1223 The painter & prioress of Florence

ESSAY: Pray for the Paintress: the life of Sister Plautilla Nelli (1524-1588)
by Bob Foulkes


Editor’s note: since 2019 The Ormsby Review has hosted the Graduate Liberal Studies Journal, home to many fine essays, memoirs, stories, and of course book reviews. We are delighted to have the GLS Journal under our roof and to feature the work of students — past and present — in the GLS program at Simon Fraser University. Here, Bob Foulkes of Vancouver explores the life and work of Florentine Renaissance painter and prioress Sister Plautilla Nelli (1524-1588), whose neglected paintings have recently been identified and restored. See here for Bob Foulkes’ update of October 26, 2021 of his Italian adventure. — Richard Mackie


Portrait of Plautilla Nelli, 1550s. Private collection, courtesy Wikipedia

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. It was a tumultuous time: the Italian Renaissance, profound issues facing the church in a time of political, economic and spiritual upheaval, the emergence of humanism as an intellectual challenge to christianity, the Black Plague, the disruption of established order brought on by trade and the growth of the merchant class and the rise of the powerful city states and mercantile families like the Medici. Whew, that’s a lot going on.

The Carta Della Catena, a panorama of Florence in 1490. Courtesy Museo di Firenze com’era

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 in Florence, 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 a 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.

Plautilla Nelli, The Last Supper, before restoration. Image courtesy Wikipedia
Plautilla Nelli, The Last Supper, restored and preserved at the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Image courtesy Wikipedia

In the midst of all the turmoil, the unleashing of a burst of creative artistic genius that was the Italian renaissance, this nun painted 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; her 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?

Linda Nochlin in Germany, ca. 1970

In 1971, Linda Nochlin, a prominent art historian, wrote a stunning article entitled “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” [1] “[L]ike so many other so-called questions involved in the feminist ‘controversy,’” she wrote, “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.”

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…, 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.[2]

And she continued:

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 odds 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.[3]

Nochlin’s penetratingly honest, logical, and courageous analysis set off a storm of controversy and a conversation that has not ended, and may never end. 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 while not achieving the elusive “greatness?”

Giorgio Vasari, the first art critic

Giorgio Vasari, Self-portrait. Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Sister Plautilla was identified as one of only four women artists considered worthy of note by the most famous chronicler of art at the time, Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574). A painter and architect, Vasari’s enduring legacy was “not a building or a painting but a book,” writes historian Lisa Kaborycha, but the first book attempting to chronicle and analyze art and what it took to be an artist. Indeed, Vasari’s chronicle is “a pioneering work in the field of art history … which laid the groundwork for modern art history … essential reading today.”[4]

Art Historians John Paoletti and Gary Radke affirmed this judgement, noting that 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.” They continue that 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 favourite, Michelangelo — that dominated the renaissance art period in Florence and throughout Italy. And they note the implicit bias that identified by Nochlin: “…it was difficult for most men, not just Vasari, to believe that women could be both creative and virtuous.”[5]

Vasari had written this vast sweeping chronicle of art in 1550, followed by his revised edition in 1568, which included Sister Plautilla with a short but glowing commentary. The first to include Sister Plautilla amongst distinguished artists and the first to judge her merit as an artist, Vasari writes that “… she executed some works that have amazed the artists” — high praise given the renaissance artists with whom she was being compared. And he continued: “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.” He also noted her prodigious output: “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.”[6]

Vasari, The Lives of Artists (Penguin, 1988)

As the most influential art “critic” of his time, it is hard to not take Vasari’s observations as definitive. In his world women were not allowed to be artists, much less judged as equals of their male contemporaries for their merit. Vasari understood, accepted, and took for granted the limitations and constraints on women artists, on the lives of convent nuns, and their place in the complicated interaction between the cloister and the outside world. He was 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.”

Vasari did have his biases. He presumed that women were not intellectually capable of creating a distinctive style, a “maniera” – a distinctive style — that only men who underwent rigorous training under the supervision of a master artist in a long apprenticeship could develop. He had a clear bias toward the humanist-influenced artists like Michelangelo and 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.[7]

One can also assume that Sister Plautilla would be seen as less developed than her male contemporaries because she only painted within religious themes dictated by Savonarolan principles of simplicity, piety, and spiritual clarity. It would be fair to say that Vasari saw Sister Plautilla as an artist of unfulfilled potential, incapable of developing her maniera and unworthy of being included with the greats of renaissance Florentine art.[8]

The Rediscovery of Sister Plautilla Nelli, Renaissance Artist

L-R: Restorer Rossella Lari and author and journalist Jane Fortune in front of Plautilla Nelli’s Last Supper. Photo courtesy AWA Archives

One of the consequences of Nochlin’s provocative assertion was the concerted attempt by many art historians to find 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 wanted to show the world that there were women artists worthy of consideration who had been overlooked, who could be found and revisited, and whose art could be restored and re-exhibited. They wanted women artists to be recognized, to finally be visible.

