Plautilla Nelli was Florence’s first recognised female artist. A self-taught painter, she was also an art collector, an entrepreneur and, like fifty percent of educated Renaissance women, a nun.

Nelli produced large-scale spiritual paintings in an era when women were relegated to producing purely decorative works. She became self-sufficient with the income that her paintings produced at a time when women could not legally issue invoices. Yet, one of the most inspiring things about Nelli is her lasting ability to inspire her audience across the centuries. 

US author and philanthropist Jane Fortune first encountered Plautilla Nelli in Florence’s San Marco Museum. It was 2006 and Nelli’s little-known painting depicting Christ’s deposition from the Cross was lackluster and plagued with woodworm. But the painting’s emotional power shone through the yellowing varnish and prompted Fortune to action.

“I asked the museum director if it would be possible to clean and restore the painting, and that question changed my life,” Fortune explains.

If Florence’s first female artist is virtually unknown, how many other works by women painters have been forgotten by history? How many other paintings by Nelli and her female colleagues need to be rescued from oblivion? – Jane Fortune

Twelve years later, the organisation Jane founded in response to these queries recently celebrated the inauguration of its fifty-second work of art, restored and delivered to the exhibition spotlight in Florence and Tuscany. Advancing Women Artists (AWA) is a Florence-based American non-profit organisation whose mission is to research, restore and exhibit art by historic women in Tuscany.

Artists ‘saved’ by AWA and its patrons span over five centuries and include grand dames like Artemisia Gentileschi and Elisabeth Chaplin and lesser-known court painters like Violante Siries Cerroti and Felicie de Fauveau.

The recovery and restoration of Nelli’s oeuvre has caused quite a stir in the art world in recent years. Her masterwork is a 21-foot long Last Supper. Like its maker, this painting is an exception in history. The largest painting known to date by an early woman artist, it was authored in the 1560s with the support of an all-women workshop. Its far-reaching restoration project, spearheaded by Advancing Women Artists, will be inaugurated in October 2019, following four years in the conversation studio.

Its definitive home? Florence’s Santa Maria Novella Museum.

Jane Fortune is not alone in her quest. International women from all specialisms – art historians, scholars, restorers, guides, philanthropists and museum curators – now participate in Fortune’s mission to recover what she calls ‘Invisible Women’.

Florence, for example, has over 30 women museum curators. Without them, our work would not be possible. Only when modern-day art lovers band together to reclaim the legacy of forgotten women artists will we be able to reclaim our identity, and understand that there were women artists who were successful in their time, and who did amazing work – Jane Fortune

One of the most striking things about Nelli is her choice of subject. In the Renaissance, Last Supper paintings were executed only when a workshop owner was ready to prove he had achieved mastery. The San Maria Novella painting is the only one of its kind authored by a woman.

The life-size figures in Nelli’s Last Supper are stunning… and their vigour is becoming increasingly evident as the restoration progresses. Nelli is thought to have used the corpses of deceased nuns as models, but even the fact that she dared to capture the male figure on canvas was a revolution in its own right.

“Renaissance masters didn’t usually sign their works, but Nelli did. I think she wanted posterity to know the painting was by a woman. Early female artists simply did not tackle history painting, life-size figures and least of all Last Suppers which came to symbolize male mastery. I think she wanted to know that her masterwork was painted by a woman,” Fortune explains. 

But, if you ask Jane what most moves her about the painting, she points to a detail that often goes unperceived… it’s the fact that under Nelli’s signature, she put a petition for posterity:

Orate pro pictora. Pray for the paintress.

“I take that appeal very literally, ” Fortune explains, “We’ve got to pray for the paintress so that her work will be recognised for generations to come. And with the best prayers, comes action… a deep-seated effort to make Nelli’s voice heard in history.”

The question remains: what kind of women could have authored this masterpiece? According to the painting’s restorer Rossella Lari: ‘Nelli’s Last Supper is different from those of her contemporaries. It is earthier… less lofty. I believe Nelli was a strong woman, both creatively and physically. The physical strength needed to produce this painting and the decisive nature of her heavy brushstrokes support the idea that Nelli was undaunted by her work.”

Undaunted. The word describes both of the Last Supper’s heroines—Nelli, whose creative power still captures the collective imagination and Jane Fortune, who has spearheaded the movement for her fundamental rediscovery. 

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Linda Falcone

Written by Linda Falcone

Linda Falcone, an English-speaker and an Italian-thinker, is the author of three books with The Florentine Press, and others with Jane Fortune for the Advancing Women Artists Foundation. She has lived, taught and written in Italy for almost 2 decades.

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