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The Last Supper by Plautilla Nelli: a female painter in the Renaissance

One of the greatest works of art created by a woman in the Renaissance has recently been restored: the last Supper by Sister Plautilla Nelli (1524-1588), painted in the mid-16th century. A four-years restoration, funded through a crowdfunding campaign by AWA (Advancing Women Artists Foundation) and carried out by Rossella Lari, which has finally allowed  the work to be displayed once again in the refectory of the Museum of Santa Maria Novella.

Born of a wealthy family with the name of Polissena Margherita Nelli, in 1538, she was forced by her family to enter a convent, known back then as the convent of Santa Caterinada Siena in Via Larga (today Via Cavour). Taking the veil, at the age of 14, Polissena became Sister Plautilla, only woman to be recognized as a Renaissance artist in all respects. 

As a nun, she was unable to perfect her studies of human anatomy, since she was not allowed to paint a live male model. Therefore, she had to look at existing artworks, in particular drawings by Frà Bartolomeo, heir of Beato Angelico, that along with the works of Perugino and Andrea del Sarto, greatly influenced the style of Plautilla. 

It seems that to overcome this impossibility of studying the male nude, in order to reproduce the Christ in her paintings, Plautilla had to content herself with studying the anatomy of the body of a deceased nun. The other nuns did not fail to comment on this practice with sarcasm, saying that Plautilla, in the place of Christ, made "female Christs". 

It does not surprise then, the feminine appearance of the apostles painted by Plautilla. Her Last Supper is a huge 7 meters canvas, populated by life-size figures, rendered with wide brushstrokes typical of Nelli's painterly style. The movements and gestures of the apostle, delicate and feminine, accompany the emotions expressed by their faces, and every detail is treated with great skill. 

To complete this huge art piece she had the help of some of her sisters, having set up a real all-women workshop within the convent. A very active workshop - so much so that it was mentioned by Vasari in his "The Lives" – that made the nuns economically independent thanks to the selling of paintings commissioned by Florentine nobles. 

 

It is true that the Art world, was a purely men's world, where women could not find a place. This doesn’t mean that women were not actually active in the art field, working on the sidelines, and very much capable of creating artworks of great beauty.

Plautilla Nelli has demonstrated this, painting a spectacular Last Supper, unique in its kind, and defying all social conventions that viewed this as a theme depicted only by established artists, at the height of their careers. 

If this is what a humble nun has succeeded in creating as a self-taught painter, we can only imagine what she could have done if only she had been able to benefit from a complete and thorough education like her male colleagues. Most certainly, by now museums would be even richer in marvelous works of art to fall in love with.

 

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