It is not possible to confirm that the portrait, shown below, is the painter who chose to become a Nun and entered the Convent of St. Catherine of Siena in Florence, when aged only 14, but it is the only image that has been suggested as her.
Her father, Piero di Luca Nelli, was a successful fabric merchant in Florence, so presumably had the means to pay a dowry for his two daughters, but both Pulisena Margherita Nelli, who took the name of Suor Plautilla, and her sister Costanza, who became Suor Petronilla. chose convent life over matrimony.
Clearly, both girls were extremely intelligent and within the convent life Plautilla was able to devote her time to developing her art, whilst her sister wrote a life of the monk who ran the monastery connected to their convent -the infamous Girolamo Savonarola.
It would be nice to think that this really was their own choice of profession because they knew it would enable them to continue to study and develop their talents.
Suor Nelli is the only female artist to be referenced in Vasari’s famous “Lives of the Artists“, albeit that this was in the form of a criticism, explaining that her limitations were due to her lack of live models and that her best works were copies from Fra Bartolommeo, Andrea del Sarto and Perugino.
Vasari did give her credence that she would have been better had she had access to live models. In fact, this statement is not strictly true as the convent where she was a nun, the Dominican convent of St. Catherine of Siena, now destroyed but then located in Piazza San Marco, Florence, was not fully cloistered by Fra Savonarola until 1575. Thus, she would have been able to go outside the building to make sketches and complete commissioned work, and therefore have the opportunity to observe the people and paintings of Renaissance Italy, getting as far afield as Rome, even if her profession, rather obviously, would have prohibited study of the male nude!
Sister Plautilla was a lady who thought big – not limiting herself to small and pretty images as most of her contemporaries would have felt, if not literally been forced to, restrict themselves to.
She undertook the almost 10-foot high Altarpiece of the Lamentation of Christ, for the Dominican convent of Saint Catherine of Siena.
In those times, copying life drawings was totally accepted, and Suor Plautilla used within her design drawings and sketches Fra Bartolommeo had made for his painting of the Lamentation in 1410-12. These were famously given to “the Nun who paints” by Fra Bartolommeo, from his painting of the subject, as shown below – but whether they could have been “left in his will” specifically for her given that he died in 1517 – before she was born in 1524 – stretches my credulity a bit?
Suor Plautilla’s image clearly draws upon these images but she has added three additional characters to the mixture, Joseph of Arimathea and the other two Marys who supported Jesus’s mother, Mary, whom Evangelist John describes as Mary, the mother of the sons of Zebedee and Mary of Clopas. The Mary at Christ’s feet is, of course, Mary Magdalene.
Andrea del Sarto had also reused some of these positions in 1423-24 for his Pieta with Saints
Finally, some of these images reappeared in this even more crowded painting by Perugino in his Lamentation of 1495.
So perhaps Vasari was a bit harsh to criticise Plautilla for being a copyist?
Nelli developed her own bottega of women painters in the Convent. In fact, Advancing Women Artist Founder, Jane Fortune, noted in a piece she wrote for the Florentine English Speaking Newspaper that well-known Nelli expert, Catherine Turrill, believed that many of the nuns at Santa Caterina were daughters of Florentine artisans, and the convent was recognised throughout Italy as a place where women could devote themselves to art -as well as their God.
In his “Lives” Vasari also named Suor Prudenza Cambi, Suor Agata Trabalesi, Suor Maria Ruggieri, as key Nelli supporters, and Suor Veronica, Suor Dionisia Niccolini, and his own sister Suor Maria Angelica Razzi as three additional producers.
The Key reason behind this Blog however, is to remind everyone that Suor Plautilla Nelli is the only female artist known to have painted a Last Supper for the refectory of a Major Church. In this case the refectory of Santa Maria Novella in Florence.
It is her only signed work and, sadly, having been neglected in a Refectory that has not been open to the public it is now, a work in dire need of Restoration.
This photo shows only how this huge painting looked superficially, so much of the original work has been lost, over-painted by unsympathetic restoration so a complete overhaul is badly needed to maintain this painting for future generations.
“When Plautilla Nelli painted her large-scale masterpiece depicting the Last Supper in the 1570s in Florence, Italy, she was doing something no woman before or after her had ever done.
But this painting requires restoration or risks being lost forever. Artists like her defied gender norms with their very actions.
Let’s restore her masterpiece together: by giving Nelli her voice, we change our perspective on history.
Advancing women artists are currently trying to raise the profile of this previously practically invisible female artist, by supporting a new exhibition about Plautilla Nelli at the Uffizi, which I can’t wait to see this week, and crowdfunding a campaign to help with the restoration of her Last Supper.