In the process of completing a History course on renaissance Italy, I was required to do a major research paper of my choice. I tried to find a relatively obscure topic, I knew I would learn enough of Leonardo, Michelangelo, the Medici’s, Petrarch, Boccaccio, the Popes, etc. Laura suggested a woman artist, rare but interesting; I went further, a renaissance Florentine nun artist. My Prof, Emily O’Brien gave me some leads, some advice and lots of encouragement and set me off in search of Sister Plautilla. It was a worthy diversion for my days of self-isolation. It’s a long piece, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did researching and writing about Sister Plautilla.
Pray for the Paintress; the life of Sister Plautilla Nelli (1524-1588
On October 17th, 2019, a major art event was held in the museum of the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, Italy. The event celebrated the unveiling of a recently restored painting by Sister Plautilla Nelli, one of the earliest known women painters of the Renaissance. This was her glorious 7 metre (21 foot) by 2 metre (6.5 foot) interpretation of the Last Supper, with life-sized depictions of Jesus and the twelve apostles. The painting, signed “Sister Plautilla – Pray for the Paintress” was being shown fully restored after a long tortuous 450 year journey, finally casting a bright and admiring light on a long forgotten artist.
The event received world-wide attention, the Guardian described it in its headline; “Restored to glory; How a 16th century nun regained her place in art history.” The journalist, Joanna Moorhead, described the artist as; “a contemporary of Michelangelo, Titian, and Tintoretto; a native of Florence who spent her entire life in the city in which her greatest work has now been rediscovered; a woman who managed to paint at a time when women were effectively forbidden from doing so; and a nun”.
Such a remarkable story easily catches one’s attention. A woman, a nun, an artist, a contemporary of the great artists of renaissance Florence, whose works have been recovered, restored, mounted and displayed after decades of neglect is eye-catching and spell-binding. The Italian renaissance has always captivated our attention, the life of a nun in a convent offers insights into many aspects of the profound issues facing the church in a time of political, economic and spiritual upheaval. It was a time of conflict between temporal and religious forces, the emergence of humanism as an intellectual challenge to christianity, with the plague looming unforeseen and unpredictable, in the midst of a profound transformation of the established order from trade and the growth of the merchant class; all causing the tectonic shifts that led to the rise of the powerful city states and mercantile families like the Medici. Whew, that’s a lot going on.
Plautilla Nelli was born in 1524 in Florence. At the age of 14, she was placed in a convent. She spent her whole adult life as a nun at the convent of Santa Caterina di Cafaggio, renamed and better known as Santa Caterina de Sienna. She was prioress, head of the convent, three times before she died at the age of 64 in 1588. She was also an active painter who, mostly self taught, learned the disciplines and craft of painting; she taught, encouraged, mentored and collaborated with other nuns within the convent to successfully develop their own artistic talents to the point that Santa Caterina was known for its nun-artist community and the quality of its artistic output.
There are only four of her original paintings still in existence that can be safely attributed to her as well as some drawings that have been assembled from various sources. All, like the Last Supper have been meticulously restored. The Last Supper was painted in the 1560’s.
In the midst of all the turmoil, the unleashing of a burst of creative artistic genius that was the Italian renaissance, this nun painted a 21 foot by 6.5 foot masterpiece, her vision of the Last Supper, for her Convent’s refectory. Surrounded by brilliant art, and influenced by artists who set the gold standard for artistic achievement even today, she found her own style and a large enough canvas to capture and frame her vision. Joining this pantheon of achievement, being recognized with the unveiling of her newly restored piece is Sister Plautilla, whose only plea as she bridged the centuries was ‘Pray for the Paintress’. A humble enough request but perhaps she deserves more than a prayer from us. Does she deserve to stand with Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and the other greats of renaissance Florence?
Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?
In 1971, Linda Nochlin, a prominent art historian, wrote a stunning article entitled Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?
In her words: “…like so many other so-called questions involved in the feminist “controversy,” it falsifies the nature of the issue at the same time that it insidiously supplies its own answer: There have been no great women artists because women are incapable of greatness.”
To Nochlin the question: “…is simply the top tenth of an iceberg of misinterpretation and misconception; beneath lies a vast dark bulk of shaky idees recues about the nature of art and its situational concomitants, about the nature of human abilities in general and of human excellence in particular, and the role that the social order plays in all of this.
Nochlin concluded that there were no great women artists! The system of art training, curating, and the paternalistic society for training and judging ‘great’ art precluded any woman from being so designated. “There are no women equivalents for Michelangelo or Rembrandt, Delacroix or Cezanne, Picasso or Matisse, or even, in very recent times, for de Kooning or Warhol, any more than there are black American equivalents for the same. If there actually were large numbers of “hidden” great women artists, or if there really should be different standards for women’s art as opposed to men’s–and one can’t have it both ways–then what are feminists fighting for? If women have in fact achieved the same status as men in the arts, then the status quo is fine as it is.”
