Invisible Women: Forgotten Artists of Florence



Invisible works. Remarkable artists. Who were these extraordinary women painters and why are many of their works still hidden from the public eye? Jane Fortune, author, art collector and founder of two associations aimed at the recuperation and rediscovery of art by women in the Florence museums, takes the reader on the trail of women artists whose talent and courage represent a fundamental part of the city's artistic identity. Which unique challenges spurred their creative journeys and what unique episodes propelled their lives and times? And, most importantly, what can be done today to reclaim this captivating yet unfamiliar part of Florence's cultural heritage? Known as 'Indiana Jane', for her commitment to salvaging damaged works from the entrails of the city's storehouses, Fortune's book, Invisible Women celebrates the city's hidden treasures and provokes a passionate quest that will lead readers to the whos, wheres and whys of the city's forgotten half.
Text in English and Italian.

Book description – The Florentine Press

Table of contents, page1

Table of contents, page2


Chapter 7: Finding Oneself [Giulia Lama,
Arcangela Paladini and the Vasari Corridor]
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Presentation of Invisible Women at the Uffizi library

Uffizi Library Presentation - Invitation

Dreams in the making
Florence gave a red-carpet welcome to Invisible Women: Forgotten Artists of Florence with an elegant presentation at the Uffizi Library. The event was presided over by the Uffizi Library Director Claudio Di Benedetto and Polo Museale Superintendent Cristina Acidini. The audience sat on the edge of their seats as author Jane Fortune passionately described her ‘quest' to bring works by women artists in Florence to light, and her ultimate goal to see a space dedicated entirely to them. Dott.ssa Cristina Acidini graciously spoke of the importance of the project and her desire to see more attention given to these women artists.

Presentation of Invisible Women at the
Uffizi Library in Florence

Dr. Jane Fortune with Polo Museale
Superintendent and Uffizi Library Director at the
presentation of Invisible Women, Uffizi Library, Florence


About Invisible Women’s co-author

Invisible Women’s author Jane Fortune,
with co-author Linda Falcone

Linda Falcone has been working as Project Coordinator for Advancing Women Artists restoration projects since 2008 and played the role of editor to Jane Fortune’s first book, To Florence con Amore. In the vise of co-author of Invisible Women: Forgotten Artists of Florence, Linda had the opportunity to carry out on-site research in the Florence museum archives. Jane and Linda have teamed up once more to create two upcoming books: The Flood Artists, spotlighting women artists who donated their works following the flood that ravaged Florence in 1966 and a second volume of Invisible Women, Sculptors in Florence and in Italy.

Linda is author of Italians Dance and I'm a Wallflower and If They Are Roses: the Italian Way with Words, two books spotlighting Italian language and culture. Her first novel Moving Days was published by The Florentine Press in 2010. Linda has lived, taught and written in Italy for nearly 18 years. Born in northern California and raised in a bi-cultural family, she has been a columnist for The Florentine, Tuscany’s English language newspaper since its founding in 2005. Linda created her current column In Other Words is a window on language and culture in Italy.


Interviews and related articles

Indiana Jane and masterpieces by women
In love with Florence, her mission is to save its works
By Elena Duranti
La Nazione – Italian Daily
November 2009
Her search is for forgotten artists of Florence. Jane Fortune, an American collector from Indianapolis whose passion is art, fell in love with Florence when she was a university student—so much, in fact, that she decided to live here six months of the year. For some time now, she has been dedicated to her mission: to save works by women artists. It’s this quest that has earned her the name of ‘Indiana Jane’.

She has worked to rediscover hidden masterpieces by women painters whose work has often never been seen by the public. Several of these artists lived during the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, and were often overshadowed by the ‘male’ genius, of their painter fathers, husbands or bottega masters. These women, nonetheless, deserve their share of fame. Fortune, an American collector, is chair of Advancing Women Artists and The Florence Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, entities created to restore and promote works of art by women, past and present. She is the author of Invisible Women a book-guide spotlighting works by women from time periods that are stored in Florence’s palaces and museums.

Was your research a long, painstaking process?
‘Yes, I’ve spent the last five years searching though archives, inventories and collections in hopes of recuperating works by ‘Invisible Women’ in Florence’s history. These paintings are authentic artistic treasures stored in local warehouses or deposits. Little-known and sometimes in danger; they often need restoration.’

How did your passion for this project start?
Several years ago, I went to a book fair at Palazzo Corsini where I found a book in English about Suor Plautilla Nelli, a sixteenth century nun who was the first known woman painter of Florence. Few Florentines knew of her, yet her story fascinated me immediately. When I saw her works—which were in dire need of restoration—they took my breath away and a question started to form in my mind.

Which question?
It was a question that became my passion: how many other works of art by unknown women were there hidden or decaying in the city’s churches, archives and museums?

