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When discovered after 500 years, this masterpiece was in danger of disappearing forever. Thanks to the AWA and years of painstaking restoration, the next photo is what it looks like today.

Florence’s Amazing Restorers

One thing that can be certain, 2019 will be an even greater awareness of the work of Leonardo da Vinci, as Italy commemorates the 500th anniversary of the master’s death. As exhibitions and events are arranged from north to south for the anniversary, a determined campaign is underway to recognize Renaissance figures, who, for centuries, have been eclipsed by titans such as da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael and Tintoretto – those of women artists.

Advancing Women Artists is a non-profit organization that strives to rescue female artists from oblivion by scouring dusty archives and dark basements in Florence in search of works that have not seen the light of day for centuries. The paintings, which in some cases are dirty, ripped or riddled with woodworm, are then painstakingly restored and placed on display where they can be appreciated by the present generations of art enthusiasts.

The women painters are not exclusively from the Renaissance period; in fact, their works span more 500 years, through to the 20th century. Much of the art is delicate portraits and devotional pieces, while a number are epic works painted on vast canvases.

Historically, art restoration in Italy and in Florence in particular, was very much a male-dominated field -that was until the devastating floods of 1966. In the wake of the disaster, female artists from all over the world flocked to Florence to aid in recovery and restoration efforts. As a result of that legacy, today there are hundreds of female restorers and curators working in the city.

This year will see the unveiling of AWA’s most ambitious project yet – a restored, 22 foot-long oil painting of The Last Supper by Plautilla Nelli, a 16th century Dominican nun who came from a wealthy Florentine family and became an accomplished artist. It is the world’s only known Last Supper painted by a Renaissance woman artist and will go on permanent display at the Santa Maria Novella Museum in Florence in the autumn.

Kept in a first-floor studio just outside Florence’s ancient stone walls, it is being brought back to life by restorer Rossella Lari. “We’re reclaiming history inch by inch,” she said. “I’ve walked many miles back and forth in front of this painting. If I step back and look at it, it gives me a headache, it’s such a big challenge. But we are friends now, Nelli and I. I’m happy to be in her presence every day.”

As with all the paintings that have been rescued by AWA, the four-year restoration of the painting is funded by private donations, largely from individuals in the United States. Benefactors were invited to sponsor each of the 12 saints in the tableau at a cost of $10,000 each. Christ, naturally, commanded a premium, with that sponsorship providing a donation of $25,000.

Sister Nelli’s masterpiece bears feminine touches that are not found in portrayals of Last Suppers painted by male artists. St. John, who is being embraced by Christ and has his eyes closed, has particularly soft, even feminine features in the painting. The attention to detail lavished on the project is remarkable. Careful attention has been paid to the food and drink in front of the disciples and even the tablecloth looks like it has been painted by someone who knew how to set a table. The refined tableware, including delicate glasses with silver bases and turquoise ceramic bowls, demonstrate Sister Nelli’s familiarity with Florentine high society.

Unusual for the Renaissance, she left her signature on the painting, a Latin inscription in the top left-hand corner which reads: “Sister Plautilla – Pray for the Paintress.”

Of her signature, Linda Falcone, the director of Advancing Women Artists, said, “It’s an appeal to be recognized and to be remembered. It’s like she was talking to the future.” Further remarking that the women artists of the Renaissance are “a hidden page in history.”

The women painters faced great challenges. They had no legal standing of their own; they could not join guilds and they could not train as artists. Unlike their male counterparts, they were not allowed to observe male models, nor could they study the anatomy of cadavers. Still, several of their number did achieve success. The women painters were often found to be more detail-oriented than male artists and were often commissioned to paint still life, portraits and miniatures.

These skills seem to have backfired in historical terms. As these types of work fell out of favor, the paintings were forgotten. “People wanted to see grand Biblical and historical topics, not small devotional pieces and still lives,” said organization’s director.

AWA was established in 2009 by an American philanthropist, Dr. Jane Fortune, nicknamed by one arts magazine as “Indiana Jane” for her intrepid unearthing of lost treasures. Sadly, she died of cancer last year, but her legacy is impressive. Over the last few years, AWA has restored more than 60 paintings by almost two dozen different women artists.

Aside from Sister Nelli, who lived from 1524 to 1588, restored works include those of Artemisia Gentileschi, born in 1593. She was the first female member of Florence’s Accademia dell’Arte del Disegno, Europe’s earliest drawing academy. One of her paintings, David and Bathsheba, was restored in 2008 after more than 360 years in storage. Conservators faced a quandary with the painting. If the damaged canvas needs extensive re-painting to fill patches of missing color, does it actually stop being a work by the artist? They solved the quandary by using neutral tones to recompose the image. That way, they could trick the eye into seeing the whole picture. Even though Bathsheba’s eye was not repainted -it caused a bit of a controversy when the work was unveiled after a year and a half in the lab. Because of her inability to ‘see,’ Bathsheba became a source of inspiration for AWA and its most pressing issue: art by women must been seen in order to be studied and appreciated.

AWA has also restored works by Violante Siries Cerroti, who painted for the Medicis and was the first woman granted permission in 1770 to copy works held at the Uffizi Galleries. She became a portraitist for Grand Tour travelers in 18th century Florence. Siries’ masterwork, “The Madonna Presents Baby Jesus to Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi,” was a victim of the 1966 flood, yet no one knew it until nearly 50 years later. The painting needed restoration, but no one knew how much, until the restorers removed it from its niche, fifty years after the disaster. Restorers discovered that the receding flood waters had created an extremely humid condition that was the perfect breeding ground for mold, which ravaged the painting. Today, after countless hours of painstaking work, one would never have imagined the poor state of the unrestored painting.

The restorations can take anywhere from months to years, depending on the size and complexity of the work and can cost between $50,000 and $200,000. The one criterion that must be met for all projects undertaken by AWA, is that the restored paintings MUST go on display. AWA’s cadre of restorers is also a bit unique in that it is an all-female team.

As AWA commemorates its 10th anniversary later this year, there still remains a huge amount of work to be done. They estimate that there remain as many as 2,000 long-neglected paintings, drawings and sculptures by women artists in Florence, many of them in urgent need of restoration. With the passion and talent that the restorers bring to the works, have no doubt that they will bring more and more stories and works of these women artists to light.