Revealed this week after a multiyear restoration, an artist-nun's masterwork is now on public view at the Santa Maria Novella Museum in Florence some 450 years after it was created.
The only known Last Supper by a female artist in the modern age, Plautilla Nelli’s 21-foot canvas is one of the largest works by an early woman artist in the world—and one of the most challenging compositionally. Though Nelli lived in an age when women were banned from the study of anatomy, she defied social convention by authoring 13 life-size male figures and confronting a theme usually reserved for male artists at the height of their career—as a testimony to their mastery.
Nelli chose to paint the moment in which Christ announces his betrayal and emulates Leonardo da Vinci’s idea of portraying the Apostles with dynamic emotion, a then-new concept for Last Supper paintings in Florence.
At a time when women could not practice art professionally, self-taught convent painter Plautilla Nelli (1524-1588) established an all-woman workshop within the walls of her convent, Santa Caterina di Cafaggio (now demolished) and, through the sale of private devotional works to Florentine nobility, the nuns became economically self-sufficient. Nelli produced large-scale works featuring biblical subjects and inherited the drawings of Fra Bartolomeo, thereby continuing the traditions of the School of San Marco, an early sixteenth-century art movement that developed in Florence at the time of bonfire-of-the-vanities friar Savonarola, who supported the production of art by religious women ‘as a way to avoid sloth’. Giorgio Vasari, reputedly Italy’s first art historian, wrote about her in the second edition of his Lives (1568), saying “she would have done wonderful things if she had only studied as men do.”
“One will never get closer to an artist than in the restoration studio,” says conservator in charge Rossella Lari. “We restored the canvas and, while doing so, rediscovered Nelli’s story and her personality. She had powerful brushstrokes and loaded her brushes with paint. Reflectography revealed very little under-drawing… Plautilla knew what she wanted and had control enough of her craft to achieve it.”
The restoration was supported by diagnostic analysis, executed by the Institute for the Conservation and Valorization of Artistic Heritage of Italy’s National Research Council. This 360-degree process, led by an all-woman team of curators, restoration artists and scientists, was one of revelation—the chemical composition of Nelli’s pigments was uncovered, as was evidence conclusively suggesting Nelli’s Last Supper to be a ‘choral piece’, created in true ‘workshop style’, as different painterly hands and varying levels of expertise are evident across the canvas.
The restoration of Nelli’s Last Supper was promoted and funded by Advancing Women Artists, whose mission is to research, restore and exhibit art by women in Tuscany’s museums, churches and storehouses. During the painting’s stint in the restoration studio, its ‘rescue mission’ was embraced by donors from all over the world.
“As always, this restoration’s objective has been to promote art as part of our shared heritage, bringing beauty to everyone’s everyday life,” says Florence’s Vice Mayor Cristina Giachi. “Private support makes costly restorations like this one possible and represent that sense of universal belonging that art promotes. Moreover, an important synergy has been created in this case between private citizens who wish to invest and take care of a work and a team of high-level sector professionals capable of giving the work new life and beauty."
Phase two of the worldwide public appeal, ‘The Adopt an Apostle Program’, matched 12 donors with their respective ‘Saint’. The first to be adopted, Saint John, the last, Saint Simon. Retired US lawyer Donna Malin became ‘parent’ to Nelli’s Christ figure. To solve the ‘problem’ of Judas’ adoption, Canadians Margaret MacKinnon and Wayne McArdle—adopters of two of the painting’s figures—developed the ‘Art Defense Fund’ for Judas, where ten donors were invited to ‘chip in’ to save the painting’s most unpopular figure, which engendered debate on the impartiality of art restoration and each figure’s right to be restored.
“Nelli claims authorship of her masterwork by signing the canvas, which was not common in the Renaissance,” explains MacKinnon. “She accompanied her signature with the inscription ‘Orate pro Pictora’. All those involved in the project have taken this appeal literally. We ‘pray for the paintress’ through conservation, to ensure her legacy is restored to the public.”
In 1817, following the Napoleonic suppression of religious orders throughout Europe, Nelli’s painting was transferred from her convent of Santa Catherina to the Monastery of Santa Maria Novella which has been its adoptive home for two centuries. During the flood of 1966, Nelli’s Last Supper was one of 14,000 artworks damaged from the side effects of 600,000 tons of water, rubble and mud that invaded the city when the Arno’s flooding ravaged Florence, though not immersed. After several decades in the friars’ modern-day private quarters, the painting has been installed in the Museum’s Old Refectory, across from a Last Supper by Nelli’s contemporary Alessandro Allori, restored to its original dignity and the public eye.
The restoration catalog, Visible: Plautilla Nelli and her Last Supper restored, is a dual-language publication (English and Italian), published by The Florentine Press. Released for the painting’s debut, it includes conservation and diagnostic highlights, the history of the painting in its multiple venues, Plautilla as part of the Dominican context and studies spotlighting details of Nelli’s piece—from how she set her Last Supper table to how her story inspired modern-day art patrons. In Spring 2020, art aficionados can expect the world premiere of a full-feature documentary by the same name in Florence, produced for American public television by Bunker Film and WFYI productions.
The painting's restoration has been a collective effort whose main players include the American non-profit Advancing Women Artists (AWA), the Municipality of Florence, Florentine Civic Museums, the Superintendent’s Office for Archeology, Fine Arts and Landscape of Florence, Pistoia and Prato and the Dominican friars of the Monastery of Santa Maria Novella.
AWA, founded in 2009 by US author and philanthropist Jane Fortune (1942-2018), has restored 65 works in Florence by historic female artists spanning five centuries. Plautilla Nelli’s story triggered Fortune’s quest to discover and salvage the works of other ‘invisible women’ that art history has neglected. AWA’s recovery of Nelli’s forgotten oeuvre laid the groundwork for the Uffizi’s first-ever monographic show on the artist in 2017, which displayed 15 of the 20 paintings and drawings attributed to the artist that Fortune and her organization restored over the course of a decade. Nelli is the first of a plethora of women painters awaiting recognition—whether on display or in storage, and according to Fortune’s estimation, the works by historic women artists in Tuscany exceed 1,500. Up next for AWA—the restoration of Saint John of God healing plague victims by eighteenth-century Florentine painter Violante Ferroni.