Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 25, 2000
Jonathan Nelson Suor Plautilla Nelli (1523–1588): The First Woman Painter of Florence Florence: Edizioni Cadmo, 1999. 140 pp.; 4 color ills.; 10 b/w ills. Cloth $12.95 (8879232150)

“Why were there no great women artists?” pondered Linda Nochlin in 1971. Since that famous query, art historians have unearthed many talented women artists, while simultaneously challenging the criteria by which we evaluate their works. This volume of eight essays contributes to that ongoing excavation and reassessment in several important ways. The essays document the life, works, and influence of a little-known female painter in sixteenth-century Florence, the Dominican nun-artist Suor Plautilla Nelli. Although her extant corpus is small—only four large paintings can be securely attributed to her hand—Nelli gained initial fame as one of Vasari’s biographical subjects. Following that promising start, however, Nelli’s critical fortunes declined. The new research presented here by historians and art historians restores Nelli to her rightful place beside her more celebrated contemporaries Lavinia Fontana, Sofonisba Anguissola, and Properzia de’ Rossi.

In focusing on this nun-artist, the volume both enlarges our fund of knowledge about women artists and signals a maturation of the feminist project. Nelli’s religious status and her choice of conventional religious matter made her an unappealing subject during the first waves of feminist scholarship. Rather than rehabilitating her reputation, these essays instead present Nelli in all of her glorious complexity: as a nun-artist of considerable skill, hampered by certain technical deficiencies, limited in her training, yet still able to develop a thriving workshop patronized by a large, varied clientele. The authors neither heroize Nelli’s achievements nor apologize for her shortcomings.

The essays go well beyond the scope of simple biography in reconstructing Nelli’s life and works. They direct critical attention to the relationship between monumental and mass-produced images, both in the Renaissance artistic canon and in the burgeoning art market of sixteenth-century Italy. We learn about the nature of artistic practices and identities in convent workshops, about shrinking social networks and the economic implications of enclosure after the Council of Trent, and about the rich, interdisciplinary cross-trafficking that results from shared methods and standpoints. Whether Nelli can lay secure claim to the title “first woman painter” of Florence remains an open question. But surely she is the first female artist working in the heady yet disabling environment of Renaissance Florence for whom we have much more than a name.

The volume contains the revised proceedings of a symposium held at the Florentine campuses of Georgetown and Syracuse University in May 1998, organized by Jonathan Nelson. The essays bear marks of their origins as conference papers in their brevity. Offsetting this deficit is an exceptional degree of cohesion between essays that make the volume more than the sum of its parts. Nelson traces the plot lines of Nelli’s critical fortunes, and gives a brief overview of the volume. Gary Radke follows with a short summary of current knowledge about the “Nun Artist in Historical Context,” with very helpful bibliographical references.

The first substantive essay, Olwen Hufton’s “The Nun’s Story,” is a magisterial examination of general historical themes and circumstances bearing on Nelli’s life. Hufton deftly sketches how initial interpretations of the convent as creative refuge—"the notion of the cell as a room of one’s own"—have ceded to the recognition that “the convent was a highly mediated space” (21). Hufton counters the view that the Counter Reformation invariably introduced debilitating restraints. Instead she proposes a more contextualized understanding that poses the experience of one generation of religious women against that of another, while remaining alive to the diversity of religious life within the same cohorts. The enforcement of enclosure after Trent negatively impacted certain creative activities like painting and sculpture, since demand for images depended on expansive, extramural relationships with patrons and dealers. By contrast, more private pursuits like writing and copying were less threatened by Tridentine decrees. Hufton’s observations help us understand how and why Nelli enjoyed a singular creative opening that others could not.

Andrea Muzzi’s article, “The Formation of Plautilla Nelli ‘dipintora’: Artistic ‘Dilettantismo’ and Savonarola’s Ideas in the Convent,” focuses on Nelli’s artistic training and stylistic connections with other Dominican painters. He argues that artists like Fra Bartolomeo and Fra Paolino exerted little impact on her style or training, but instead influenced Nelli in terms of Savonarolan ideology. Muzzi notes the brusque stylistic passages between volumes and uncertainties in construction that characterize her work. These stylistic features suggest that Nelli never studied in a traditional workshop, as did other women painters like Fontana, who was trained by her artist father. Muzzi proposes that we understand Nelli as a dilettante: not in the modern pejorative sense, but rather in the sixteenth-century meaning of a dedicated amateur who practiced art as a means to intellectual or spiritual improvement. However, this categorization cannot be sustained in view of the subsequent essays, which document Nelli’s profound commitment to artistic pursuits.