One of the most active and successful groups to undertake the search for such women artists was Advancing Women Artists (AWA), a group of predominantly American benefactors led by Jane Fortune, organized in 2007 with a specific mission to “preserve, conserve and restore works by women artists held in the museums of Florence.”[9]

Lamentation with Saints. Museo Nazionale di San Marco, Florence

Sister Plautilla, already identified by Vasari, was chosen as a major focus of AWA attention.

At the start, there were only three pieces of art attributed to Sister Plautilla known to still exist:

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.

Saint Dominic receives the Rosary, 147 cm (58 in.) by 231 cm (91 in.); restored in 2008, it is currently displayed at the Last Supper Museum of Andrea del Sarto, Florence.

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.

Saint Dominic Receives the Rosary
Saint Catherine in Prayer (or Saint Catherine Receives the Stigmata). Courtesy Wikipedia

As well, The Last Supper, the final known piece by Sister Plautilla, documented in Visible, a book that details the recovery and restoration of the painting. The restoration took four years and cost over U.S. $200,000.

Plautilla Nelli scholars and catalysts Linda Falcone and Jane Fortune. Courtesy Woman around Town

Linda Falcone, director of Advancing Women Artists, and others describe the “tormented” journey 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 in 1817 by a related monastery, Santa Maria Novella, 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 1930s, restoration work was undertaken and the painting was again hung in the refectory of Santa Maria Novella. In the 1980s it was again removed, again rolled up and put away until it was re-re-discovered by Jane Fortune.[11]

The Last Supper and Sister Plautilla restored

Sister Plautilla painted the Last Supper in the early 1560s. She signed it: “S. PLAUTILLA — ORATE PRO PICTORA” — Sister Plautilla, Pray for the Paintress.

The restoration brought to light much more about the artist and this monumental piece of renaissance devotional art. Visible 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 to be done centimetre by centimetre. The paints used by Sister Plautilla had to be carefully analyzed and matched to be re-applied to replace accurately those used in the 1560s 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, and it faithfully rendered a vibrant restoration of the original.

Portrait of Girolamo Savonarola, by Fra Bartolomeo, c. 1498. Museo di San Marco, Florence

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, his 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 many criticisms of the church hierarchy accumulated enemies. He was excommunicated, then put to death for refusing to be quiet.

Through his precepts Savonarola had a powerful positive effect that opened a space for Sister Plautilla and her convent brethren. He believed in the power of art to heighten Christian piety and devotion. Painting was encouraged and art was to be a part of the spiritual life of every convent; pictures would be commissioned and hung inside convents and monasteries. Sister Plautilla’s artistic development was encouraged because it supported her convent’s adherence to Savonarola’s admonitions that art reflect this religious austerity.[12]

The setting of her painting is austere, a simple white tablecloth, a muted background, and 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. Plautilla also embellished the menu by adding food common to the convent table.[13] 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 who viewed the painting as they ate.

Francesco di Lorenzo Rosselli, Execution of Girolamo Savonarola in Piazza della Signoria, Florence, 1498. Museo di San Marco, Florence

The curators of Visible recognized Plautilla’s thoughtful placement of Jesus and the twelve apostles, captured at the moment 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.[14]

Interestingly, Judas is prominent, isolated and unique in his placement on the near side of the table, his proximity to Jesus, and 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.

While Vasari made special mention of Sister Plautilla, her style and choice of topic were far from the vanguard of new humanist stylists that he admired. She did not use techniques that could be considered avant garde for the time. While she was most likely aware of these major transformations in art, technique, and subject matter and how to represent them, she was much influenced by the Savonarolan principles. She was also a nun — and a prioress — painting for the refectory of her home, the convent, and seeking to provide devotional encouragement to her audience, her convent nuns, as art historian Mary Garrard emphasizes:

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.[15]

Piero Nelli’s dilemma

One of the biggest challenges a father faced in 16th century Florence was what to do with his daughters. Every man carefully managed his family’s property and financial resources, there was no external safety net for him and his family. As property, daughters represented 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,” writes historian Kaborycha.[16] Piero Nelli’s daughters, as prospective brides, 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.

