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All information provided by the Advancing Women Artists Foundation
Plautilla Nelli was an important artist in sixteenth-century Florence, Italy. Her paintings were found in churches and in the homes of many nobles. Yet until about 10 years ago, few had ever heard of her, and she’s still not a household name. The Advancing Women Artists Foundation (AWA) want to change that, and the fact that you’re reading this is a first step!
Nelli was the starting point for our first decade of research and restoration; now we hope Nelli will inspire you to get involved in the restoration of her greatest masterpiece – a 22-foot canvas depicting a Last Supper, a subject that no woman before or after her has addressed.
This is #TheFirstLast: the First “Last Supper” by a woman, by the First documented female artist in Florence. It is the largest work of art by an early modern woman. It has been hidden from the public eye for 450 years and this restoration will put it, and Nelli, in the spotlight.
Polissena Nelli was born in Florence 1523; at the age of 14, in 1538, she entered the Dominican convent of Santa Caterina da Siena and took her vows as a nun, adopting the name Plautilla. The convent, which no longer exists, was located in Piazza San Marco and was governed by that monastery’s friars.
Contrary to how we might imagine convents today, in the Renaissance they were home to many wealthy, educated women, and these women enjoyed freedoms that their married counterparts did not. One of these was to pursue an artistic career, considered inappropriate and downright impossible for women. Noble women might paint small canvases as dilettantes, but could not sell their work. By being a nun artist, Nelli broke the mold.
Nelli’s convent was initially known for the production of terracotta objects. In this context where craftsmanship was key, she taught herself art using drawings and prints and began to sell her paintings. Recent studies of the convent account books reveal that, as demand for Nelli’s art grew, she instructed her sisters and set up an actual painting workshop, parallel in organization to the ones by her lay counterparts, whose income made the convent self-sufficient. The full extent of this workshop and its impact has yet to be studied.
Giorgio Vasari, who is considered the first art historian, mentions Nelli in his important book about the Lives of the Artists (1568 edition), saying “she would have done wonderful things if she had had the chance to study as men do.” We believe she has done great things, and we’re working to discover and restore them, one by one.
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