While contemplating Plautilla Nelli’s Last Supper in Rossella Lari’s Florentine restoration studio, I am overcome with a sense of wonder. There is no other way to feel when standing before this immense oil-on-canvas masterpiece, created in the 1570s by Florence’s first female painter.
Nelli’s Last Supper is seven meters long and nearly two meters high—making it the largest painted work in the world by an early female artist, as well as the first representation of this topic in the history of art by women. The sheer size of Nelli’s masterpiece prompts myriad questions: did the eight nun-artists Nelli trained assist her by mixing all the pigments, or help her to pull the canvas onto its enormous stretcher? What type of scaffolding did she use when tackling the top portion of the painting? And who commissioned the work meant to grace the refectory of her convent of Santa Caterina? Did the nuns themselves pay for it with the profits from their sale of devotional works to Florentine nobles – an entrepreneurial move that made their convent largely self-sufficient?
In his Lives of Artists, Giorgio Vasari wrote that Nelli “had so many works in the houses of gentlemen that it would be tedious to speak of them all.” But with all due respect to the world’s first art historian, I smile at Vasari’s statement now. Nelli’s story is anything but tedious! What kind of daring, self-taught woman was willing to abandon the small-scale devotional pieces commissioned to her and face a theme that defied gender expectations and put her in the same stratum as well-known male painters like Leonardo da Vinci and Andrea del Sarto? What kind of convent artist had the courage to sign her work, an unheard of practice at the time? The questions truly multiply as restoration of Nelli’s masterwork continues.
One of the most frequent questions people ask me when talking about this Last Supper is if we can “tell” it was created by a woman, besides the fact that Nelli signed it. It’s a tricky question but whenever I think about it, my focus goes straight to the table, which is a powerful example of still-life painting. Early women artists tended towards portraiture and still-lives because they were banned from public commissions with lofty spiritual themes. According to gender expectations in the Renaissance and Baroque periods, women were ‘best’ at rendering details, like lacework or precious objects.
Is it just by chance that the dinnerware of Nelli’s Last Supper is far more elaborate than that of her male counterparts? Of the seven well-known last suppers in Florence, Nelli probably would have seen four: those by Andrea del Castagno, Dominican Ghirlandaio, Pietro Perugino and Andrea del Sarto. Her table differs from theirs in various ways. The food in the painting is placed on a long horizontal table covered with a crisp, freshly ironed tablecloth. We are looking at a peasant-style meal that follows the tenants of Nelli’s convent and its financial position. She actually wanted the Apostles to eat!
In addition to roasted lamb, she put lettuce on her table, which is a well-known symbol for abstinence, but why did she also add fava (baccellini) beans, a typically Florentine legume? I also wonder about the fine Chinese porcelain bowls and platters she painted. Were they modeled after something she had seen as a child, growing up as a merchant’s daughter? Porcelain from the Far East was an extremely rare commodity… or had she seen it because Santa Caterina da Siena was full of Florentine noblewomen, who perhaps brought some personal belongings to the convent?
I wish I had more answers about Nelli’s artistic choices, her painterly techniques and her exceptional character. But I do know that a lot of the information I seek is about to be rediscovered thanks to the restoration of this masterpiece, which is bringing together art lovers from all over the world who share my passion to rescue and rediscover one of art history’s most precious works and shed light on the woman who had the talent and courage to paint it, against all odds.
Nelli’s Last Supper remained unseen in her convent’s refectory until 1808, when all convents were closed under Napoleon’s rule. Rolled up and put into storage until 1853, causing damage and paint loss, it was moved to the friars’ private refectory in the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella. Restoration, sponsored by AWA, will be completed in 2018. After being hidden from the public eye for over 450 years, Nelli’s Last Supper will be welcomed to its permanent home: Florence’s newly refurbished Santa Maria Novella Museum.
Get involved in the crowdfunding of Nelli’s Last Supper
#TheFirstLast – March 1 to April 16, 2017
The Advancing Women Artists Foundation would like you to get involved in the restoration of Nelli’s Last Supper and in making Plautilla Nelli a household name. The challenge is to do so in 45 days starting March 1, while raising $65,000 through crowdfunding on the Indiegogo platform.
The USA tax-deductible donations to #TheFirstLast start as low as $5, in exchange for exciting rewards, from AWA books and videos to a custom-made pendant, an exclusive bottle of artisanal perfume or a luxurious weekend in Florence.