With the opening of the Plautilla Nelli exhibition in the Uffizi Gallery a few months ago – Art and Devotion in Savonarolas’ Footsteps; it seems fitting to put the spotlight on Nelli and her importance as one of the most celebrated women artists of the Renaissance.
This will be the first of many exhibitions highlighting women artists at the Uffizi gallery, and the renewed interest in Nelli and other female artists of the Renaissance has led to a number of new attributions and discoveries. Much of the work is by the Advancing Women Artists Foundation, who have restored a number of works at this exhibition, and recently launched a crowdfunding campaign to help pay for the restoration of her masterpiece the Last Supper.
Sister Plautilla Nelli, born Pulisena Margherita Nelli (1524 – 1588) was a self taught artist and nun at the Dominican convent of Saint Catherine of Siena (Piazza San Marco, Florence) and the first known female Renaissance painter in Florence. She was heavily influenced by the teachings of Savonarola, who promoted painting and drawing to religious women to avoid idleness.
Despite her lack of formal training, Nelli was free to learn from what was on view in Florence (Santa Caterina was not cloistered until 1575), and she was commissioned to complete many large scale works, which was very rare for female artists. She was able to adopt her own unique style which was highly praised for portraying raw emotion of her characters faces.
In this four room exhibition we get the chance to see some beautiful examples by Nelli and her workshop. The four portraits of a female Dominican monk in profile are magical, and it has been discovered that they were produced from a single cartoon and traced from the work of Fra Bartolomeo. The last room is filled with a number of delicate sketches mainly by Nelli and Fra Bartolomeo. Nelli inherited around 500 of Fra Bartolomeo’s sketches in 1547, who was one of the most illustrious figures in Italian art of the time, and the greatest representative of the strongly devotional practice which had put down roots in the Dominican order in Florence.
Vasari writes in his famed book Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, that Nelli was often commissioned to paint works for the houses of gentlemen throughout Florence, but also that her best works were from those that she copied and that she was less able to draw lifelike men as she was not able to study them directly.
On show at the Uffizi are some truly exceptional and iconic works from Nelli, but for other pieces by her I highly recommend a visit to the Museum of San Salvi, which is a little outside the historic centre of Florence but well worth the short walk. It has become a centre for Nellis’ restored works in recent years, and is also home to the Last Supper of San Salvi by Andrea del Sarto which is another beauty in itself. As mentioned previously, another exciting piece is her Last Supper, which is in the process of being restored. Nelli was the first women to paint this scene, and in turn this was the largest painting in the world by a female at the time too. Once finished, it will go into the church of Santa Maria Novella.