Dowries in sixteenth century Florence were huge, reaching especially inflated and unaffordable levels and, as Florence became richer and more cosmopolitan, the cost of trousseaus and wedding feasts also became prohibitive.

The only other credible alternative for a father who wanted to ensure his daughter lived a safe and virtuous life was the convent. Unmarried women had almost no options, working was not one of them; they were not educated for a profession, were not allowed into the guilds or apprenticeship programs that led to a trade, the only other options were to become a lady in waiting or some other sort of servant or wet nurse.

Most convents required a dowry; it was usually much smaller, payments were more flexible, and trousseaus, jewellery, 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.

There were other contributing factors to the decision to commit a daughter to the convent, not the least of which were the events of the time. Life in sixteenth century Florence was anything but safe and predictable; these were tumultuous and uncertain times, fraught with dangers for everyone but especially so for women, young and old. 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 and lived her whole life in the company of other women, all of whom had pledged themselves to a distinctive religious calling as “brides of Christ.” How did this impact her evolution as an artist?

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.[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.[18]

Variously described as a draper, a merchant, and a commercial businessman, Piero Nelli came from a family with a solid name, but he was not part of the wealthier of Florence’s merchant class. His untimely death was most likely the strongest factor in the placement of his two daughters in the convent. They became orphans with insufficient money, dowry, and social status with which to secure a significant marriage, and their best option was the convent — a local, large, and well-regarded Dominican convent conveniently located in the neighbourhood, an institution with which Piero had done business and where his name and that of his two daughters would have been known and carried some value.

Two serendipitous aspects of their placement in Santa Caterina are worth noting: 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, and Santa Caterina was a Dominican convent with a long affiliation with Savonarola, whose strong views on the importance of art opened a space for Sister Plautilla to learn and develop her gifts as an artist.

The Nun in her Cloister: Empowered or Imprisoned?

To many, becoming a nun was second best, yet marriage was not such a perfect life for women. Wives, like daughters, were property to be managed for their value. Most were perpetually pregnant and many died in childbirth at a very young age. 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; necessities like running water, plumbing, and heating were haphazard or non-existent.

Women 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 male master. While there were notable examples of women who had more agency, 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.

The growth of convents showed that a cloistered life was a welcome alternative in Florence, as historian Sharon Strochia records:

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 1330s, by 1552, about 1 in every 20 — 5 per cent — was a nun….[19]

Sister Petronilla and Sister Plautilla were part of this major realignment of Florentine society.

Nuns were much more than cloistered women who prayed. Tertiary nuns had much more open and flexible interactions with the wider society, and convents had become a major presence in all aspects of Florentine life, according to Kaborycha:

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….[20]

Convent Nuns: learning, studying, perfecting skills.

Detail of the Carta Della Catena, 1490

By 1562, Sister Plautilla’s convent housed 133 members. Their sheer size made convents vital to the health and welfare of Florence at the 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.

Nuns’ dowries often consisted not of money but of bits and pieces of property, household goods of value, buildings attached to rental income, and 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, turning convents into neighbourhood hubs and providing meeting places for confraternities. They even sued lessees for unpaid rents.

Sharon Strochia notes that convents became producers of goods and providers of services including “textile activities, book production, education … [these] depended primarily on literate and manual skills, religion and technical knowledge, and significant human capital, which convents possessed in ever greater abundance.”[21] 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 attract wealth to it. Moreover, convents were hubs of learning and manuscript/book production, and Sister Petronilla became well-known as a copyist and illustrator of religious texts, even writing a well regarded biography on Savonarola.

While outside, 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, Strochia continues, “working for the market amplified social contradictions by pitting nuns’ economic needs against gender norms, traditional values of honor and ideals of religious reclusion.”[22] Yet such work was encouraged because it provided commercial opportunities for the larger Florentine business community. Nuns’ commercial activities were also supported by their extended families because money raised by convents through these activities took pressure off the families. Monastic poverty was a real problem. Every family in Florence had a stake in ensuring that convents were self-sufficient or even prosperous since 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. Many nuns came from rich and powerful families with webs of relationships throughout the neighbourhood and city, a web of interdependent relationships that gave the convent and its prioress power: she wielded influence, her voice carried weight, her support could be influential even outside the convent walls.

How did Sister Plautilla become an artist?

