Sister Plautilla Nelli (1524-1588) was a self-taught artist and is often considered the first known woman artist of Florence. She was a nun in the Dominican convent of St. Catherine of Siena, where she was heavily influenced by the teachings of Dominican friar and avid preacher Savonarola. Savonarola advocated for devotional paintings and encouraged woman to draw to keep them occupied during the day. This caused the convent to become a center for woman artists.
Born Pulisena Margherita Nelli to a wealthy family of fabric merchants in Florence, Nelli became a nun at the age of fourteen. During this period, it was common for daughters to enter the convent as a way of avoiding the cost of raising a dowry.
While in the convent, Nelli taught herself how to draw and paint, most likely with guidance from other nuns. She studied the works of other artists, copying the works of Bronzino and was heavily influenced by Fra Bartolomeo. Fra Bartolomeo’s pupil is said to have left his master’s drawings to “the nun who paints,” which can be assumed to be Nelli. During her life, Nelli developed a large group of patrons and followers. Unusual for woman artists of the time, Nelli created primarily large scale works. Perhaps one of her most well-known works is her Last Supper.
This work is the first known Last Supper scene created by a woman and was recently restored prior to going on display in 2019. Interestingly, Nelli also signed the painting, an unusual move for a nun-artist. This action insured audiences knew it was her who created it and placed her amongst her male contemporaries, such as Leonardo and Andrea del Sarto.
Many of Nelli’s works have been rediscovered and restored in recent years, thanks to work done by the Advancing Woman Artists Foundation and their founder, Dr. Jane Fortune.