Ann Roberts follows with a sensitive examination of “Plautilla Nelli’s Last Supper and the Tradition of Dominican Refectory Decorations.” Painted in the 1550s, this large image was intended from the outset to decorate the refectory of Nelli’s own convent. We thus have an unusual opportunity to analyze a religious image painted by a nun for her own group. In the symbolic space of the refectory, Nelli and her sisters forged a stronger sense of community, partook of common sustenance, and refreshed their spiritual devotions. Roberts illuminates how the painting may have related to the specific food practices found in Observant communities like Santa Caterina, where the danger was excessive fasting, not excessive consumption. Nelli’s Last Supper is distinctive in its depiction of items not ordinarily found in such images: two bowls of greens, a local Florentine bean dish, and salt cellars. These details drawn from everyday life reflect Nelli’s observations of her own environment. Roberts argues intriguingly that the particular combination of foods represented also evokes a Passover seder, whose liturgical form would have been known to Nelli. To the audience of nuns gathered in refectory, this painting must have been vibrant with local as well as universal meanings. The primitive simplicity and frequent communion prescribed by Savonarolan texts harmonized with the Apostolic celebration of Passover, projecting the nuns’ own inclusion among Christ’s chosen.

Caroline Murphy takes up the question of how Nelli negotiated an artistic career in her essay, “Plautilla Nelli, Between Cloister and Client: A Study in Negotiation.” Murphy attempts to determine the identity of Nelli’s patrons, why they chose her work, and how she negotiated with them. Using the clues provided by Vasari’s biography, she traces the top layer of Nelli’s clientele to several well-born, pious women, who often were related to Nelli and her sisters through kinship or friendship. Although Murphy’s reconstruction of these networks is limited, she argues effectively that it was the densely interwoven relationships binding secular and monastic families that generated contacts and clients for Nelli.

A deeply researched, insightful investigation of the monastic matrix in which Nelli worked is provided by Silvia Evangelisti in “Art and the Advent of Clausura: The Convent of Saint Catherine of Siena in Tridentine Florence.” Evangelisti focuses on how crucial reforms implemented between 1545 and 1575 redefined the convent’s social position and physical space. She documents the progressive steps begun in 1545 by Duke Cosimo’s reformatio monasteriorum, through the papal orders of 1575 imposing strict cloister that pushed the convent “from chosen reclusion to unwanted clausura” (69). Prior to these reforms, the approximately one hundred inhabitants conformed to the status of professed nuns while remaining exempt from enclosure, thus maintaining an active life-model that included access to a surprisingly large circle of art dealers. Evangelisti analyzes how reform not only limited nuns’ physical movements: it also challenged the community’s self-perception as women being capable of self-governance; and it undermined the convent’s network of relations with patrons, leading to diminished financial support. Despite staunch resistance, after 1575 the nuns, by necessity, turned their artistic talents inward, contributing to the architectural and decorative changes that redefined their cloistered space. Evangelisti perceptively notes how, prior to clausura, nuns’ artistic production helped them access the outside world from which they were physically isolated; after the imposition of enclosure, art works represented one strategy nuns adopted to take possession of the space in which they spent their whole lives.

The final, richly developed essay by Catherine Turrill, titled “Compagnie and Discepole: The Presence of Other Women Artists at Santa Caterina da Siena,” examines Nelli’s artistic legacy. Turrill situates Nelli’s work in the full breadth of her convent’s artistic enterprise, which went well beyond the periodic production of altarpieces. The nuns of Santa Caterina staffed a thriving workshop as artists, artisans, and administrators. They made dozens of terracotta sculptures of angels and devotional figurines, as well as hundreds of humbler images in paper, plaster, or papier-mâché. They painted candles, refurbished crucifixes, and renovated other liturgical items to generate much-needed income. Nelli was only the first in a long line of nun-artists at Santa Caterina, albeit the most prominent. After her death, Nelli’s companions and disciples sustained the tradition of fine art production she introduced, although enclosure significantly hampered marketing. Turrill extends her reconstruction of Nelli’s works in Appendix I, a valuable preliminary catalogue of her paintings. Appendix II reproduces five early sources relating to Nelli and her convent, designed primarily for scholars of the period. The final appendix by Stefano Francolini briefly recounts some technical aspects involved in restoring Nelli’s Last Supper. Despite its slender proportions, this volume makes a robust contribution to our knowledge of a singular nun-artist and her compatriots that will be welcome to Renaissance scholars and survey lecturers alike.

Sharon T. Strocchia
Department of History, Emory University