She went on: “But in actuality, as we all know, things as they are and as they have been, in the arts as in a hundred other areas, are stultifying, oppressive, and discouraging to all those, women among them, who did not have the good fortune to be born white, preferably middle class, and above all, male. The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education–education understood to include everything that happens to us from the moment we enter this world of meaningful symbols, signs, and signals. The miracle is, in fact, that given the overwhelming against women, or blacks, that so many of both have managed to achieve so much sheer excellence, in those bailiwicks of white masculine prerogative like science, politics and the arts.”
Her penetratingly honest, starkly logical and courageous analysis set off a storm of controversy and a conversation that has not ended, it likely never will. It is not because women suffer from an incapacity of their gender but that an insurmountable set of barriers set by a patriarchal system had made such an achievement impossible. What she called for was a complete destruction of the whole system around the teaching, creation, nurturing, curating, and judging of what constituted art.
How then do we judge Sister Plautilla, is she a ‘great’ artist or should she be celebrated for having achieved ‘so much sheer excellence’ in spite of the impediments and obstacles she had to overcome?
Giorgio Vasari, the first art critic.
Sister Plautilla was identified as one of only four women artists who were worthy of note by the most famous chronicler of art at the time, Giorgio Vasari. Vasari (1511-1574) was a painter and an architect but his enduring legacy was ‘not a building or a painting but a book’, the first book attempting to chronicle and analyze art and discuss what it took to be an artist.
Vasari’s chronicle was described as “ a pioneering work in the field of art history… which laid the groundwork for modern art history…essential reading today.” Paoletti and Radke affirmed this judgement, saying Vasari: “provided a dominating critical and historical framework for understanding Italian art… Vasari’s narrative has been remarkably tenacious within the critical literature and therefore deserves some attention. Vasari championed the individual creative genius view of ‘great’ and presumed that the best way for an artist to learn the craft was through the workshop system; he also preferred the Tuscan style, exemplified by his favorite, Michelangelo, that dominated the renaissance art period in Florence and throughout Italy. And, of course, there was the implicit bias that Nochlin points out: “…it was difficult for most men, not just Vasari, to believe that women could be both creative and virtuous”.
Vasari had written this vast sweeping chronicle of art in 1550, revised in 1568; his revision included Sister Plautilla with a short but glowing commentary. Vasari was the first, or the first we know of, to include Sister Plautilla in a chronicle of distinguished artists and the first to judge her merit as an artist. Vasari describes Sister Plautilla; “… she executed some works that have amazed the artists.” This is high praise given the renaissance artists with whom she was being compared. He went on; “Despite the fact that the artist, being a woman, lacked practice in painting from life, these (women in many of her works) are painted so well that no one could ask for more.”
Vasari said of her: “She made so many paintings for the homes of Florentine gentlemen that it would take too much time to list them all here.” Finally, tellingly, he described her as; “revered and virtuous.”
Vasari was the most influential art ‘critic’ of his time. He lived in a world where women were not allowed to be artists, much less judged as equals of their male contemporaries for their merit. He would understand, accept and take for granted the limitations and constraints on women artists, the life of convent nuns and their place in the complicated interaction between the cloister and the outside world. He would be fully aware of the struggle of a woman like Sister Plautilla to learn the craft of painting, to study and create in a time when art was in high demand by patrons whose status in their community was judged by what hung on the walls of their ‘studiolo’, the Italian equivalent of the modern study.
However, Vasari presumed that women were not intellectually capable of creating a distinctive style ‘a maniera’, that only a man, one who undergoes rigorous training under the supervision of a master artist in a long apprenticeship could develop such a distinctive style. He had a clear bias toward the humanist influenced artists like Michelangelo over the religious themed art of the Savonarola influenced Dominicans. Vasari was primarily focused on Florentine art, on the masters of this never-matched time of artistic excellence and on their artistic achievements; he was attuned to, and was a major proponent of, the growing influence of humanist views on the conventional spiritual and religious themes and portrayals of the pre-renaissance period.
One can also assume that because Sister Plautilla only painted within religious themes dictated by Savonarolan principles of simplicity, piety and spiritual clarity that she would be seen as less developed. It would be fair to say that Vasari saw Sister Plautilla as an artist of unfulfilled potential yet incapable and therefore not worthy of being included with the greats of renaissance Florentine art.
The Rediscovery of Sister Plautilla Nelli – Renaissance Artist.
