Sister Plautilla Nelli is considered Florence’s first woman painter. This Renaissance nun’s Last Supper masterpiece is now on display in Florence and she is finally getting the recognition she deserves.
In 1538, at the age of 14, Pulisena Margherita Nelli entered Santa Caterina da Siena convent in Florence and became Sister Plautilla. This Dominican convent was under the leadership of the San Marco Monastery which was headed by Girolamo Savonarola. He was known for his puritanical beliefs and best remembered for his bonfire of the vanities in which he encouraged the citizens of Florence to burn their secular art, frivolous clothing… anything he considered vanity.
But he thought that Christian art could be uplifting to the soul and he encouraged the nuns at Santa Caterina to paint, embroider, and use their talents in the service of God. The products they made were sold and helped to fund the running of the convent.
Sister Plautilla showed an amazing aptitude for art, but she was not allowed to have any formal lessons. Male artists of the time were studying anatomy to make their art more lifelike, but that was off limits for a nun. Plautilla most probably taught herself by studying the art of great painters of the day. It’s said that Fra Bartolomeo left her some of his drawings for her to study.
Years passed and Plautilla’s art improved. She became the prioress of the convent and, along with other nuns, produced artwork to sell to support the convent. She was also hired by many wealthy families to create religious painting for their homes.
Giorgio Vasari the 16th century art historian mentioned Plautilla in “Lives of the Artists.” He said “There were so many of her paintings in the houses of gentlemen in Florence, it would be tedious to mention them all.” And “She would have done wonderful things if she had only been able to study as men do…”
At that time, if a convent or monastery could afford it, they would commission a Last Supper scene to be painted in their dining hall. So Plautilla decided to take on this massive task herself. Most of these huge works were done in fresco which is a difficult and physically demanding procedure. Since she had never learned the art of fresco, Plautilla got a 21 foot long canvas and used oil paints to create her Last Supper. This turned out to be the saving of the painting, as it was relatively easy to take down and move when the convent was closed.
Sister Plautilla died in 1588 at the age of 64. Today she is considered Florence’s first woman painter.
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