Plautilla Nelli, the First Woman Artist of Florence

Tue, 01/16/2018 - 11:25
women artists of the Renaissance

“And in the houses of gentlemen throughout Florence, there are so many pictures, that it would be tedious to attempt to speak of them all,” wrote Giorgio Vasari in his Lives of Painters, Sculptors and Architects of Plautilla Nelli’s artworks.

While clearly a popular artist at the time she lived, Plautilla Nelli (1524-1588) is not usually listed among the great artists of the Renaissance; yet her Last Supper is considered one of the most important paintings by a woman in the history of art. Incidentally, no woman artist had ever painted this subject before Nelli.

The seven-meter-long, almost two-meter-high oil on canvas was created in the 1570s for the dining room of the convent where Nelli lived, the Dominican convent of St. Catherine of Siena, located in Florence’s Piazza San Marco. Nelli was a nun, who took her vows when she was 14. She came from a wealthy family in Florence and it was actually thanks to her conventual life that she was able to pursue her art, a freedom not granted to married women.

Self-taught, influenced by the teachings of Savonarola and the artwork of Fra Bartolomeo, Nelli produced large-scale paintings, wood lunettes, book illustrations, and drawings, and her artworks could be found in convents and in the houses of many noble Florentines. She also ran workshops training other women artists. 

The Uffizi Gallery inaugurated its cycle of exhibitions dedicated to women artists last year with a show entirely about Nelli, “Plautilla Nelli: Convent Art and Devotion in the Footsteps of Savonarola”.

Currently under restoration, thanks to a crowdfunding campaign sponsored by the non-profit, Florence-based Advancing Women Artists Foundation (AWA), Nelli’s Last Supper is scheduled to go on view in the newly refurbished Santa Maria Novella Museum in 2019, the first time in 450 years that the painting is publicly displayed.