‘Indiana Jane’ strikes again

An interview with Jane Fortune

Alexandra Lawrence
October 22, 2009

I recently sat down with Jane Fortune, author of Invisible Women: Forgotten Artists of Florence, due out later this month from The Florentine Press. ‘Indiana Jane' has spent the past five years scouring archives and haunting the recesses of some of Florence's most revered museums in an effort to uncover every single ‘hidden'  work of art by women.



How did the idea for the book come about?


Several years ago I was wandering through a book fair at Palazzo Corsini and came across a volume in English entitled Suor Plautilla Nelli: The First Woman Painter in Florence by Jonathan Nelson. I snapped it up and was instantly intrigued by the story of a sixteenth-century nun whose works were virtually unknown to most Florentines. I began to wonder how many artworks by unknown or ‘invisible' women might be hidden in the city's churches and museums. That was when my quest to learn more about women artists in Florence became a personal mission: to help invisible women artists in Florence become more fully visible.


How does one begin to search for ‘hidden' artwork in Florence?


Because scholars and museum administrators have rarely focused on gender when classifying artwork, I knew that it was going to take some serious digging in the archives of local museums. Luckily, through my work with The Florence Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts I have developed relationships with the majority of the women museum directors in the city. Every director was extremely generous with her time and resources when she learned of my mission to create a ‘women artists trail' spotlighting art by women. Some even turned their computer databases over to me and said, ‘Go for it!' Others showed me handwritten archives-'systems' of index cards and ledger books. 


What were some of the biggest obstacles you faced in doing your research?


One of the most difficult things was that many of the artists cited in museum archives are listed by first initial and last name. Obviously this isn't a problem for well-known individuals, but what about lesser-known artists whom even the archivists have never heard of? Does ‘G' stand for ‘Giovanni' or ‘Giovanna'? Sometimes even further research doesn't provide the true identity of the artist.

The greatest difficulty was the inconsistency among the various archives. Although directors and archivists made themselves available for questions and provided information, there is simply no consistency within the archives themselves, making research extraordinarily difficult.


What is your response to Linda Nochlin's oft-quoted question, ‘Why have there been no great women artists?'


There absolutely have been great women artists throughout history; it is simply a question of poor access. For centuries, women's artwork has been relegated to dark, unprotected corners of museum storerooms, where rats scurry and rain drips on canvases caked with dirt and pigeon droppings.


To our knowledge, this book is the first that has begun to catalogue works of art by women in Florence. What are your hopes of finishing what you started?


First, I would like to stress that this is just the beginning of the project; it is far from completion. The book is the result of five years of research in the city's archives and is really a starting point to reclaiming every single piece of art by women in order to fully celebrate their accomplishments. I hope my work serves as a rallying cry to all those who share this mission and would like to be part of making these women truly visible.


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