Trailblazers of Past & Present: Dr. Jane Fortune Interview // Plautilla Nelli Feature

30th May, 2017

Whether traversing through museum collections or perusing the contents of imagery-enriched textbooks, there lies a deep-rooted magnetism in the historic works of female artists. Cutting through a sea of long-regaled male painters, sculptors and illustrators, their allure covers multiple facets; from the unparalleled scale of their emotional portraits to the empowering triumphs present in each woman artist's backstory.

This statement couldn't be verified more readily than within the cultural depths of Florence's heritage. As recently illustrated, the female protagonist who first sparked recognition for the city's women artists is Suor Plautilla Nelli - a 16th-century convent painter who seamlessly coupled her innate creativity with entrepreneurial flair. Cleverly transcending barriers imposed by Renaissance patriarchy, her self-taught artistic mastery brought notable prosperity to her convent - and, through her inventive workshops, new skill-sets to her fellow sisters. Nelli's skyrocketing success - leading her ample selection of artworks to be acquired by countless Medici-era residences - is an incredible story to behold. Nevertheless, it must be said that the hugely-talented woman who has spearheaded Nelli's 21st-century revival merits equal cause for celebration.

[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]

A bona-fide pioneer in art preservation, creative female progressions and humanitarian accomplishments, Dr. Jane Fortune founded her groundbreaking initiative Advancing Women Artists little over ten years ago. Spurred on by an eye-opening encounter with Nelli's emotive "Lamentation With Saints" - which was later restored to its former glory by AWA - Fortune dived straight into a tireless quest to both safeguard and spotlight the works of Florence's forgotten female artists. Coupled with this game-changing work, her copious philanthropic feats stretch across both Italy and the US, while the last number of years have seen her undertake advisory roles on some of the best-regarded museum boards (including Washington DC's National Museum of Women in the Arts, the only major museum across the globe to showcase exclusively female works). Working alongside a forward-thinking team that encompasses restorers, researchers and AWA's brilliant director Linda Falcone, a staggering 2,000+ paintings, drawings and sculptures have been uncovered since the foundation's inception. In tandem with these unrivalled advancements, Fortune has garnered significant acclaim for her insightful publishings on Florence's historic female artists. Undoubtedly the best-recognised of these is her 2009 Invisible Women: Forgotten Artists of Florence, a bi-lingual voyage through the city's mould-breaking women artists and their hundreds of works previously concealed from public view. The internationally-renowned book saw AWA's visibility soar, and came to a crescendo with an Emmy-award-winning documentary released in 2013.

The foundation's most recent campaign, #TheFirstLast, marked a benevolent mission to fully restore Nelli's Last Supper - a masterful, 21-foot-long artwork credited both as the largest painting by an early modern woman and the first Last Supper to be brought to life by a female artist. Akin to the restoration crusades that preceded it, a substantial number of art enthusiasts got involved in making #TheFirstLast's positive conclusion a reality - with 103% of the campaign funded as its final moments drew to a close. AWA's evolution has directly caused a number of state museums dust off their woman-artist archives; but none more visibly than the Uffizi, with whom AWA has conceived a long-standing collaboration.

[Saint Catherine With A Lily - Plautilla Nelli]

[Saint Catherine With A Lily - Plautilla Nelli]

The first exhibition to have spawned from this partnership is, fittingly, a major Nelli retrospective. Entitled Convent Art and Devotion in the Footsteps of Savonarola, its visual exploration of her paintings' defining characteristics - from their striking depiction of tear-shedding figures to their impressively large scale, unforeseen in the works of Renaissance women artists - enjoyed a monumental reception during the official launch on International Women's Day. In the wake of #TheFirstLast's resounding success - and with several days left before Nelli's Uffizi exhibition wraps up this Sunday - I spoke with Fortune on her unabiding love for Florence, the life-changing museum tour that spawned Advancing Women Artist's inception and the transformative act of bringing historic female artists to life in contemporary society:

When was your passion for history of art first sparked, and when did your discovery of the striking lack of documented women artists first occur?

I studied in Florence my junior year in college. I had taken art history courses without ever coming across a female artist in our required reading. I left Florence when I was twenty years old knowing that someday I would come back to the city and to my best ‘give back’ for all it had given me. I would never have imagined that ‘rescuing art by women’ would be my connection with Florence later in life! While touring through the San Marco Museum in 2005, the venue’s director showed us a painting by Plautilla Nelli. I fell in love and wondered why her name was so unknown even though she was the first woman artist of Florence. If Florentines were unfamiliar with their first female painter, how many others came after her that had been lost? That question began my quest. 

With #TheFirstLast campaign being such a success, how impactful a role has Plautilla Nelli played in the lifespan of Advancing Women Artists - from your initial days to now?

