How a nun became the first artist of the Renaissance and wrote her "Last Supper": Plavtilla Nelly
How a nun became the first artist of the Renaissance and wrote her "Last Supper": Plavtilla Nelly

The history of modern art knows many talented artists, but it may seem that in the old days women did not take brushes and paints in their hands. However, back in the mid-16th century, the convent of Santa Caterina di Cafaggio in the heart of Italy was a real school of religious painting. And its abbess and the first famous artist of the Renaissance Plavtilla Nelly created her grandiose "Last Supper", lost many years ago and regained today …

St. Catherine's stigmata

Relatively little is known about Plavtilla Nelly's life; most of her works are apparently lost or even destroyed. The future nun was born into the family of a wealthy fabric merchant, presumably in 1524. Her family came from the same area as the Medici, and one of the Florentine streets is named after them - Via del Canto de 'Nelli. Machiavelli's mother, Bartolomea Nelli, came from the same family. Plavtilla took tonsure at the age of fourteen with her sister - and, most likely, not out of great religious zeal. In those years, almost half of the young girls went to monasteries. Families could not provide them with a dowry corresponding to their status, and it was unacceptable to marry a daughter to a lower-born applicant.

Saint Dominic

However, in the monasteries, these girls received the opportunity to continue their education, study music, poetry, painting, albeit in a religious manner. Plavtilla ended up in the monastery of Santa Caterina di Cafaggio, which was ruled by Dominican monks led by Savonarola. Sister Plavtilla would later become the first biographer of this religious figure, the forerunner of the Reformation, a supporter of asceticism and an enemy of idleness. Carrying out his sermons in the monastery, Savonarola encouraged the nuns … to engage in art - of course, in order to combat that very idleness. Thus, the monastery of Santa Caterina di Cafaggio became the focus of young, educated, gifted women who formed a real school of early Renaissance religious painting and terracotta sculpture. Many of them were born and raised in families associated with art, many received their first lessons in painting and drawing from their fathers. But it was Plavtilla Nelly who was recognized as one of the best artists of this school - for example, she was entrusted to paint the altar in the monastery church. Over the years, Sister Plautilla took over as abbess - and, in fact, head of the school.

Annunciation. St. Catherine with lilies

She tirelessly improved her skills by copying the works of famous masters. She especially liked Fra Bartolomeo - and, apparently, she owned an archive of sketches and sketches of the artist, passed on by one of his faithful students. According to art historian Giorgio Vasari, almost every Florentine house had her paintings and miniatures, they were kept in churches and monasteries (although it is not known where they disappeared later). Plavtilla had many orders from wealthy patrons - or rather, patrons. The monastery flourished thanks to these orders. In addition, the names of at least three of her students and three apprentice nuns are known.Despite the fact that in a religious environment it was not customary to sign works - after all, the Lord leads the artist's hands - Plavtilla left autographs. "Pray for the artist Suor Plavtilla Nelly" - she wrote such lines in the corner of the picture. So she became the first Renaissance artist to sign her work. Together with her sister, Plavtilla illustrated the fields of handwritten books that are kept in the library of the monastery of St. Mark.

St. Catherine of Siena. Our Lady of Sorrows

Nelly's pictorial style was simple, laconic, even austere and perfectly reflected the religious views of Savonarola, who opposed excessive luxury in the church. The etherealness of figures and subtle facial expressions, modest attire and interiors, an avaricious but inventive palette, lyricism of images ….

The Last Supper

Despite her success as a miniature artist, Nelly loved large formats - in those years it seemed almost shocking. How can a woman swing at real, great art? But Nellie could. And she wrote her own "Last Supper" - a huge seven-meter painting, which put her on a par with the titans of the Renaissance. The Gospel scene is painted in oil on a huge canvas, sewn like a patchwork quilt from several canvases. The faces of Christ and the apostles are gentle, their figures are graceful, but the images are devoid of pretentiousness. With just a couple of strokes, the artist gives their features an expression of sadness or shock. Plavtilla Nelly was able to convey the subtlest shades of feelings, skillfully depicting the throwing of the soul, suffering, grief and joy of the gospel characters.

The Last Supper. Fragment

From the moment of its creation, Nelly's "Secret Evening" has been kept in the dining room of the monastery. In the 19th century, the monastery was severely damaged, and the picture was cut from the frame and rolled up with paint inward - a real barbarism. In addition, it was stored in such a folded form for fifty years! Later, the "Last Supper" was hung in the refectory of the monastery of Santa Maria Novella.

The Last Supper. Fragment

And only in 2003, the Florentine Committee of the National Museum of Women in Art, in the course of one of the studies, drew attention to the mention of a certain nun-artist in the work of Giorgio Vasari "The Lives of the Most Wonderful Painters, Sculptors and Architects". Soon, the "Last Supper" was discovered and long and difficult measures were started to restore it. Also, the nuns of the Dominican monastery in New Jersey began to popularize the work of Plavtilla Nelly.

Sketches by Plavtilla Nelly

Today, about ten paintings and several magnificent pencil sketches by Plavtilla Nelly have been discovered, attributed and restored. Her work is exhibited at the Uffizi Gallery. Several documentaries have been filmed about the return of the heritage of the first Renaissance artist to humanity, scientific articles and art history reviews are written about her work. Almost five hundred years later, the abbess of the monastery, where prayers were performed with a brush in her hands, finally took her rightful place in the history of Western European art.

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