Plautilla Nelli is attributed as the first woman painter of Florence. Born Pulisena Nelli in 1524, Nelli was the daughter of the Florentine painter Piero di Luca Nelli. The Nelli family was established nobility in Florence and a street bearing the family name exists in Florence to this day. In 1538, when the artist was fourteen years old, she took her vows at the Dominican Convent of Saint Catherine of Siena, where she received the name Plautilla Nelli. Over the course of her career, she took on the role of primary image maker for the Dominicans. She was elected prioress of the convent in 1568.
Nelli may have received her training from Fra Paulino and his mentor Fra Bartolommeo while she was at the convent. However, the beliefs concerning her artistic education are debated and some sources state that Nelli received no direct training and taught herself by studying the works of the two priests. It is known that she inherited a collection of Fra Bartolommeo’s drawings from Fra Paulino when he died. Nelli used these drawings to study from and as inspiration for her compositions. During her career as an artist, Nelli received numerous commissions for altarpieces throughout Florence. Following Fra Bartolommeo’s techniques, Nelli would have studied the human form for her religious compositions through the creation of wax models. Such a technique would have been seen as appropriate for a woman artist during the time period and convenient for the lifestyle of a nun. However, there is a tradition that states she studied from the corpse of a fellow nun in order to paint the form of Christ in Deposition
(unknown date). She was also skilled in the art of illumination, and painted a series of illuminations for choir books.
The nuns of Saint Catherine of Siena were fervent followers of the teachings of Fra Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498), a priest whose uncompromising view of Christian morality and acceptable personal behavior transformed the city of Florence during his lifetime. Although Savonarola was excommunicated and consequently hung and burned for his preachings, his belief that nuns should dedicate themselves to the creation of artwork (so that the women earn their keep and inspire donations) enabled Nelli’s career as an artist. There is one known portrait of Savonarola that has been attributed to Nelli, as well as a biography of the priest written by Nelli’s sister, Suor Petronilla Nelli.
In his writings Giorgio Vasari called Nelli "virtuosa", a term which acknowledges both her artistic skills, moral virtue, and piety. She was buried in the church of Saint Catherine of Siena, which has since been destroyed.
daughter of Piero di Luca Nelli
student of and influenced by Fra Paulino la Pistoia
student of and influenced by Fra Bartolommeo
influenced by Andrea del Sarto
influenced by Leonardo da Vinci
influenced by Francesco di Cristofano
influenced by Raffaello Sanzio
influenced by Andrea del Castagno
influenced by Agnolo Bronzino
teacher of Suor Prudenza Cambi
teacher of Agata Traballesi
teacher of Maria Ruggieri
teacher of Suor Veronica