It is in this greater context that 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. Again the authority here is Sharon Strochia, who records the existence of:

…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.[23]

Convent ledgers and extant records of transactions showed “virtually all Florentine nuns can be considered working women who regularly engaged in market activities,”[24] 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 canvases. 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.[25]

Sister Plautilla worked in the Convent’s pharmacy for a time and would have had access to the materials and learned the craft of grinding ingredients and making paint colours. She learned some of her painterly skills by working on small devotional items; 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 to her of the artistic papers and drawings of several Dominican friars; and was able to practise her painting skills with the encouragement of convent prioresses, who strongly encouraged painting as a way to show devotion to Christ. She also made money for the convent: according to Vasari (quoted above) 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.”[26]

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.” Convent records show sizeable financial income from the sale of pieces of art, many attributable to her, one as far away as Perugia.[27]

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.[28] Her achievement was 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. Few of her paintings still exist, and the four that survive are large religious paintings made specifically for the walls of refectories and other spaces in convents and monasteries. Given that she painted for the homes of Florentine gentlemen, her religious output is not fully representative of her body of work. The paintings that do exist seem to be painted between 1556, when Sister Plautilla was 32 years old, and 1560 or so, when she produced The Last Supper.

One of the most plausible conjectures is that, having entered the convent at 14, she rose to “sheer excellence” by being self-taught. “Thus by the time she was thirty-five years old and credited with income from the sale of paintings to outside patrons,” notes art historian Catherine Turrill, “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.”[29]

This aspect of Sister Plautilla’s distinctive 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 artist group was first noted by Serafino Razzi, himself a Dominican friar, whose sister was a nun-artist at Santa Caterina. He cited three nuns by name and noted that “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.”[30] One of them, 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. Eight women are known to have participated in the production of paintings, sculpture, and other religious icons. Razzi noted that “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.”[31]

Sister Plautilla the Prioress

Detail of the Carta Della Catena, 1490

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, ranging from mundane issues from the daily challenges of food and rooming, heating and plumbing, work assignments, and spiritual training, to the larger more complex issues of ensuring that the restrictions of edicts arising from the Council of Trent (1545-1563) did not destroy the financial stability of the convent, limit the contact of nuns with family, friends, community, and even the broader state. The convent succeeded during her lifetime, Strochia notes. “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.”[32]

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. The edicts were driven by higher powers in the church system, all men, who sought to restrict nuns to the cloister and control their 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 the convent, and limit their contact with the outside world.

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. Convents were reluctant to give it up. Sister Plautilla and her fellow artists in the convent had 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.[33]

Was Sister Plautilla a great Artist?

Vasari said no. She was a woman, and she had not been formally trained in a workshop under the tutelage of a great artist.

Vasari, Lives of the Artists (Penguin, 1974)

She had not developed a distinctive style, a maniera; she was stuck in the old ways of religious devotional art, and she had not evolved to keep pace with Vasari’s favourite, Michelangelo. She simply did not fit the criteria for greatness that he had established in 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 and must be done with scholarly caution; and our judgment is based on the few canvases that still exist, a tiny portion of her artistic output. Yet, to Vasari’s credit, he praised her lavishly.

Sister Plautilla Nelli is a perfect example of Nochlin’s thesis that women, until very recently, cannot be great artists because 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. Nochlin does, however, leave space for Sister Plautilla to be celebrated. She is the representative icon that Nochlin celebrates: the miracle who managed to achieve so much sheer excellence in spite of the obstacles.

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, the inflexibility of his tests, and his unwillingness to acknowledge his bias. It is hard not to agree with her.

She 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 engage in 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” and 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 artists, getting to know patrons, even forging a mutual respect with Vasari himself.

She had a lifetime to focus solely on developing her skills with access to the greatest artists’ works from which to draw inspiration. She inhabited a window in time where she had the two things denied women, most 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 practice, experiment, and develop her art. Convent life provided the basic provisions of life that enabled her to focus on her art and not worry about finding food, paying rent, serving a husband, or minding children. Far from a sinecure at a famous artists’ academy, 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 also organized, energetic, focused, and diligent in perfecting those talents. Nochlin is right that achieving greatness may be impossible when the deck is so stacked against one, but her sheer excellence demands to be recognized on its own grounds and for the barriers she overcame and for what she accomplished.

