6863 Figura

Rescued from Anonymity: The First Renaissance Woman on Display at the Uffizi Galleries

At the dawn of 2017, the prominent Uffizi Galleries in Florence have begun a long-term path for promoting female artists. One of the inaugural exhibitions is dedicated to Sister Plautilla Nelli, considered the first female Florentine painter. The self-taught nun-artist, who lived from 1524 to 1588, lived in the Dominican convent of St. Catherine of Siena located in Piazza San Marco, and was heavily influenced by the artwork of Fra Bartolomeo.

The exhibit Plautilla Nelli: Convent Art and Devotion in the Footsteps of Savonarola, curated by Fausta Navarro, has come to life thanks to the initiative of AWA (Advancing Women Artists Foundation), a US organization and in particular to its founder, Jane Fortune. This exceptional female artist, heir to the illustrious artistic tradition of the “School of San Marco,” expressed the spiritual values of Christian renewal preached by Fra Girolamo Savonarola, through her strongly devotional figurative depictions.

Some defined Plautilla Nelli as the “First Renaissance Woman,” others called her the “Artist Nun.” No matter the epithet, the figure of Pulissena Margherita Nelli, who took the veil in the Dominican convent of Santa Caterina in Cafaggio in 1538 at the age of fourteen, encapsulated a very elegiac trait not only in her spiritual call, but also in her artwork. Though she was self-taught, Nelli grasped inspiration in the paintings of the mannerist artist Agnolo Bronzino and Renaissance painter Andrea del Sarto.

What historians have noticed in her works, is the heightened sentiment she added to each of her characters’ expressions. Plautilla produced works of high quality and led a true art workshop, with many students, as she learnt the craft herself: copying works and drawings and using other nuns as models. Nelli lacked any formal training and her male figures are said to have “feminine traits,” as her religious vocation prohibited studying the nude male.

However, Plautilla Nelli’s religious themes were surprisingly noteworthy for the vivid portrayals of emotion on the faces of the people she illustrated, almost as if they were ready to lament their grief to viewers. Dr. Jane Fortune herself underlined the “raw emotional grief surrounding Christ’s death as depicted through the red eyes and visible tears of its female figures” in the Lamentation Over The Dead Christ, an altar piece Plautilla painted for the church and convent of Santa Caterina, which is now in the Museo di San Marco.

Another very fascinating trait about Nelli is that most of her works are large-scale, which was most uncommon for a woman to paint, during her time period. Other of her oeuvres that have gained recognition are a Last Supper, now in the convent of Santa Maria Novella, which is mentioned in Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects. Other works that have been attributed to her are a Pentecost for San Domenico in Perugia and lunettes depicting St. Dominic, the Crucifixion, and St. Catherine of Siena, now in the Refectory of San Salvi in Florence.

After serving as prioress for three full terms, Sister Plautilla died on May 7th, 1588, and her artistic message was carried forward by the numerous nuns, who continued the work in the “sacred workshop” in the convent of Santa Caterina in Cafaggio.

The Uffizi exhibit is not the first occasion where Advancing Women Artists Foundation tributes the Painter-Prioress of Renaissance Florence. Plautilla Nelli was featured in the  AWA 2007 documentary produced by Art Media Studio, ‘The Restoration of Lamentation with Saints: Plautilla Nelli,’ as well as in the 2013 Emmy-winning PBS television documentary ‘Invisible Women, Forgotten Artists of Florence.’ The initiative of this organization, captained by the pioneering Jane Founder, undoubtedly reprises the public identity of illustrious women in history, rescuing them from anonymity.