Italy’s dazzling pantheon of artistic geniuses seems a man’s world. Yet a few women with singular passion defied all obstacles and created important works of art. As a way of celebrating International Women’s Day, here are three artists whose stories I recount in LA PASSIONE: How Italy Seduced the World:
Plautilla Nelli (1524-88)
At age fourteen, Nelli, a merchant’s daughter in Florence, entered a local convent (as did many girls whose families could not afford marriage dowries) and won the respect of prominent painters of the time. Florence’s first recognized female artist, Nelli set up a studio to train other nuns to paint. Her most remarkable composition represents a first in the history of women’s art: a massive Last Supper (above), almost twenty-three feet long, for her convent’s dining hall. Thanks to a crowdfunding campaign by the Advancing Women Artists Foundation, a restoration unveiled rich colors and subtle details unseen for centuries.
Properzia de’ Rossi (ca. 1490–1530)
A sculptress in Bologna, Properzia carved intricately detailed scenes in an odd and challenging medium: the pits of peaches and apricots. On one pit Properzia carved a detailed Passion of Christ that so impressed the city wardens that they commissioned a marble sculpture above a set of doors in Bologna’s Basilica of San Petronio. Properzia chose an Old Testament scene in which the wife of the Egyptian pharaoh’s chamberlain, burning with lust for their Hebrew slave, strips off his tunic—a work the art historian Vasari interpreted as an expression of Properzia’s unrequited desire for “a handsome young man, who seemed to care but little for her.” Although the Bolognese applauded Properzia’s achievement, she died nearly penniless at about age forty.
Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–ca.1652)
Artemisia learned how to paint in the studio of her father, a friend and follower of Caravaggio. A colleague her father hired to tutor her raped the teenager. In a sensational seven-month trial in 1612, Artemisia testified under torture against her attacker, who was convicted of defiling a virgin.
Married off to a minor artist in Florence, Artemisia won high-profile commissions from the duke and duchess and became the first woman inducted into Florence’s prestigious Accademia delle Arti del Disegno (Academy of the Arts of Drawing). Most of her almost sixty known works portray women, often as the strong, passionate heroines of mythology and the Bible. All reflect her determination to “show what a woman can do.”
A cache of long-lost letters discovered in 2011 revealed that the artist herself had a passionate affair with a Florentine nobleman—a liaison her husband seemed to encourage. With many international fans, Artemisia painted in Venice, Naples and England, where she and her father decorated the queen’s house in Greenwich.
After her death at about age 60, Artemisia slid into anonymity but was resurrected in the late twentieth century as a feminist icon who overcame ignominy to gain respect and acclaim. The late Jane Fortune, founder of the Advancing Women Artists Foundation, described her as “one of history’s most influential painters.”
Dianne Hales is the author of LA PASSIONE: How Italy Seduced the World; LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language; and MONA LISA: A Life Discovered. You can download my most recent book, “A” Is for Amore, for free at diannehales.com.