Sister Plautilla also 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. She helped harness the collective creative process of the nuns who pursued art in her convent, as Mary Garrard notes:

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 they 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.[34]

Along with art journalist Nicky Lobo, I like to imagine 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.[35]

Sister Plautilla has gifted the world four large and lasting 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 to producing large pieces. She sold paintings to patrons while working in direct competition with the most gifted artists ever to populate a single city at a unique moment in the development of artistic excellence. She is an artist whose reputation and achievement will only grow with time.


Bob Foulkes

The Graduate Liberal Studies program at SFU has become Bob Foulkes’s latest adventure and self-administered antidote to the perils of the pandemic lockdown. He is a retired business executive, running away from boredom and restlessness and making up for lost time by stuffing as many adventures into his awake time as possible. He has written two books, Adventures with Knives, chronicling his attempt at culinary education at Granville Island’s Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts, and Off the Couch and Out the Door, a story of travel adventures and misadventures. He now blogs intermittently. Editor’s note: Bob Foulkes has also contributed an essay, Anne Carson: Ambiguity, Uncertainty, Ecstasy, as well as “Letters from the Pandemic 4: Dear Diary,” to The Ormsby Review. Bob will soon (Fall 2021) be in Florence to view Sister Plautilla Nelli’s paintings and sites first-hand. See here for his update.


The Ormsby Review. More Books. More Reviews. More Often.

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of B.C. books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster


[1] Linda Nochlin, “From 1971: Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” reprinted in ARTnews, May 30, 2015, p. 2.

[2] Nochlin, p. 7.

[3] Nochlin, p. 5.

[4] Lisa Kaborycha, A Short History of Renaissance Italy (Boston: Prentice Hall, 2011), p. 253.

[5] John T. Paoletti and Gary M. Radke, Art in Renaissance Italy, 2nd ed., (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2002), pp. 23-25.

[6] Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Most Excellent Painters. Sculptors, and Architects, 1568, quoted in Jonathon K. Nelson, ed, Suor Plautilla Nelli (1523-1588): The First Woman Painter of Florence (Florence: Edizioni Cadmo, 1999), pp. 132-33.

[7] Paoletti and Radke, pp. 25-27.

[8] Sally Quin cited in Jonathan K. Nelson, ed, Plautilla Nelli, the Painter-Prioress of Renaissance Florence (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2008), pp. 45-52.

[9] Jane Fortune in Nelson, Plautilla, p. viii.

[10] “Saint Catherine in Prayer,” Advancing Women Artists,


[11] Linda Falcone, ed. Visible. Plautilla Nelli and her Last Supper Restored (Florence: Florentine Press, 2019), pp. 24-34.

[12] Falcone, p. 60.

[13] Falcone pp. 64-72.

[14] Falcone, p. 60.

[15] Mary G. Garrard, “Repositioning Plautilla Nelli’s Lamentation,” Essay, in Conversations: An Online Journal of the Center for the Study of Material and Visual Cultures of Religion (2014): doi:10.223322/con.ess.2014.1.

[16] Kaborycha, p. 88.

[17] Sharon T. Strochia, Nuns and Nunneries in Renaissance Florence (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), p. 412.

[18] Catherine Turrill in Nelson, Plautilla, pp. 10-11.

[19] Strochia in Nuns and Nunneries, p. xxii.

[20] Kaborycha in Nelson, Plautilla, p. 92.

[21] Strochia, p. 113.

[22] Strochia, pp. 75-80.

[23] Strochia, pp. 150-151.

[24] Strochia, pp. 150-151.

[25] Vasari quoted in Nelson, Plautilla, pp. 132-133.

[26] Vasari quoted in Nelson, Plautilla, p. 133.

[27] Serafino Razzi in Nelson, Suor Plautilla Nelli, p. 135.

[28] Andrea Muzzi in Nelson, Plautilla, pp. 30-34

[29] Turrill in Nelson, Plautilla, p.13.

[30] Razzi in Nelson, Suor Plautilla Nelli, p. 135.

[31] Razzi in Nelson, Suor Plautilla Nelli, p. 135.

[32] Strochia, Nuns and Nunnerties, p. 110.

[33] Strochia, in Nelson, Plautilla, pp. 186 -188.

[34] G. Garrard, “Repositioning Plautilla Nelli’s Lamentation,” Essay, in Conversations: An Online Journal of the Center for the Study of Material and Visual Cultures of Religion (2014): doi:10.223322/con.ess.2014.1.

[35] Nicky Lobo, “How a lost painting restored an artist nun to her place in history,” Financial Review, May 31, 2019

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