One of the consequences of Nochlin’s question was the concerted attempt by many to find those women who if they had not been described as ‘great’, had at least “managed to achieve so much sheer excellence” that they deserve real recognition and, more than that, deserved to be hung in galleries and museums and made the focus of exhibits. These art lovers did not necessarily want to prove that Nochlin was wrong or that the whole cultural development system that we call art was completely broken, they wanted to show the world that there WERE women artists worthy of consideration who were overlooked, who could be found, could be revisited, whose art could be restored and re-exhibited; these forgotten women artists could finally be elevated to well-deserved positions of respect based on the sheer excellence of their achievements. They wanted women artists to be recognized – to finally be Visible.
One of the most active and successful groups to undertake the search for these great women artists was Advancing Women Artists.http://advancingwomenartists.org
The group of predominantly American benefactors led by Jane Fortune was organized in 2007 with a specific mission to: “preserve, conserve and restore works by women artists held in the museums of in Florence.”
Sister Plautilla, already identified by Vasari, was chosen as a major focus of the AWA work. At the start, there were only three pieces of art attributed to Sister Plautilla known to still exist, another has been verified and all four have been restored and put on display in Florence.
The AWA commenced funding and organizing collaborative restoration efforts for the Lamentation with Saints now in the Museo di San Marco in Florence. It was a large piece, measuring 288 cm (113 inches) by 192 Cm. (75 inches) restored and unveiled in 2006.
A second piece was restored and unveiled in 2008, Saint Dominic receives the Rosary, 147 cm (58 in.) by 231 cm (91 in.); it is currently displayed at the Last Supper Museum of Andrea del Sarto, Florence.
The third piece, Saint Catherine in prayer, also restored in 2008, was equally large, 145 cm (57 in.) by 235 cm (92.5 in), is also on display at the Last Supper Museum.
The restoration and unveiling of The Last Supper, the final known pieceby Sister Plautilla was documented in ‘Visible’, a book that details the recovery and restoration of the painting. The Last Supper was her most outstanding achievement, yet it might never have survived to be restored and exhibited. The restoration took four years and cost over US$200,000. (Lobo)
Linda Falcone and others describe what is known of the journey, a journey that one writer called tormented, of this now famous work of art. The piece was originally painted for the refectory, the major hall usually used for dining at Santa Caterina, Sister Plautilla’s convent and home. It hung there until the convent was dissolved by Napoleonic edict in the early 19th century. Luckily it was acquired by a related monastery, Santa Maria Novella in 1817 where it was hung until the early 20th century.
At that point, it was removed from its stretcher, rolled up and stored for several decades, not lost but certainly forgotten. Rediscovered in the 1930’s, restoration work was undertaken and the painting was again hung in the refectory of Santa Maria Novella. In the 1980’s it was again removed, again rolled up and put away until it was re-re-discovered by Jane Fortune.
The Last Supper and Sister Plautilla – restored.
Sister Plautilla painted the Last Supper in the early 1560’s; she would have been in her 30’s at the time. She signed it: “S. PLAUTILLA – ORATE PRO PICTORA” – Sister Plautilla, Pray for the Paintress”.
The restoration of the painting not only uncovered the original canvas but brought to light so much more about the artist and this monumental piece of renaissance devotional art. The documentation of the history of the painting’s life, from celebration to storage to recovery to restoration was but one aspect of the discovery process, undertaken to both assist the restoration and authenticate the provenance of the painting.
Visible, a book created to document the restoration process, revealingly called it ‘a monumental canvas saved centimetre by centimetre’. The challenge was complicated and daunting; to remove centuries of dust and grime, made worse by years of accumulated grease and soot from kitchen fumes adjacent to the refectory, to stabilize and secure the original three pieces of canvas carefully stitched together to make the huge canvas, to repair the harm caused by removing the painting from its frame and rolling it up to be stored in a damp, dusty environment, to dig through several layers of previous restoration attempts which were now covering the true painting; all this had to be done centimetre by centimetre. The paints used by Sister Plautilla had to be carefully analyzed and matched to be re-applied to accurately replace those used in the 1560’s in a manner that matched not only the original artist’s paint but her brush strokes and her style. It was an expensive, time-consuming and challenging task of meticulous alchemy, yet it faithfully rendered a vibrant restoration, worthily reflecting the original.
In the process of going through the canvas so minutely, all those involved, analysts, restorers, technicians and art historians had the time and the opportunity to ‘read’ the painting. Their detailed analyses offered some interesting observations.
