A Long-Forgotten Renaissance Painter Gets Her Due

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  1. dealmaker


    A Long-Forgotten Renaissance Painter Gets Her Due
    Plautilla Nelli, a Dominican nun and Italian Renaissance artist, is joining other ‘rediscovered’ women artists with the unveiling of her restored ‘Last Supper’
    A detail of Christ and Saint John in Plautilla Nelli's 'Last Supper,' following the restoration of the painting. Photo: Rabatti & Domingie
    John Hooper
    Oct. 17, 2019 2:57 pm ET

    Florence, Italy

    A nun from the Italian Renaissance is the latest female artist whose works are moving into the spotlight after a long time in obscurity.

    A vast painting by Sister Plautilla Nelli, “Last Supper,” was unveiled here Thursday, after a four-year restoration. The effort was funded by Advancing Women Artists, an American nonprofit that finds, restores and displays works by overlooked women painters, mostly in Tuscany. This month, the Museum of Modern Art in New York joined several other institutions around the world to devote more space to female artists.

    Nelli (1524-1588) was well-known to her contemporaries, yet much of her output was lost. Giorgio Vasari, the earliest historian of Renaissance art, mentioned her in the second edition of his “The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects,” published in 1568. To make her convent economically self-sufficient, she created a studio of up to eight other nuns. Their religious works were found in the houses of Florentine gentry, Vasari wrote.

    “Last Supper,” painted in the 1560s, measures more than 22 feet wide and almost six feet high. The work depicts Jesus and his apostles seated at a table covered in a white cloth for an ascetic Lenten meal of beans and lettuce.

    ‘Last Supper,’ by Plautilla Nelli, measures more than 22 feet wide and almost six feet high. Photo: Rabatti & Domingie
    ‘There was a layer of dirt on top,’ of Plautilla Nelli's 'Last Supper,’ said the painting’s restorer, Rossella Lari. Photo: Rabatti & Domingie
    Professor Jonathan Nelson, who teaches art history at Syracuse University’s Florence campus, praised the restored painting’s “unimaginably luminous colors” that emerged from a once-gloomy canvas.

    “It was very faded and there was a layer of dirt on top that was beyond what you would normally find,” the restorer, Rossella Lari said at a news conference presenting the painting, which will be displayed in the museum of Santa Maria Novella in Florence.

    In the work, the apostles flanking Jesus and John convey emotion with their expressions and hands, but less with their poses. “In certain ways, it is a stiff presentation. It doesn’t have the flow and energy of Leonardo’s ‘Last Supper,’ ” said Dr. Judith W. Mann, curator of European Art to 1800 at the Saint Louis Art Museum in Missouri. Yet Nelli “has a marvelous eye for detail and it creates a wonderful, engaging work of art.”

    The story of Nelli’s rediscovery dates from the 1990s, when Prof. Nelson came across a pious work written about her by another nun. He organized a 1998 conference on the artist at Georgetown University’s center in Fiesole, Italy, and the scholarly papers it attracted were published as a book.

    Six years later, Jane Fortune, a writer and philanthropist from Indianapolis, picked up a used copy of the conference papers at an antiques stall during a visit to Florence. The volume inspired Ms. Fortune, who founded the AWA in 2009, to search for Nelli’s works—and those of other overlooked female artists. Ms. Fortune’s book, “Invisible Women: Forgotten Artists of Florence,” estimates that there are about 1,500 drawings, paintings and sculptures by women in the city’s museums, churches and homes. Many were brought to light by her co-author, Linda Falcone, who is now the director of the AWA.

    After Ms. Fortune was diagnosed with cancer, “she contacted me and said: ‘I’ll fight for my life if you will fight for my book,’ ” Ms. Falcone said. Ms. Fortune died last year. Ms. Falcone’s quest brought her through the cellars, attics and cobwebbed storerooms of Florence. “I found works that were covered in pigeon droppings or gnawed by rats,” she said.

    Rossella Lari at work on the restoration of Plautilla Nelli's 'Last Supper.' Photo: Francesco Cacchiani
    Thus far, AWA has restored 65 works by about 15 women artists spanning five centuries. Female artists, especially in the Renaissance, labored under many handicaps. They couldn’t be apprenticed to a master. They weren’t permitted to study anatomy. Nor were they allowed to practice drawing male nudes—a prerequisite for many religious subjects, including the Crucifixion. The only woman artist of the Renaissance to receive a formal art education was Nelli’s near-contemporary, Sofonisba Anguissola from Cremona in northern Italy. Frescoing also was off-limits for women on the grounds that it was too physically demanding.

    Nelli’s entrepreneurship isn’t the only evidence of her powerful personality. “She loaded her brushes with a lot of paint and used very broad brushstrokes,” Ms. Falcone said. And in an age when artists rarely signed their works, the Dominican nun put her name prominently on her “Last Supper,” along with an invocation in Latin: “Orate pro pictora” or “Pray for the woman painter.”

    Corrections & Amplifications
    A 1988 conference on Plautilla Nelli was held at Georgetown University’s center in Fiesole, Italy. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the conference was in Washington. (Oct. 18, 2019)

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    Bugenhagen likes this.
  2. It's a beautiful painting, I am glad it was restored.
    Bugenhagen likes this.
  3. Bugenhagen


    One of my favourite artists is Francois Nielly who also uses very large amounts of paint. It took me a while to learn her style for one I painted of the missus for her 40th. Have to get the acrylic to the texture of mayo and fast moves with the palette knife. At 2x2 meters, need rather a lot. As Nielly and Nelli are really the same name, I vaguely wonder of there is a distant family connection. :)

    One thing for sure, a paint heavy style is going to degrade very fast.
    Last edited: Oct 30, 2019
  4. I don't think there's any familial connection there, one is French, the other is Italian.
    Bugenhagen likes this.
  5. Bugenhagen


    Same name, just phonetic spelling difference which is normal in Europe to adopt to local pronunciation however I don't think there would be, I was a little tired from working :)

    Regardless, the connection in my head was heavily applied paint, which looks great but just won't last very long due too craquelure getting to severe and it falling to bits.