5 life lessons from Florence’s first woman artist

What Suor Plautilla Nelli taught me

Jane Fortune
December 2, 2016 - 13:17

This year marks the tenth anniversary of my quest to re-discover and restore art by women in Florence. The announcement of a special exhibition for Suor Plautilla Nelli at the Uffizi this March has left me reflecting on the “top five” things Florence’s first woman artist has taught me.

 

One of Nelli's large-scale lunettes moved from storage into the San Salvi's Museum after restoration by Rossella Lari One of Nelli's large-scale lunettes moved from storage into the San Salvi's Museum after restoration by Rossella Lari

 

Research means “to search again”

In researching women artists, I have been surprised to find that the vast majority were hugely successful in their lifetimes. They usually painted for the powerful and the wealthy. They often led their own workshops and taught other artists. Nelli trained other nuns to paint and, as Vasari says, there were so many of her works “in the houses of gentlemen, it would be tedious to mention them all”. Nelli has been the protagonist of multiple scholarly studies in recent years. Indeed, some of this research, carried out by museum executive Fausta Navarro, will be at the center of the artist’s Uffizi exhibition.

 

Each year, starting 2017, Uffizi Galleries director Eike Schmidt is planning what the Italian press is calling “pink exhibitions”, designed to bring women artists to the forefront. We can’t wait.

 

It happens in a “snap”

When we first began the quest for Nelli in 2006 very few photographs of her works were available. Restoration has given us the chance to document each phase of the process and “visually” reclaim her oeuvre. It sounds simple, but photography is the first, most essential step in making an “invisible” artist visible. Let’s face it: art is primarily a visual experience. You cannot love art you cannot see. You cannot study something you cannot see. Photography opens the door to research.

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Restoration is the best way to discover an artist’s skills

AWA has restored (or is restoring) seven paintings and nine drawings by Nelli, thanks to expert hands of restorer Rossella Lari. Through this process, we have learned that Nelli painted her large-scale works so they would look like frescos, imitating a technique that was purely a male prerogative in the sixteenth century. We have discovered that she used Vasari’s spolvero technique to reproduce cartoons and that she had knowledge of perspective, although she was self-taught.

 

 

Art is alive

Museums are not “dead” institutions. They are meant to be living, breathing cultural characters in this city’s past, present and future. Art in Florence has always had an element of mobility. The Medici family, for example, would often transfer works from their summer villas to their winter residences and display or store works depending on the reigning administration’s preferences. We have seen several of Nelli’s works moved from the attics and cellars of local museums and churches and into Florence’s spotlight. It has been a privilege to be a part of this exciting process. Prior to the March exhibition, those interested in seeing her work on permanent display should take a trip out to The Last Supper Museum at San Salvi, which is destined to become a center for Nelli’s art in the future.

 

 

Buried treasures are real

There is much more to be discovered in the city’s storehouses. When I first learned of Nelli, there were three known paintings to her name. Today, her body of confirmed and attributed works has grown to nineteen. I believe this statistic to be one of the most exciting things that AWA has supported and witnessed during its ten years in Florence. Nelli’s oeuvre is growing as scholars delve into under-studied archives and scout out storehouses throughout Tuscany. And I am sure that Nelli has more hidden gifts to offer the city she has duly come to represent.

 

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