‘Indiana Jane’ strikes again – part II

An interview with Jane Fortune

Alexandra Lawrence
November 5, 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.

In the first part of our interview (TF 110), we discussed how the idea of the book came about and the process of researching works by women in local museum archives. Here, Jane speaks about her restoration projects and her dream of giving these artists a ‘space of their own'.


You have restored a number of works by women in Florence. How did that process begin?


It all started with Suor Plautilla Nelli-Florence's first known female painter-and her Lamentation with Saints in the refectory of San Marco. When I, along with the The Florence Committee of National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA), funded its restoration in 2006, it was a truly emotional experience for me. As the figures slowly emerged from the dark patina of time, they took on a power that conveyed a sense of compassion that has stayed with me.


I felt such a strong connection with Suor Plautilla Nelli, a self taught nun, that I decided then and there that I would do anything I could to make her a household name-I truly felt, as the first known woman painter of Florence, she deserved it.


Your connection to Nelli is so strong that you named an award after her. Tell us about that.

I had been a National Advisory Board Member of the NMWA for a number of years when the museum approached me about establishing The Florence Committee of NMWA-a non-profit Italian association that supports Italian women artists, past and present, through conservation, preservation and restoration of works in Florence museums. One of the first things I did was institute monthly social luncheons (no business) whenever we were in Florence for the women museum directors in the city, so they had the opportunity to get to know each other personally and to network in a social setting. Additionally, each year, The Florence Committee honors one of the women museum directors for her contribution to culture and the arts with our Nelli Award.


This year we are giving our sixth annual Nelli award. We also give an occasional award to an Italian patroness of the arts, to a contemporary Italian female artist, and this year is our first award to a female restorer working in Florence.


The interaction between the Florence Committee, museum directors and other operators in the field must generate a number of ideas about which works need restoration or conservation assistance. How do you choose which ones to restore?


We choose works that often get ‘passed over' for restoration, either because they are not well-known or because they have been languishing in deposits for years or centuries, unbeknownst to potential patrons.


The Committee asks the women museum directors to prepare an estimate for us, including information about the work, its condition, the proposed intervention to restore it, and costs. They also suggest a restorer, which has to be a woman. The Florence Committee reviews each proposal and makes its selection. We currently have proposals for 47 pieces that are in need of restoration!


When we decided to restore Artemisia Gentileschi's David and Bathsheba, we searched for one year until we located it in the Pitti deposits. Although after being beautifully restored, the problem is that it was returned to storage and is not currently on public view in Palazzo Pitti.


So restored works run the risk of being put back in storage?


Potentially, yes. Our goal today is to restore pieces so that they may be deemed fit for public viewing and exhibited so that the general public can enjoy them. In the case of the Gentileschi, the restored painting was placed in the Sala del Letto. We were told this might happen when we accepted the sponsorship of the restoration. Although the Pitti would like to find a public space to hang the Gentileschi, it, unfortunately, was returned to a room only viewable by prior written permission. 


Tell us about your latest restoration project.


On November 9, we will present two restored lunettes of Saint Dominic receives the Rosary and Saint Catherine in prayer, at San Salvi. Both were commissioned to Suor Plautilla Nelli in the 1570s by a woman patroness, Suor Arcangela Viola, for the Convent of Saint Catherine in Florence. These newly rediscovered Nelli works, which have been in storage for many years, will be on permanent public display in the Last Supper Museum of Andrea del Sarto in San Salvi.


What is your ultimate goal with regard to restoration and exhibition of works by women in Florence?


Although I realize that space is very limited in local museums and that there are very strict limitations as to what can be hung and what can't, I would like to see the restored works by women in the deposits on permanent public display. The number of works within the city calls for the creation of a space in Florence dedicated to women's art-a ‘room of their own', hopefully housed in one of the city's museums, which would host a rotating collection of works by women, taken from the deposits. In addition, ‘sister' satellite spaces could be established around the world where these works could be exhibited on a rotating basis. I believe Florence's ‘invisible women' deserve a space of their own and I ask readers of Invisible Women to join in my quest-the time has come to reclaim these works, a single artwork at a time!


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