Plautilla Nelli (also Dominica) was a nun in Florence (Italy) but an artist too. We still know little about her but she was a successful artist at her time. The Renaissance!
It was a time of great artists (Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael…) and she painted so well as to have a street with her name in that city where our modern art was born.
The great art historian and architect of the Renaissance, Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), mentioned her in the second edition of his famous book “Life of the best architects, sculptors and painters”. A book which is usually the only source to know about those forgotten women artists…, forgotten today but not at their time. So, thanks to him, we know that Plautilla Nelli lived in the monastery of Santa Catherina in Via Larga and that her works were influenced by the style of Fra Bartolomeo (also known as Baccio della Porta).
Plautilla Nelli and her sister Petronilla (also a nun and a woman who wrote a biography of Savonarola) painted miniatures for choral books. She painted the capital letter of the page, usually surrounded by a religious figure. These delicate and exquisite compositions are preserved in the Library Marucelliana, in the Museum of San Marcos.
Highly regarded by her contemporaries, she had important commissions. Vasari wrote in his book that all the important houses of Florence had pictures of this artist, ‘so many that would be tedious to enumerate.’ However, today only four of her works have been authenticated: Lamentation of the refectory of San Marcos is perhaps the best known. A picture which impresses us for the tragic expressiveness of the characters, with red eyes and pathetic tears. The Last Supper that adorned the refectory of her convent and now, it hangs on the walls of the Santa Maria Novella church, it’s, by the very subject, calmer but it has the same ability for the composition of many characters. Pentecost, in the Church of San Domenici in Perugia, it’s also a great work. The Virgin and Santa Catherina has been the last painting to be authenticated, in 1985. Where are and under what signatures the rest of her works? A mystery, as it happens with the exact date of her death and the place of her burial.
Time erases everything, in some occasions time is our enemy, the great difficulty to know the truth of our past. Did ancient women make great art works? For ten years I’ve been studying this subject and I can assure than yes. Pautilla Nelli is not the only one: Sofonisba Anguissola, Catherina Van Hemessen, Sibilla von Bondorf, Diana Mantovana, Fede Galizia, Lavinia Fontana, Barbara Longhi… were famous woman artists during the Renaissance and they were forgotten in the 19th century (even their signatures cover with a black stain of paint and rediscovery in recent restorations of some museums). Once again we ask: is sexism a truth for old centuries or an invention of our contemporary industrial society?
Yes, time can be an enemy for old important women but a culture which wants to believe that it has saved women of being anonymous thanks to her new principles is a lie and women feel bad believing than during centuries they were silly, unable of rebelling for an unfair situation. However, the truth is different as I’ve demonstrated in my book ‘The Girls of Oil, women artists before the French Revolution.’