Interviews

The Woman Who Dedicated Her Life to Uncovering the Female Artists of the Italian Renaissance

Jane Fortune once fell in love with the Renaissance artist Plautilla Nelli at a Florence book fair. She’s since devoted her life to uncovering and restoring the great works of hitherto unknown women painters of the last six centuries.

Rossella Lari with Plautilla Nelli’s “Last Supper” in studio (photo by Francesco Cacchiani, image courtesy Advancing Women Artists)

Florence has a backlog of female artists from the Renaissance that you’ve never seen, and you’ve likely never heard about. Advancing Women Artists (AWA) is a foundation dedicated to supporting art and conservation, particularly when it comes to the restoration of artworks made by women from the 15th to 19th centuries. For 11 years, the foundation’s leader, Jane Fortune, has dedicated herself to tracking down, researching, and restoring these paintings by long-forgotten women artists that have been languishing in the storage attics and basements of Italy’s many museums for far too long. Her desire is that the conservation techniques the AWA employs will spark conversation and further scholarship on an untold history of women painters from the Renaissance and beyond.

What drove Fortune toward the field of conservation was a chance encounter with a book detailing the little-known history of Plautilla Nelli, a Florentine painter of the 16th century whose quality of work arguably shines far greater than many of her male peers. Fortune has subsequently written a book on the subject, which then became the Emmy-winning PBS television documentary, Invisible Women, Forgotten Artists of Florence.

Hyperallergic spoke with Fortune about the history of women artists in Florence and the challenges AWA has overcome in the once-male dominated field of conservation.

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AWA Founder Jane Fortune with the Emmy Award for Invisible Women (image courtesy AWA)

Hyperallergic: Let’s start off with why you decided to found AWA and work in conservation.

Jane Fortune: Well, it started 15 years ago. I was at an antique book fair in Florence. In the second-to-last stall, I found a book titled, Plautilla Nelli: The First Woman Painter of Florence. The title intrigued me, so I bought the book, read it, and fell in love with everything about her. I figured that if she really was the first woman painter in Florence, then everybody in Florence would know who she was. But practically no one knew who she was. At the time, she only had three known paintings. One was in San Marco, and I happened to travel there to have a look at the painting. When I saw the painting, it was very dirty. I talked to the curator about cleaning it, but she didn’t think it needed cleaning at the time, so I kept bugging her. Eight months later, she finally took it off the wall — and low-and-behold we found that it had wood worms. If that painting hadn’t been taken off the wall and if we hadn’t killed the wood worms, it would have been a disaster for that particular gallery.

It was then that I came up with these questions: If nobody knew who Nelli was, then how many other women artists were out there? Not only on the walls of the museums, but in the museum storages? And that’s why I founded the AWA.

H: What was your criteria for choosing which pieces to restore?

JF: The foundation had certain criteria. First, it had to be restoration. It had to be a work by a woman. It had to be restored by a woman. But the biggest criteria was that if we were going to restore it, then the museum had to put the art on the gallery walls. In the last eleven years, we have restored 51 artworks, which I’m very proud of. Most of these works were in storage and were in — I would say — pretty bad condition If they had been left there for many more years, they would have disintegrated and would never have been seen again.

Diagnostic testing for Plautilla Nelli’s “Last Supper” (photo by Francesco Cacchiani, image courtesy AWA)

H: What drove the AWA to specifically advocate for women painters of the Renaissance?

JF: Not all the works we found were Renaissance, though. Our work is on paintings from the 15th century to the 19th century. We have focused on the grandes dames, the older paintings, because they are the ones that needed the most work to be restored. The newer ones from the 19th century are still doing alright. I’m more concerned about saving art that has very little chance of surviving. And the interesting part about all of this is that many of the works we found — well, nobody knew they were there. Nobody knew anything about the artists. Many of these artists don’t have a lot of history behind them.

Back then [when these women lived], they had no rights. They weren’t important, but rather beholden to their fathers, mothers, and husbands. They had no voice. My idea was that if we could make Florence and the world know about them, then we could spur more scholarly studies. In the long run, they would have a voice and reclaim their places in history. That’s the saddest thing. So many of them are unknown. For centuries, these women have not been talked about. There is a whole gap in history that’s missing. And how that plays into the history of Florence, and how it became what it is — if you read all the books then you’ll believe it was only men who did it. When I was in school there many years ago, we studied the artists and not a single woman was ever mentioned.

H: In your research, how many women artists have you come across?

JF: That’s a great question, but I’m not sure I can answer it exactly because it varies. The complication is that for someone like Nelli, she taught some of her sisters at the convent. She had a workshop of female painters. Theoretically, we should count them in as artists at the time. The convent was commissioned to do work for people’s homes in Florence. That’s why a number is difficult. At the risk of being wrong, I would say less than 15 female artists in Florence, maybe even less. The other thing that’s interesting about these works is that they may have been done by women, but nothing was signed. Or if they were signed, it was by their father, uncle, or brother. Until work goes into these paintings, you simply aren’t going to know. Like with Artemisia Gentileschi, many of her father’s works are now thought to be hers.

H: How did these women learn to paint?

JF: The majority that we know of had fathers who were very famous painters. They would have learned more from their parents since they couldn’t go to school; they couldn’t have gone to workshops or seen male bodies, so they would have learned by studying with their fathers. Otherwise, they were self-taught like Nelli. Usually, women who painted at the time came from an upper class family through which they could get the necessary materials.

H: What’s been the hardest case that the AWA has worked on so far?

JF: The hardest we’ve had was the Artemesia Gentileschi painting called David and Bathsheba. It had not been seen for over 400 years when we found it. It had been stored in the attic of the Pitti Palace. The sad part is that they didn’t have favorable conditions [in the attic] for conservation, so a great deal of the paint had come off. It was blotchy; you couldn’t really tell what was … the paint on Bathsheba’s eye was completely gone.

But [AWA] did an excellent job of restoring it. Instead of painting everything in, they made it so that when you looked at the painting, it looked like everything was complete. When you got close to it, though, you saw where they had just blended the colors in so you’d get the impression that it was complete. They did it that way so that if a better restoration technique comes along in the future, it will be easier to restore the painting without ruining it even more. A lot of the paintings we find were restored early on, but the restoration was not up to snuff, so sometimes that previous restoration makes it harder to take care of than if it had never been done in the first place.

H: Where do you see the organization in ten years?

JF: We have found over 2,500 works of art that are in the storages of Florence. Our goal is to get as many of these works of art out of storage, restore them, and put them out on the gallery walls so that the world can see them. The idea is that these pieces can be studied, appreciated for their voice and history, so that the world knows about them. It really is giving these women who never had a voice a new voice.

H: In the fields of conservation and restoration, what does gender equality look like?

JF: For Florence, up until the 1966 flood, I would say that 99% of the restorers were men. Once the flood hit, they needed so much help to preserve and save those endangered paintings, they had a lot of women volunteers. That’s when the whole equation changed. Today, we’ve got probably 80–90 percent women restorers. Conservation has opened up tremendously. Now, you have a world where everyone meets; everyone learns from each other, and the conservation techniques are so much better than before. The joke is that [the flood] was the first time women wore pants in Florence. Kind of a funny story, but it’s true: the equation really has changed.

This interview had been edited and condensed for clarity.

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