In December 2009, a newly restored David and Bathsheba by Artemisia Gentileschi was unveiled in Palazzo Pitti’s Sala Bianca. I remember it with fondness. Hers was the painting whose restoration would spur the formal establishment of Advancing Women Artists and “A Christmas Gift to Florence” was the name we gave to this temporary solo show. How exciting to see that exhibition banner with its gold lettering hung on the Pitti façade! The idea of honoring Florence at Christmas with restored art by women has never left me. I’ve always wanted to repeat the gesture and now, eight years later, the time has come again.
This year’s gift is for the Palazzo Vecchio, which will ring in the New Year with a “new” work attributed to Plautilla Nelli, on public view at the palace for the first time. Even the theme seems serendipitous: an Annunciation brought to its original dignity by conservator Rossella Lari. The sixteenth-century painting is exhibited in the palazzo’s mezzanine, a segment of the museum itinerary that precedes the Loeser Collection. Civic museum curator for the Palazzo Vecchio Serena Pini led the City’s collaborative project with AWA, supported by Soprintendenza official Jennifer Celani. As you admire this new piece in Florence’s art-by-women mosaic, here are three things you have to know about Nelli and the Palazzo Vecchio painting.
As a rule, Renaissance artists have at least one Annunciation to their credit. Imagery of the Virgin receiving news of Christ’s birth was a Florentine favorite and artists like Nelli, who were exponents of the School of San Marco, were no exception. They emulated their master par excellence, Beato Angelico, whose “cloistered” rendition at the San Marco museum is a must-see for any art aficionado. You will not have to look far to know who Nelli was thinking about when she painted the multicolored wings of her own Archangel Gabriel. Her painting is imbued with many traditional features: the Madonna is dressed in blue and red; the divine messenger carries a lily symbolizing her purity; she’s shown inside, standing near a lectern whose Old Testament’s copy is turned to the Book of Isaiah, which announces that a Virgin will give birth to the Redeemer. (Note the Brunelleschi-style columns and arches of her indoor “Florentine” scene.)
Ph. S. Domingie
Virtuosa and entrepreneur
Vasari called Nelli “revered and virtuous”, but she was also known for her good taste and entrepreneurial spirit. (Art history rumors have it that he was interested in trading pieces of her formidable art collection, for few people know that she was also an admired art collector.) Demand for the nun-painter’s devotional works intensified among local nobility as Nelli’s pious reputation grew, making her convent and the all-woman bottega she spearheaded self-sufficient. That said, it is interesting that nuns across Tuscany could make even greater profits by transposing masterful artwork into embroidered objects. Botticelli, Andrea del Sarto, Neri dei Bicci and Perugino all had their works “embroidered” by nuns, which catapulted the craft to the height of fashion during their time.
Ph. F. Cacchiani
Female scholars and patrons
Collectors were on the lookout for Nelli’s works in the nineteenth century, when savvy art merchants toted her as an “intimate friend” of Fra Bartolomeo, whose paintings garnered sizeable prices. (She inherited his 500 drawings but, in truth, they were of different generations.) The last ten years have been “a golden age” for the rediscovery of Nelli and her convent workshop thanks to the restoration and exhibition of multiple Tuscan works. The Palazzo Vecchio painting’s new Nelli attribution by U.S. art historian Catherine Turrill is an important example. It is thought to be one of two Annunciations Vasari credits to “the nun who paints”. (The second belongs to the Uffizi Gallery and is hosted in an out-of-city deposit in Follonica.) Equally exciting is the fact that both Annunciations were thought to be originally owned by women: Marietta de’ Fedini and the Marchesa Mondragone. (For more on recent Nelli attributions, see The Uffizi Exhibition catalog, titled Art and Devotion in Savonarola’s Footsteps, edited by Fausta Navarro.)
The display of this small-scale devotional work by Florence’s first recognized woman artist in the very building that represents the civic heart of Florence is truly cause for celebration. Here’s hoping that Florentines and Florence lovers will visit her over the holidays, or when they are in an artful mood in the New Year. May your holidays be happy ones and here’s to more exhibited art by women in 2018!