Advancing Women Artists: #TheFirstLast Campaign & Linda Falcone Interview

10th April, 2017

Almost 16 million tourists pervade Florence's cobbled streets each year, the vast majority of whom instantly gravitate towards the abundance of well-recognised Renaissance works on display; from the staggering grandeur of Michelangelo's David to the diaphanous figures of Botticelli's Primavera. No one could doubt their international reverence is well founded. Nevertheless, amidst this continual exaltation of masterful male artists, what of their female contemporaries whose magna opera have been left obscured from public view for centuries?

Over the course of ten remarkably-prolific, deservedly-acclaimed years, Advancing Women Artists - a Florentine-American foundation - has trail-blazed through unchartered territory in its mission to unveil the Tuscan capital's forgotten female artists. Having unearthed over 2,000 prized paintings, drawings and sculptures since formation, its latest mission, dubbed #TheFirstLast, strives to restore Plautilla Nelli's Last Supper to its former glory - a campaign that hits especially close to home, given Nelli's role as the artist who first inspired AWA's inception.

[Plautilla Nelli, Lamentation with Saints, Museo di San Marco, restored by AWA]

[Plautilla Nelli, Lamentation with Saints, Museo di San Marco, restored by AWA]

During a visit to the Museo di San Marco almost twelve years ago, AWA founder Dr. Fortune encountered Nelli's Lamentation with Saints and was deeply struck - both by the latter's emotive painting and by her status as the first documented woman artist of Florence. This discovery led her to question just how many other works by female painters have been concealed from history, whether hanging on museum walls or - more often than not - lying unpreserved in storage vaults? Since commencing this groundbreaking quest, 40 works have been fully restored by the foundation (including Lamentation with Saints), whilst Fortune has garnered considerable praise for her collection of writings on the city's historic women artists. One such publishing, 2009's Invisible Women: Forgotten Artists of Florence, catapulted AWA's recognition to unprecedented heights - culminating in an Emmy-award-winning documentary released in 2013.

In the face of invariable domination by men in the arts - certainly not due to greater aptitude or innovation by the latter, but due to numerous obstacles imposed on women - Nelli showed incredible tenacity, boundless imagination and, above all, intrinsic talent. Having worked as a convent-painter during the 16th century, her skill-set was entirely self-taught, reflecting that formal education and apprenticeship was a privilege reserved for men. Upon honing her craft using paintings and drawings, she began to sell her artworks and enjoyed soaring success - thus prompting her to set up an artistic workshop for the benefit of her sisters and, given the sizeable income it brought in, the convent as a whole. Nelli's courageous breaking of convention - coupled with the unique, mystic attributes of her craftsmanship - saw her paintings housed in myriad wealthy households, as stated in Giorgio Vasari's famous Lives of the Artists "biographies" : "There were so many of her paintings in the houses of gentlemen in Florence, it would be tedious to mention them all." 

AWA - "In this detail of the left side of the painting, the restorer has removed the varnish and in-painting to reveal the artist's own color choices and brushstrokes. It looks "ruined" but it is on its way to recovery."

AWA - "In this detail of the left side of the painting, the restorer has removed the varnish and in-painting to reveal the artist's own color choices and brushstrokes. It looks "ruined" but it is on its way to recovery."

A number of visually-arresting elements characterise Nelli's work. Her recurring depiction of tear-shedding women displays an emotional capacity that could well transcend that of her lauded male peers. Moreover, her detailed creation of large-scale paintings - another mould-breaking feature in her career - is no better evidenced than in her 21-foot-long "Last Supper", the largest work of art by an early modern woman and the first Last Supper to be brought to life by a female artist. Since #TheFirstLast campaign made its official launch on the 1st of March, the Uffizi Galleries have celebrated International Women's Day with the opening of Plautilla Nelli: Convent Art and Devotion in the Footsteps of Savonarola, a major showcase of her life and legacy as the first of many women artists to surpass gender bias and find success in Florence. The exhibition inaugurates the Uffizi's long-term plans to catapult historic female artists to the platform they have long deserved - a overture that would not have been realised without the industrious undertakings of Advancing Women Artists.

With #TheFirstLast heading into its final week of crowdfunding - and with public support in greater need than ever before - I spoke with AWA's insightful director (and alongside Fortune, a modern-day female visionary) Linda Falcone on the importance of connecting art enthusiasts of the present with women artists of the past:

Having grown up in a bi-cultural, Californian household, do you remember any definitive moments that triggered your love of language - both in your formative years and in nearly two decades of residing in Italy?

I have a favorite great aunt who learned to read at the age of 70. She is Venetian and uses more colorful language than anyone I know. To her, a small person is a ‘coffee-pot’ and a wealthy person is someone ‘who puts dollars in their sandwich instead of salami’.  She came into our family as my mother’s nanny at the age of 16 and has been with our family for 74 years now. We are no blood relation, but I inherited my love of language from her. She's the fastest cure for writer’s block there ever was!

When/how did you first cross paths with Jane, and what spurred you on to join the Advancing Women Artists Foundation?

I met Jane Fortune in her role as Culture Editor of The Florentine, when I was the paper’s Managing Editor. She needed someone to liaison with museum directors whilst supporting the restoration of art by women. This was before AWA was founded. Then I edited Jane’s first book, To Florence, Con Amore. And it is indeed her ‘amore’ for Florence that has inspired me, even in early days. I am a story-teller who is interested in uncovering hidden stories. One day, I hope to see Jane’s experience with AWA in print for all the world to share as well.  

