Brushing Off the Dust on Women’s Artworks, in Florence

By Cheryl Pappas
March 18, 2013
Suor Plautilla Nelli, Lamentation with Saints, 16th century. Oil on canvas. Museo di San Marco.

For our copy editor Cheryl Pappas, exhibition and magazine text is her 9 to 5, but her work for the arts goes beyond that. Here Cheryl shares the story of the Advancing Women Artists Foundation (AWA), an organization she has proudly worked for over the years.

They call her “Indiana Jane.”

Dr. Jane Fortune, who lives in both Indianapolis, Indiana, and Florence, Italy, is on a mission: to rescue works of art by women that have been hidden in the storage houses of museums in Florence—a city long associated with masterful (male) artists.

She heard the call to find works by “forgotten” women artists when she, with help from the Florence Committee of National Museum of Women in the Arts, funded the restoration of a painting by a self-taught 16th-century nun, Suor Plautilla Nelli, who is considered the first woman painter of Florence. When Fortune saw the figures in Lamentation with Saints come to life in the midst of its restoration, she was moved, especially by the women in the painting: “Their tear drops became visible and their emotion touched me. It was then that I knew—Plautilla Nelli deserves to be discovered, studied, and appreciated. I will do all I can to rediscover and protect the works of this incredible woman artist and others like her, who have yet to get their proper due.”

And she is doing just that. Since taking part in the Lamentation with Saints project, AWA has helped fund the restoration efforts and exhibition of Nelli’s lunettes Saint Catherine in Prayer and Saint Domenic Receives the Rosary, which had been languishing in storage for three centuries. AWA has also brought to light other women’s artworks, including Artemisia Gentileschi’s David and Bathsheba and, most recently, Irene Parenti Duclos’s Copy of Andrea del Sarto’s Madonna del Sacco.

Through its restoration efforts, publications, lecture series, and documentaries—including a PBS special that was recently awarded an Emmy—AWA is succeeding in revealing a once invisible world of art.

See details about the restoration of Nelli’s lunettes Saint Catherine in Prayer and Saint Domenic Receives the Rosary.

Watch the unveiling ceremony of Nelli’s Lamentation with Saints at the Museo di San Marco.