The composition of the painting reflects the strong influence of Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498), the Dominican monk noted for his demands for a return to spiritual simplicity and devotion to the biblical principles of the early disciples and his condemnation of the lavish richness of the church and its new humanist-influenced art which he saw as distractions from sacred themes. His criticism of the church hierarchy gained him many followers but also accumulated enemies within the church. He was excommunicated, then put to death for refusing to be quiet. He was an early precursor of the Tridentine influences on the church resulting from the reformation and the counter-reformation response of the Council of Trent.
Savonarola had a powerful positive effect that opened a space for Sister Plautilla and her convent brethren. Savonarola believed in the power of art to heighten Christian piety and devotion. Painting was encouraged, art was to be desired and it was to be made a part of every convent. Pictures would be commissioned and hung inside convents and monasteries. Her artistic development was encouraged especially since it exemplified her convent’s adherence to Savonarola’s admonitions that art reflect this religious austerity.
The setting of her painting was austere, a simple white tablecloth, a muted background, table settings that reflected the glasses and dish-ware that would have been common in the refectory, with a few pieces that, in a muted way, hinted at the richness of Medicean Florence. The food displayed was both symbolic of the sacramental nature of the last supper as described in scripture – the wine and the bread. She also embellished the menu and illustrated food common to the convent table. Interestingly she even displays a large bowl with a lamb, bowls of lettuce and fava beans, all rich with both allegorical and personal meaning to the convent nuns viewing the painting as they ate.
The curators recognized the artist’s thoughtful placement of Jesus and the twelve apostles, captured at the moment when he announces that he has been betrayed. Each man, life sized, is unique, each carefully depicted. Without any chance to actually learn to paint the male human form from live models because she was both a woman and a nun, Sister Plautilla receives much credit for her depiction of them; “the figures of the apostles are intensely characterized by highly realistic and varied physiognomies, which the artist represented using different poses portraying wide-ranging expressions…a great deal of attention had, in fact, been paid to accurately depict human anatomy…. evident in the precise rendition of many details which, together, contribute to making the composition much more enjoyable to look at”.
Interestingly, Judas is prominent, isolated and unique in his placement on the near side of the table, his proximity to Jesus, the strong colours of his clothing, even down to the telling detail of the money bag in his hands; it was a careful and precise representation of the words from the Bible. Savonarola would have been pleased.
It is again important to note that while Vasari made special mention of Sister Plautilla in his 1568 Lives of Artists, her painting style and her choice of topic were far from the vanguard of new humanist stylists that he admired. Her influences were not humanism and new ways of representing artistic subjects beyond the usual realm of devotional and religious icons, nor was she using techniques that could be considered avant garde for the time. While she most likely was aware of these major transformations in art, technique and subject matter and how to represent them, she was much influenced by the Savonarolan desire to emphasize simplicity and pious adherence to scripture in artistic representation.
She was also a nun (and prioress) painting for the refectory of her convent – her home – seeking to provide devotional encouragement to that audience, her convent nuns; “Art produced for convent environments was judged for its devotional efficacy not for the creator’s originality. The function of art in this context was to support meditation by producing an appropriate state of mind in the viewer, and to induce emotional empathy. Images of saints or deities did their work best if shown, not performing a momentary or distracting action, but as serene, enduring essences.”
A Father’s dilemma
One of the biggest challenges a father faced in 16th century Florence was what to do with his daughters. The constant challenge facing every man was how to manage the family’s property and financial resources, there was no safety net for a man and his family. Daughters were property, they presented an opportunity and a challenge. There were not many options available to fathers with daughters who had reached puberty; it was either marriage or the convent.
Marriage ‘resembled a corporate merger rather than the romantic or spiritual linking of a man and a woman’. His daughter, a prospective bride, offered a chance to build relationships, to move up the economic and social ladder, to expand business networks, to build an extended social network and a more extensive family safety net. But, like everything, it came with a cost. The child had to be physically attractive and well dressed, educated in the skills and arts of femininity, well spoken, musical, mannered and chaste. All this cost money; in addition, the groom’s family required a suitable dowry.
On the other side of the matrimonial equation, the father of the prospective groom was equally interested in advancing his family’s fortunes, a well chosen wife with all the wifely virtues and a solid if not wealthy family to offer a substantial dowry were essential considerations. Both sides sought to protect and enhance family wealth now and enhance prospects into the future.
Dowries in sixteenth century Florence were huge, they reached such highly inflated levels in the late 15th century that in Florence, a special dowry investment fund was created allowing parents to invest money in an account funded by the monies forfeited by daughters who died before reaching marriageable age! And, as Florence became richer and more cosmopolitan, the cost of trousseaus and wedding feasts became prohibitive.
The only other credible alternative for a father who wanted to ensure his daughter lived a safe, meaningful and virtuous life was the convent. Without a husband, a woman had almost no options; working was not one of them, single women were not educated for a profession, were not allowed into the guilds or apprenticeship programs that led to a trade, the options seemed to be to become a lady in waiting or some other sort of servant or wet nurse.
