chinese porcelain bowls ( castini). Viewers will also see a sprinkling of green fava beans (a typical vegetable in Florentine cuisine, called
baccelli). There are two bowls of lettuce, water, wine, three overflowing salt cellars, unleavened
Above: A cleaning test of Nelli’s small-scale Saint Catherine, one in a series of new attributions discovered in churches throughout Tuscany. Restored by AWA in 2016 for exhibition at the Uffizi’s Nelli show. (Image: © Francesco Cacchiani)
Overleaf, top: The
Last Supper by Nelli before restoration. It has been overpainted and re-painted in later years so needs extensive restoration
Overleaf, left: Conservator Rossella Lari restores Plautilla Nelli’s
Last Supper. (Phase I) (Image: © Francesco Cacchiani)
Above, right, top: John rests on Christ’s chest: a detail from Nelli’s Last Supper (Image: © Fiona Richards)
Above, right, bottom: Nelli’s signature on the Last Supper (Image: © Fiona Richards)
Above, left: Nelli’s first artistic ‘experiment’ a Choir Book at San Marco (dated 1558) and possible self portrait (Image: © Kirsten Hills)