[Jane Fortune looking at a Lunette painted by Plautilla Nelli at the San Salvi museum in Florence]

[Jane Fortune looking at a Lunette painted by Plautilla Nelli at the San Salvi museum in Florence]

What has been the greatest surprise (pleasant or otherwise!), the largest (if eventually surmountable) obstacle, and the most fulfilling moment you’ve experienced in little under ten years of working with Advancing Women Artists?

The greatest challenge is helping people understand that art by women must be salvaged. We are not interested in claiming that every work of art by a woman is a ‘masterpiece’. What we do insist upon is that women have been producing art for more than 5 centuries in Florence and their work deserves to be protected and it deserves to be seen. Maybe people still say that art by women are of ‘inferior quality’ compared to that of their male counterparts. It is not my job to prove or disprove that concept. But the question we really need to ask is: “Why?” How did the experience of women artists in history influence their production? That is the question we need to be asking! In the Florence context, exhibition is the greatest obstacle. AWA insists upon exhibition of the works it restores. To want to protect something, you must first love it. And to love it, you must first see it.

The most fulfilling moment of every project is seeing women of the present create a connection with women artists of the past. Our projects spotlight restoration as a tool for discovering an artist. But then you actually have to rediscover her!

Scholars seek out birth certificates and archival records, conservators study brushstrokes, art historians visit palaces and monasteries in search of these women’s works. Photographers and video-makers immortalize these women with their images. I am in charge of the content AWA releases to the world: overseeing research projects, editing or writing publications or acting as production consultant for our documentary shorts. To see the story come to life is what excites me most. These historic women often come to us with only ‘their art’ to their name. We work to recapture their whole story. And their stories deeply change all those who have a hand in making this happen.  

Saint Catherine With A Lily, Restored by AWA in 2013

Saint Catherine With A Lily, Restored by AWA in 2013

Having garnered insight into multiple third-level institutions from your lecturing across various university programmes, have you seen any change in how Florentine colleges discuss and spotlight women in the arts compared to the years preceding AWA?

One of the most important things that AWA has done over the past 10 years is document all of its restorations with photographs and video. It may seem trivial but these things are of utmost importance. When we started, many of these women’s works had never been the subject of a full-scale photography campaign. Scholars had no access to photos. Neither did professors or authors or art-lovers. I believe that AWA’s efforts have made many recent studies on art by women possible—from the undergraduate essay, to the graduate thesis, to original research by the professional scholar. We are interested in making these women’s voices heard. And that process largely begins with higher education.

Nelli's Last Supper - tedious restoration in progress. Upon assessing the artwork's condition, Florentine Conservator Rossella Lari has estimated that it will take her 1750 hours - over 2 years - to do this work.

Nelli's Last Supper - tedious restoration in progress. Upon assessing the artwork's condition, Florentine Conservator Rossella Lari has estimated that it will take her 1750 hours - over 2 years - to do this work.

In a twist on the #5WomenArtists challenge - and given your passion for the written word - can you name 5 female art historians whose work you admire?

Sheila Barker. Her original research on Artemisia is groundbreaking and fundamental. Catherine Turrill. She has dedicated decades to the rediscovery of Nelli’s oeuvre, including her recent discover of Nelli’s Annunciation at the Palazzo Vecchio. Mary Garrard. She’s a giant of feminist theory and a wonderful human being. Adelina Modesti. She’s an Australian scholar who has authored fascinating scholarship on Elisabetta Sirani. Angela Oberer, a German scholar based in Florence whose book Rosalba and her sisters is a must-read.

(This pre-restoration image shows the grimy yellow varnish that was used to cover the painting's fine details, and the in-painting added centuries ago where original paint is lost.)

(This pre-restoration image shows the grimy yellow varnish that was used to cover the painting's fine details, and the in-painting added centuries ago where original paint is lost.)

What characteristics of Plautilla Nelli and her groundbreaking role in a male-dominated creative era have you found most inspirational?

Scholars believe that nun artists like Nelli had to ‘downplay’ her technical skills to respond to the tastes of the time. Florentine noblemen believed that naïf works by religious women had spiritual qualities and were imbued with values like humility and poverty. I am fascinated with the idea of women downplaying their talents to be pleasing. Yet, Nelli signed her masterwork, an unheard of gesture in her era. I love how she wrote ‘Pray for the Paintress’ on her Last Supper. And our work with TheFirstLast has made me believe that she’s talking to us!

What would you say to those newly discovering AWA and #TheFirstLast campaign to encourage them to get involved?

I’d say that even a small gesture of giving to restore a 21-foot long painting is a BIG statement. This project MUST be a success, because it represents the commitment to reclaim the role of women in art history. It is not enough to be interested in the project. We chose the crowd-funding option so that Nelli’s work might truly become part of the collective consciousness. Each of us can restore a centimeter of her most significant painting. And then it will truly be ours!

Following a hugely-acclaimed first decade, what do you hope to achieve in the next ten years of Advancing Women Artists?

I’d like to see paintings and sculptures by women come out of storage, one work at a time. That was our initial goal and that goal is still paramount. We are at 40 and counting. I’d like to see AWA’s mission expand to other areas. We began with Florence and have started to work in the whole of Tuscany. From there, I am sure, we will continue to grow. The more work you do, the more work remains to be done!

While the greatest reward of donating to #TheFirstLast is to aid restoring this indispensable part of Florentine culture - and the rich heritage of talented women artists, for the benefit of Florence and far beyond - a multitude of additional "perks" are also on offer for donators. It couldn't be more fitting that a number of Florence's greatly-talented artisans have crafted exclusive offerings, from the Nerdi Orafi Firenze goldsmiths to the bespoke perfumery of Aqua Flor Firenze, while a collection of extra experiences is also available. Click "here" to get involved - many more insights on Plautilla Nelli and the ever-evolving world of AWA are waiting to be discovered.

Amelia ~

La Femme Éclectique