While most convents required some sort of dowry, it was usually much smaller, payments were more flexible and trousseaus/jewelry and other ancillary obligations were not necessary. There was some ongoing obligation of families to ensure that their nun-daughter did not starve but that challenge was not insurmountable and could be solved by other stratagems.
There were other contributing factors to the decision to commit a daughter to the convent, not the least of which was the events of the time. Life in sixteenth century Florence was anything but predictable; these were tumultuous and uncertain times, fraught with dangers for everyone but especially so for women, young and old.
Kaborycha recounts the volatility of the time; the vicious and cataclysmic sack of Rome had just occurred in 1526, news reached Florence a year later. Plautilla was 3 or 4 at the time, her sister a few years older. Florence was a city that depended on banking, commerce, trade, sales of high end and luxury goods – all required stability and peace. The siege of Florence after the sack of Rome under-mined this sense of stability. By the late 1530’s Cosimo Medici, backed by the Spanish took firm control of Florence again. Through all this political turmoil, there was the constant threat of plague which ravaged Florence, destroying families and wiping out large portions of the population.
In these circumstances, placing daughters in a convent, in the absence of a good marriage to a strong and wealthy family, added a margin of safety that could not be found elsewhere.
A child becomes a Nun in 16th century Florence.
Plautilla Nelli spent most of her life as a nun; she grew up in a convent, lived her whole life in the company of other women, all of whom had pledged themselves to a unique religious calling as ‘brides of Christ’? How did this impact her evolution as an artist?
Plautilla Nelli entered the Convent of Santa Caterina de Sienna in central Florence in 1538 at the age of 14, following her sister, Petronilla, who entered the same convent one year earlier, at the age of 17. Their mother had died in 1530 when Plautilla was about 6. Their father Piero Nelli had remarried almost immediately; he died sometime in 1538.
Plautilla’s father, Piero Nelli, variously described as a draper, a merchant and a commercial businessman came from a family with a solid name but he did not live amongst the wealthier of Florence’s merchant class. Piero’s untimely death was most likely the strongest factor in the placement of his two daughters in the Santa Caterina convent. They were orphans with no money, an uncertain dowry and little social status to secure a significant marriage; the best option for orphan daughters was the convent, a large local, well-regarded Dominican convent conveniently located in the neighbourhood, a convent with which he had done business, where his name and that of his two daughters would have been known and carried some value. This convent, Santa Caterina de Sienna, was a large tertiary convent in the Piazza San Marco in central Florence.
Two aspects of their placement in Santa Caterina are worth noting. This was a tertiary convent. Tertiary convents allowed nuns to make vows of chastity, abstinence and devotion without having to live a cloistered life inside the four walls of the convent.
Second, as already noted, Santa Caterina was a Dominican convent and had a long affiliation with followers of Savonarola, his strong views on the importance of art as a celebration of religious piety and devotion opened a space for Sister Plautilla to learn and develop her gifts as an artist.
The Nun in her Cloister – Protected or Imprisoned?
The consequences of becoming a nun could be seen as positive or negative, though many saw it as second best. Marriage was not such a perfect life for women. Wives, like daughters, were property to be managed for their value. Most were perpetually pregnant, many died in childbirth at a very young age, the pressure to keep procreating was pervasive and each birth represented a threat to the mother’s health. Life could be a treadmill of pregnancy, suckling, raising infants and managing (or doing) all the associated household tasks. There were no modern conveniences and necessities like running water, plumbing and heating were haphazard or non-existent.
They were servile to their fathers and then their husbands, with few rights, limited in their movement, tightly controlled in their activities and dependent on their husbands. While there were notable examples of women who pushed the envelope a bit, they were usually well-educated, came from and kept close to their powerful families, had their own sources of wealth and managed to negotiate space for their own growth. They were the exceptions that proved the rule.
The growth and spread of convents supported the contention that convent life was a welcome alternative: “Before the Black Death, the city boasted approximately five hundred nuns, by 1500 that number had increased fourfold to over two thousand before climbing to twenty-five hundred by 1515. Convent populations doubled yet again over the next forty years. Expressed in terms of the urban population, nuns represented roughly 1 out of every 200-250 Florentine inhabitants in the late 1330’s, by 1552, about 1 in every 20 residents was a nun….” – in 1552 about 5% of the population of Florence. Clearly, sending one’s daughters to a convent was considered by many to be the right strategy; Sister Petronilla and Sister Plautilla were reflective of a major realignment of Florentine society.
