On March 8, 2017, the Uffizi in Florence will dedicate an exhibition to the earliest known female Renaissance painter, Suor Plautilla Nelli. This is part of an initiative of the museum’s new director, Eike Schmidt, to highlight work by women in the Uffizi’s collection. A meeting Schmidt had with the Guerilla Girls, a group of feminist artists and art professionals who have been fighting sexism in the arts since the 1980s, inspired the plan. No doubt they discussed some of the many statistics the Guerilla Girls publish, such as art by women artists make up only 3-5% of major permanent collections in the U.S. and Europe.
Suor Plautilla Nelli was a nun in the Dominican convent of Santa Caterina da Siena and an artist. Like many daughters of wealthy Italian merchants in the 16th century, she became a nun in her early teens. Influenced by Savonarola’s preaching that directed religious women to create devotional paintings to “avoid sloth,” she became so prolific that Giorgio Vasari stated there were too many of her paintings around Florence to write about.
This self-taught artist copied works by earlier Florentine Renaissance masters, especially those by Fra Bartolomeo and Andrea del Sarto, and therefore she had an old-fashioned, classical style; yet, she invested her figures with quiet emotion, as with the tears and grief seen on faces in her Lamentation. It was a style well suited for the purpose of private devotion.