One of the things that I love best about Florence is that there is always somewhere interesting to go to see something different, and learn more about it.

The Advancing Women Artists Conference on Thursday 20th October, at which we were introduced to the newly restored masterwork of The Madonna presents the Christ Child to Santa Maria Maddalena de’Pazzi by Florentine painter Signora Violante Siries Cerroli (1709–1783), was no exception.

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To start with the location was in the church of Santa Maria Maddalena dei Pazzi – a Church built in 1257, which is well worth a visit for its vast interior and “trompe d’oeil” ceiling fresco.

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Not to be missed is the Chapter House containing three lunettes of the Crucifixion and Saints (1493–96) by Pietro Perugino, featuring, naturally enough considering the name of the location, Mary Magdalene kneeling at the foot of the cross.

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The Church name relates back to the purpose of the original convent, which had been dedicated to St. Mary Magdalen delle Convertite, who is the patron saint of once-fallen, now converted, women.

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The Pazzi part of the name was included in respect of Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi, (April 2, 1566 – May 25, 1607) a Carmelite order nun from the Pazzi family, who supported this Church. From the age of nine, even before she was sent to a convent at age 14, she considered herself a bride of Christ, and from the age of 12 was prone to raptures and profound ecstasies after whipping herself during her earnest contemplation of the suffering of Christ.

Often called upon to intercede by the sick, many health miracles were attributed to her after death and she was beatified in 1626, in Rome, by Pope Urban VIII although she was not fully canonized until 62 years after her death.  Maria Maddelena de’ Pazzi  is now the Patron Saint called upon to defend against bodily ills; against sexual temptation; against sickness and sick people and is also the Co-Patron Saint of Naples .

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Violante Siries Cerroli, by contrast, seems to have led what would even today be considered a hectic working life. After studying in Paris with French masters, including Jacques Rigaud & Francois Boucher, she returned to Florence, married a Florentine sculptor, Guiseppe Cerroti, bore four children, and was only 23 when she became a member of the Florence Accadamia delle Arte del Disegni from which she obtained the right to charge money for her work, so she was able to continue to develop her already established career as a portrait painter and artist. At the time, I suspect, a working woman, earning money from her commissions, was viewed with some suspicion by other ladies, but she was one of the few female artists whose reputation exceeded that of her husband, and she was resolutely undaunted by any  peer pressure. Indeed, her spirit was such that when Gian Gastone de Medici commissioned her self-portrait for his collection of  self-portraits of Florentine Artists in the Uffizi she raised a protest when he put her painting in one of the lunettes above the door – in her opinion too high to be studied properly!

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The huge altarpiece that she completed in 1767, when aged 57 , was a perfect copy of The Madonna presenting Baby Jesus to Santa Maria dei Pazzi . It is  considered by many to be her greatest achievement, especially when we remember the limitations placed for women on the study of anatomy – even Roman sculpture was out of bounds!

Curiously, the original painting, by Neapolitan late Baroque artist Luca Giordano, is also held in the Church of Santa Maria Maddalena dei Pazzi – but they nonetheless commissioned her to make a copy of this huge altarpiece – size alone making it an unusual commission to give to a woman.

This and many other paintings in the church were damaged in the 1966 flood, although it was not realised until the work was begun how badly the painting needed to be cleaned and freed from the mold that had been consuming it for nearly 50 years, the stretcher and the frame as well as the visible damage to the painting had to be repaired.  It is therefore appropriate that this year of remembrance of the flood should be the time when it is put back on display fully restored to its original beauty.

The exciting story of its restoration can be seen on this video below.

For more information about the work of Jane Fortune’s restoration projects and the work of Advancing Women Artists – check out their website on http://advancingwomenartists.org/

Advancing Women Artists have also published a book La Signora Pittrice -The Lady who Paints , about Violante Siries Cerroti , her work and the restoration of the painting.

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