Nuns in fact were much more than cloistered women who prayed, this was especially true for Tertiary nuns who had much more open and flexible interactions with the wider society. Convents had become a major presence in all aspects of Florentine life.
Tertiary convents opened many opportunities for women, “Convents served the social purpose of providing a respectable place for girls and women to live out their lives when no better arrangement could be found for them in the outside world. Some women welcomed the companionship and quiet pleasures of a convent. In addition to practical tasks such as caring for the sick, gardening, embroidering, preparing foods and pharmaceuticals, nuns also engaged in recreational activities such as singing and acting in sacred dramas. Many convents put a strong emphasis on learning…”.
Convent Nuns; learning, studying, perfecting skills.
Because of the size of convents, they became vital to the health and welfare of Florence “at the local neighbourhood level”. Nuns were affiliated with local churches, they prayed for parishioners on request (for a small fee), they cared for the sick and the elderly, they took in widows and abandoned daughters of the poor, and they engaged in local commerce.
Convent dowries often consisted not of money but of bits and pieces of property, household goods of value, buildings which offered rental income, farms and agricultural properties – all requiring management. The nuns engaged in commercial activities managing their affairs, spent money in the local neighbourhood, hired local workers and participated in community events, leading a plethora of religious observances and, through their adjacent church buildings, became a neighbourhood hub, providing meeting places for confraternities. They even sued lessees for unpaid rents.
The convent of Sister Petronilla and Sister Plautilla was Santa Caterina de Sienna. Created in 1500, it was a large tertiary convent in the Piazza San Marco; by 1562, there were 133 members. In addition to its size, many of the nuns came from rich and powerful families with webs of relationships throughout the neighbourhood and the city. Families were able to support the convent, the convent nuns actively participated in the ecumenical and pastoral affairs of the community.
Convents and their nuns became producers of goods and providers of services; “textile activities, book production, education…depended primarily on literate and manual skills, religion and technical knowledge, and significant human capital, which convents possessed in ever greater abundance”. Convents and the work of nuns were ingrained and irreplaceable in the development and expansion of the Florentine silk industry, helping to establish the city as a commercial centre and bringing wealth to the city.
Convents were hubs of learning and manuscript/book production. Sister Petronilla became well-known as a copyist and illustrator of religious texts, even writing a well regarded biography on Savonarola.
While individual women, married or single, were excluded from engaging in any kind of craft work or guild work, inside the convent walls, nuns could develop skills and engage in work and commercial activities even though; “working for the market amplified social contradictions by pitting nuns’ economic needs against gender norms, traditional values of honor and ideals of religious reclusion.” Such work was even encouraged because it provided commercial opportunities for the larger Florentine business community. Their commercial activities were also supported by their extended families since the money raised by convents through these activities took pressure off the families; convents became self supporting, financially literate and commercially engaged.
Monastic poverty was a real issue. Three of every four nuns in Florence experienced some form of monastic poverty. Every family in Florence had a stake in ensuring that convents were self-sufficient or even prosperous, the alternative was using precious family money to keep them afloat.
Finally, it is worth noting that convents became important and influential components of the political infrastructure in Medicean Florence. The convent had built a web of interdependent relationships giving the convent and its prioress power; she was able to wield influence, her voice carried weight, her support could be influential. There is no doubt of her management skills or her extensive web of contacts outside the convent walls.
How did Sister Plautilla become an artist?
It is in this greater context in which Sister Plautilla’s development as an artist must be considered. Her sister was an illustrator of religious texts, only one of many devotional items made by nuns… “inexpensive figurines of saints, angels, and the Virgin using ephemeral materials like glass, paper and plaster….although similar items were produced in lay workshops, the ones produced by religious women probably gave them a special cachet. These workshops formed the historical backbone of later monastic craft collaborations, like the one organized around Sour Plautilla Nelli, ‘the first woman painter of Florence’”. Convent ledgers and extant records of transactions showed “virtually all Florentine nuns can be considered working women who regularly engaged in market activities.”, in startling contrast to all other women who lived outside the convent structure and were prohibited from working!
Producing goods with artistic commercial value required a level of skill that could match that of the guilds, nuns learned and taught each other the crafts. While there is much discussion about the artistic influences that may have guided Sister Plautilla’s artistic development, there is only speculation as to how she actually mastered the craft of painting, especially such large canvasses. Vasari offers clues, “she began to draw and paint little by little until she finally through much diligence….(she) studied the art of miniatures before she began painting panels and works of importance…she copied from others…the faces and features of women are much better and have much greater verisimilitude than her heads of men because she was free to study women at her leisure”. It was also noted that for a time Sister Plautilla worked in the Convent’s pharmacy and would have had access to the materials and learned the craft of grinding ingredients and making paint colours.