Nelli is our guiding force and she always has been. Her paintings, like The Last Supper are very powerful from an emotional standpoint. Her smaller paintings, used for devotional purposes, were like spiritual relics during her time. Yet, she was also an entrepreneur who taught other women and started a full-scale Renaissance workshop within the walls of her convent. These nuns were self-sufficient thanks to Nelli. She signed her Last Supper (a very rare gesture in the 1500s) and included the words ‘Pray for the Paintress’. That is Nelli talking to us today! She started a conversation with her viewers that I feel is still going on 450 years later: “Pray for the paintress—there are women on the art scene too!” AWA is set on finding the stories of historic women artists who had a relationship with Florence we do our best to bring their art to life as we restore it. 

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

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

In recent years, have any second or third-level institutions stood out to you (whether in Florence/Europe as a whole, the US or beyond) that have made strides to better highlight the existence of historic female artists to their students?

I believe there is a growing interest in art by women at the university level all over the world. Syracuse University is one of our long-time friends in Florence and we often partner with them for cultural events (like our annual ‘Women Artists and Wikipedia Marathon'). They are very supportive of AWA and have a dynamic art history and gender studies program that does, in fact, highlight these issues. It is a trend we are likely to see more of in the near future. At least that is my hope!

With the online #5WomenArtists initiative enjoying countless postings across social media - created by the National Museum of Women in the Arts which, to say the least, you were once heavily involved with - can you name 5 Women Artists in history and 5 Women Artists in contemporary society that have inspired you the most?

I am a collector of art by women and admire many wonderful contemporary artists whose works are worthy of mention: Audrey Flack, Judy Chicago, Maya Lin, Maya Campo Pons and Daniela De Lorenzo—are five that first come to mind. In terms of historic artists (besides Nelli!), I’ve developed a real fondness for ‘homegrown girls’, Florentine artists whose paintings we have restored like eighteenth-century court painter Violante Siries Cerroti and Irene Parenti Duclos, the only women to have a work in the Accademia Gallery. But I also cannot help mentioning Elisabetta Sirani, Sofonisba Anguissola and of course, Artemisia Gentileschi!

"Judith and her Maidservant" by Artemisia Gentileschi, Palatine Gallery, Florence

"Judith and her Maidservant" by Artemisia Gentileschi, Palatine Gallery, Florence

To the best of your knowledge, is there any documentation of other cultures (beyond the Western world) and time periods before/after the Renaissance that have championed women artists as equally as their male counterparts - or has this undermining of female artistry always been a global issue?

Creative women throughout the world have often been involved in the applied arts more than in what we call the ‘Fine Arts’. Many women excelled in needlework or terracotta or produced of decorative miniatures, using various mediums like ivory and copper. Historically, in terms of ‘number’ of artists, I don’t know of anywhere in the world that has achieved real equality. The Uffizi in the 1700s was far more liberal than the Louvre when it came to granting permission to women to copy the old Masters or letting them paint in the gallery without a bodyguard. For centuries however, women could not issue invoices, and therefore could not be paid as professionals. That is another big difference. Today, women are paid as professionals but their works are almost never sold at actions for prices comparable to those garnered by their male counterparts. 

Following a phenomenally successful ten years at the helm of Advancing Women Artists, undertaking groundbreaking philanthropy on both sides of the pond, and seeing one of your many critically-acclaimed publishings adapted into an Emmy-Award-winning documentary, what has been the proudest and most personally-rewarding moment of it all (if you can narrow it down!)?

Receiving the Emmy was pure joy, especially because the award really helped bring Invisible Women into the limelight. Another moment that is really dear to me is last November when the Mayor of Florence presented me with the ‘Fiorino d’oro’ Florence’s highest honor, at Palazzo Vecchio for my work with AWA. It was one of the happiest moments in my life when I heard him say, ‘Jane is now a true Florentine.’ You have no idea how much I love this city. It is where my heart lies. It is at the center of my life’s vocation, so becoming an honorary citizen meant so very much to me. As I often say: trying to find a voice for history’s women artists, I found my own voice. I’d like to share that gift with the many other modern-day women involved in AWA as well.

What do you hope (and plan) that the next decade of Advancing Women Artists will bring? 

We have many exciting plans for the future. One of them is to continue our collaborative relationship with the Uffizi, as a sponsor of upcoming shows and restorations featuring women artists. The Director Eike Schmidt is committed to giving women artists at the gallery a higher profile and this goal is very much in tune with the city’s historical role. Florence has been a center for women in the arts for nearly five centuries. In the next ten years, I’d like to see the development of our ‘A Space of their Own’ idea—a place, whether physical or virtual, where art by women can be viewed and appreciated. 

[The hugely-industrious team at Advancing Women Artists]

[The hugely-industrious team at Advancing Women Artists]

Plautilla Nelli: Convent Art and Devotion in the Footsteps of Savonarola is running until Sunday, 4th June in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence. Clicking "here" will transport you to Advancing Women Artists' official website, where further details on historic Florentine female painters (and the incomparable victories peppering AWA's first ten years) can be found. Following on Instagram, Twitter & Facebook will keep you fully up-to-date with the foundation's latest missions. If one thing is certain, it is that AWA's groundbreaking strides -and the life-affirming qualities of every project Jane Fortune devotes herself to - can only go from strength to strength. 

Amelia ~

La Femme Éclectique