Wel­come home, First Lady

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

Timeless Travels Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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


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)

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