Sister Plautilla learned some of her skills as a painter by working on small devotional items first, diligently studied art on her visits outside the convent especially as a prioress, was able to access copies of works of art from the vibrant artistic community and through the transfer of the artistic papers and drawings of several Dominican friars, and was able to practise her painting skills with the encouragement of the convent prioresses, strongly encouraged as a way to show devotion to Christ. According to Vasari she was exceptionally prolific, with ‘so many paintings for the homes of Florentine Gentlemen that it would take too much time to list them all here”.
Serafino Razzi, another chronicler of artists and a Friar in a related Dominican monastery describer Sister Plautilla as “gifted with a genius above the ordinary in women”…who “created works that amazed the leading artists in the city of Florence” noted many paintings which are now lost. Convent records show sizeable financial income from the sale of pieces of art, many attributable to her, one as far away as Perugia.
Since her paintings were mostly devotional, they were made even more valuable in the minds of patrons because they were painted by a nun. While some art historians hypothesize that she learned in the studio, or under the tutelage, of some well-known Friars in adjacent monasteries, the restoration of The Last Supper seems to suggest otherwise; her painting technique, her style, the positioning of the subjects, even the paints she used were singular, a synthesis of all that she learned from other sources, and taught herself to use – not unlike any artist. They were definitely not the result of tutelage by a single master.
Again, it is hard to judge the merits of her skill and the value of her work. The paintings which still exist are all large religious themed paintings for the walls of refectories and other spaces in convents and monasteries. They are not fully representative of her body of work.
The paintings that do exist seem, at best guess to be painted between 1556, when Sister Plautilla was 32 years old and 1560 or so, when she produced the Last Supper. Much of her later work, perhaps impacted by the edicts of the Council of Trent were for other monasteries and convents.
One of the most plausible conjectures is that she rose to mastery ‘sheer excellence’ by being self taught; having entered the convent at 14; “Thus by the time she was thirty-five years old and credited with income from the sale of paintings to outside patrons, she may have had two decades of training and experience behind her. She also had reached the point where she could lead other nuns in the craft.”
This other aspect of Sister Plautilla’s unique talent deserves mention. She was part of and most likely was instrumental in creating and leading, a large group of other artist-nuns that made Santa Caterina notable if not famous. The creation of a group of artists working together at Santa Caterina was first noted by Razzi, himself a Dominican friar whose sister was a nun/artist at Santa Caterina. He cited three nuns by name and described them: “all three, disciples of the said Suor Plautilla, live in the same convent. Their paintings on canvas and panels won them praise and helped support their convent; they did nothing else in their spare time, when they were not praying.”
It is well documented that at least one other, Sister Prudenza Cambi, was a successful painter and earned money for the convent from the sale of her paintings, though none seem to exist today. Turrill profiles eight women who are known to have participated in the production of paintings, sculpture and other religious icons; “these virtuous and saintly nuns trained in both painting and manuscript illumination, whose sculpted images of Christ, the madonna, saints and angels were renowned throughout almost all of Italy.”
Sister Plautilla the Prioress.
Sister Plautilla was also Prioress of Santa Caterina for three terms, each term for three-years, 1563-65, 1571-73 and 1583-85, the last ending a few short years before her death in 1588.
She was required to manage the complex affairs of a large convent with some 130 nuns; all those mundane issues from the daily challenges of food and rooming, heating and plumbing, work assignments, spiritual training to the larger more complex issues of ensuring that the restrictions of Council of Trent edicts did not destroy the financial stability of the convent, limit the contact of nuns with family, friends and community or even the broader state. The convent succeeded during her lifetime: “By the twilight years of the Florentine republic, these institutions had been irrevocably impressed into spiritual service to the state, transforming brides of Christ into daughters of the city.
Sister Plautilla was prioress before and during the time the edicts of the Council of Trent were implemented and strictly enforced on the larger more influential Dominican tertiary convents; driven by higher powers in the church system, all men, who sought to restrict nuns to the cloister and control contact with the outside world. It wasn’t until 1575 that the Council of Trent’s enclosure system was imposed on Santa Caterina. Sister Plautilla, as prioress, would have faced the delicate and challenging daily negotiations with civic and church leaders who sought to curb the activities of the convent, deprive them of the commercial means to maintain their convent and take care of their nuns and limit their contact and ability to minister to their community.
The resistance of the tertiary convents to erosion of their freedom and individual and collective agency, especially to the implementation of Council of Trent edicts and other reforms, would have been a monumental and complicated task, worthy of a treatise by Machiavelli.
