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Nun-painted “Last Supper” masterpiece placed on display after half a millennium

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Paulita Nelli - Public Domain

J-P Mauro - published on 10/24/19

Paulita Nelli's prized work of art now hangs alongside paintings from some of the most renowned Italian artists.

An enormous Renaissance-era painting of the Last Supper has been placed on public display about 450 years after its creation by the Florentine nun Plautilla Nelli. Considered one of the finest works by Nelli, whose self-taught style was once the highest regarded of any female artist in Italy, the work features life-sized depictions of Christ and the 12 Apostles, across a 21-ft by 6.5-ft canvas.

According to Meilan Solly of Smithsonian Magazine, the Renaissance era was not welcoming to female artists and the study of anatomy, a subject vital to the creation of beautiful, accurate visual art, was withheld from them. Despite this, Nelli discovered on her own the secrets of the human form, which she employed to great success. Solly notes that there was a time when Nelli’s paintings were hung in many of the most elite households of Florence.

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Paulita Nelli - Public Domain

Much of the history Nelli’s “Last Supper,” believed to have been painted in 1568, is unaccounted for. It was originally hung in Nelli’s own convent, Santa Caterina, but it changed hands between religious houses several times in the 19th century, until it was ultimately put in storage and forgotten for several decades. The masterpiece was recovered in the 1990s and now, after a four-year restoration process, it has been placed on public display for the first time in the church museum of Santa Maria Novella.

The restoration process was conducted by a nonprofit organization called the Advancing Women Artists Foundation. AWA raised funds for the effort through a successful crowdfunding campaign and the restoration work was completed by an all-women team of experts. Lead conservator Rossella Lari told Smithsonian:

“We restored the canvas and, while doing so, rediscovered Nelli’s story and her personality. She had powerful brushstrokes and loaded her brushes with paint.”

The subject of the painting, combined with the extreme skill displayed in each brush stroke, has led to Nelli’s work being compared to similar paintings by the likes of Leonardo da Vinci and Domenico Ghirlandaio. Now, Nelli’s “Last Supper” rests among some of the greatest works of artists such as Masaccio and Brunelleschi, where it will stand as an enduring testament to the artistic talents of women of the Renaissance.

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