This year marks the 50th anniversary of the flood that devastated Florence on November 4, 1966. Much has been written about the 14,000-plus artworks affected by the disaster, but restorers are still determining just how far-reaching the damage really was. In fact, flooded works are still being discovered.
The flood’s “most recent victim” was discovered in 2014 at the church of Santa Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi (borgo Pinti, 57), which, at the height of the deluge, was submerged in seven feet of mire. Hung above the sacristy altar, The Virgin Presents the Baby Jesus to Santa Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi, a masterwork by 18th-century Florentine artist Violante Siries Cerroti (1709–83), was only affected by five inches of water and mud. It was thought to have survived the flood virtually unharmed.
Yet, as the rubble-filled waters receded, they left the plastered walls extremely humid, allowing mold to grow over time, and as the water dried, the wall crumbled behind the painting, causing chunks of plaster to fall between the canvas and the back of its stretcher. Nearly half a century later, when the painting was removed from its niche, restorers discovered this unsuspected damage, giving rise to a formidable rescue mission and opening the door to myriad findings about the artist herself.
Siries Cerroti painted this little-known gem when she was 57 years old. It honors the healing powers and the miraculous visions of Florentine saint Santa Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi, who was canonized in 1669. The painting, an oil on canvas, is a copy of 17th-century painter Luca Giordano’s earlier work, which can be found in the main chapel of this beautiful Baroque church. It is unusual for its size and subject, as women artists were not often commissioned to create large-scale devotional works. (In Siries’ time, tackling historical and biblical topics was considered a male prerogative, while detail-oriented portraiture was judged more apt for feminine hands.)
Though Siries Cerroti is not yet a household name, this “homegrown Florentine” was hugely successful in her time, receiving commissions from the Medici and Gondi families. Her teacher Giovanna Fratellini (1666–1731) was part of the Medici court. Cerroti taught Anna Piattoli and Maria Hadfield Cosway, thus creating a brand of “female succession”, which helped establish Florence as a center for women in the arts. The Gondi Palace, the Vasari Corridor, the Medici Villa La Petraia and the Monastery of San Lorenzo al Monte, Certosa di Galluzzo all host her precious works.
Violante Siries Cerroti is just one example of the many historic female artists in Florence whose works await rediscovery. Indeed, it is hoped that this restoration will spark future interest in the artist, as well as generating awareness about the myriad works by women still languishing in storage. Their “voices” must be heard and their art must been seen in order for these women to truly reclaim their rightful place in the city’s cultural history.
The restoration was sponsored by Advancing Women Artists and carried out by restorers Nicoletta Fontani and Elizabeth Wicks. The repaired painting will be presented to the public this fall. For upcoming details, keep an eye out for The Florentine’s October Top Picks.