Yet it was vital. In this rare period, nuns enjoyed a considerable amount of agency, the freedom to interact with the world outside the convent walls, to engage in the community, to create and and sell goods, to manage their financial affairs, to be a part of the broader community.
Sister Plautilla and her fellow artists in the convent utilized this freedom to develop their artistic skills. Preserving their hard earned freedom kept open a singular opportunity for her convent and her nuns to practise their art without constraint.
Was Sister Plautilla a great Artist?
Vasari said no. She was a woman, she had not been formally trained in a workshop under the tutelage of a great artist. She had not developed a distinctive style – a maniera, she was stuck in the old ways of religious devotional art and had not evolved to keep pace with his favourite, Michelangelo. She simply did not fit the criteria for greatness that he had established in his Lives of the Artists.
It would seem impossible to contradict Vasari, he was there; he saw the breadth of her work, any attempt at repudiating his judgement today is limited based on the limited canvases that still exist, a tiny portion of her artistic output.
Yet, to his credit, he praised her lavishly.
Sister Plautilla Nelli is a perfect example of Nochlin’s thesis that there can be no women who can be called great artists. The deck is stacked against them. There was no formal training, no family support, no tutelage under great artists, no symbiosis that comes from spending one’s waking hours in the company of other artists, no flock of critical reviewers and admiring patrons to spur and challenge – and yes – reward and faun over the artist. Sister Plautilla had none of those.
Nochlin leaves space for Sister Plautilla to be celebrated; She is the representative icon Nochlin celebrates; “The miracle that managed to achieve so much sheer excellence”.
Sister Plautilla Nelli should be valued and celebrated for her artistic achievement. Vasari’s judgement is flawed by his obvious biases, yet his power to define artistic greatness lives on. Nochlin would say that Vasari was wrong in the construction of his model and the inflexibility of his tests and the unwillingness to test his bias. It is hard not to agree with her.
Sister Plautilla has gifted the world four huge brilliant masterpieces. She managed these works by perfecting her gifts with studious discipline, overcoming impediments unknown to most of her male contemporaries. She somehow made the leap from creating miniatures and religious crafts for sale to support the convent to producing large pieces – as wide as billboards. She sold paintings to patrons – working in direct competition with the most gifted artist ever to populate a single city at a unique moment in the development of artistic excellence.
Sister Plautilla was also lucky, although it is difficult sometimes to see her advantage. She entered a large, well-run convent under the Savonarolan influence. She was encouraged to develop her talent, not only to develop commercial activities that benefited the financial well-being of her community, but because art was a way to celebrate her calling as a ‘bride of Christ’, a reverential Christian. She was a tertiary nun at the right time, moving relatively freely in Florence on behalf of her convent, building relationships, talking with craftsmen and other artisits, getting to know patrons, even it seems forging a mutual respect with Vasari himself.
She had time, a lifetime, to focus solely on developing her skills and she had access to the greatest artists’ works to show her the best one could aspire to. She had found a window in time to enjoy that the two things denied women mostly memorably identified by Virginia Woolf centuries later, a room of one’s own and 500 guineas a year. Sister Plautilla had a supportive environment, peace, quiet and time to practise and experiment and develop her art and she was ensured the basic provisions of life so that she could focus on her art and not worry about finding food, paying rent, serving a husband or minding children. It wasn’t quite a sinecure at a famous artists academy but it was significant and transformational. It gave her space and agency.
She was obviously gifted to have achieved ‘so much sheer excellence’ but, as we all know, gifts take an artist only part way; she was clearly organized, energetic, focused and diligent in perfecting those talents. Nochlin is right, achieving greatness may be impossible when the deck is so stacked against one, but her sheer excellence demands to be recognized for the barriers she overcame and the accomplishments she achieved.
Sister Plautilla used her talents to teach and develop others. She is acknowledged as a catalyst and leader, training and advancing the artistic efforts of her whole community of nun-artists in the Santa Caterina convent harnessing “the collective nature of the creative process that defined the way in which nuns practised art in convents,”.
“The heroic individualism of High Renaissance art would not have served the social interests of the nuns of Santa Caterina. Theirs was a communal society, grounded in a spiritual sisterhood that transcended blood ties, whose goal of communal harmony was supported by the images the placed around them. Sour Plautilla did not work in creative isolation, as Vasari described her, but as a part of a vital artistic community that she guided.”
I prefer to think of her in the process of painting the Last Supper:
“Picture the nun in her holy garments, mixing her pigments and stepping up onto scaffolding to brush enormous strokes of paint onto a canvas taller than her and wider than a contemporary billboard. The physical undertaking would have been immense, requiring great strength, focus and discipline – to say nothing of the will required to take on this sacred subject attempted before only by the male greats.”
Pray for the Paintress.