Since then, you’ve funded the restoration of some of these works.
With Advancing Women Artists and The Florence Committee several paintings have been restored, but many still need to be saved. Everything began with the Lamentation with Saints by Suor Plautilla Nelli which graces the large Refectory in Florence’s San Marco Museum. To see it be given ‘new life’ was a truly emotional experience. Little by little, the figures emerged from beneath the layers of time, acquiring color and power.’

How are your restoration projects chosen?
We chose to restore works of art by women because they have often been relegated to storehouses for centuries. We ask Florence’s museum directors, who usually are also women, to prepare an estimate with costs and a project plan including information about a painting’s condition. So far, we’ve received proposals regarding 47 works.

Is the restoration of Artemisia Gentileschi’s masterpiece the most important restoration project you’ve supported?
David and Bathsheba. It was a marvelous restoration, full of bright moments—but it also brought up a difficult issue.

Which is?
For centuries the work was stored in the storage rooms of Palazzo Pitti and, despite the splendid restoration, it was not exhibited permanently for public viewing. The painting was returned to a room that could not be visited by the public without prior written permission from the museum’s director, who is currently looking for appropriate spaces where Artemisia’s masterpiece can be exhibited. (Note: since this publication, the work has been placed on public view in the Sala delle Nicchie, Pitti Palace).

What’s your newest restoration project?
Next Monday, two newly restored lunettes will be inaugurated at San Salvi: Saint Domenic and Saint Catherine, both by Suor Plautilla Nelli, which were commissioned in 1570 for the Convent of Santa Caterina. These paintings will be permanently on public view in the Andrea del Sarto Last Supper Museum.

Plans for the future?
I’m working to fulfill another dream—to create a permanent exhibition space for works of art by women. The proceeds from Invisible Women will go to support this project. ‘

Invisible women’ …even if they were genius
A book leads them into the spotlight
By Elena Duranti
La Nazione – Italian Daily
November 2009
Marietta Robusti had to dress like a boy to be able to accompany her father, the talented Venetian master Jacopo Robusto—better known by the name ‘Tintoretto’ in the 1500s. Giovanna Garzoni, an expert still-life painter, had the good fortune of gaining the favor of Grand Duchess Victoria, wife of Ferdinando II de’ Medici. If Artemisia Gentileschi is the most famous off all women artists, then almost no one knows Suor Plautilla Nelli or has seen the sensual eighteenth century drawings at Villa La Petraia by Giovanna Fratellini. In 1994, the United States postal service selected Elisabetta Siriani’s ‘Virgin and Child’ to be printed on 1.1 billion Christmas stamps, yet few Italians know of this painting. Siriani was a great artist, who died in 1665 when she was only 27 years old.
The above-mentioned painting can be found at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington D.C.. Elisabeth Chaplin donated her entire body of works to Florence. Fifteen of her works are on show at Palazzo Pitti’s Modern Art Gallery, while almost 700 are in storage. Why are so many masterpieces by extraordinary women artists hidden from the public eye and from the enjoyment of visitors?

With her book ‘Invisible Women’, published by The Florentine Press, Jane Fortune strives to give new dignity and visibility to these women artists. The book will be presented this afternoon at the Uffizi Library by Superintendent Cristina Acidini. Precisely at the Uffizi which, together with Palazzo Pitti, hosts the majority of the 1,500 forgotten works by women artists in Florence. ‘The vast majority have not been visible for centuries,’ the author explains. The American researcher brings attention to over 1,300 letters written by women who, from 1770 to 1859, asked to copy masterpieces in the Uffizi Gallery; Some 366 women arrived from far-away places such as Australia or the United states—of these, 150 (many more than history remembers) were classified as professional painters. These letters indicate that 1,027 standard-size oil paintings and 169 miniatures were created by women. Twenty-one women have the honor of having their self-portrait on exhibition among the 400 present in the Vasari Corridor. To salvage and uphold the collective memory of these artists who have remained without glory, without restoration and without exhibition space, the book’s proceeds will go to support projects sponsored by the Advancing Women Artists Foundation and The Florence Committee, not-for-profit organizations whose aim is to recuperate, restore and exhibit works of art by women artists in Florence and around the world.

Read the article in Italian

'Indiana Jane' strikes again’
by Alexandra Lawrence
(Originally published in The Florentine - Issue no. 110. October 22, 2009)
I recently sat down with Jane Fortune, author of Invisible Women: Forgotten Artists of Florence, due out later this month from The Florentine Press. ‘Indiana Jane' has spent the past five years scouring archives and haunting the recesses of some of Florence's most revered museums in an effort to uncover every single ‘hidden' work of art by women.

The Florentine: How did the idea for the book come about? Jane Fortune: Several years ago I was wandering through a book fair at Palazzo Corsini and came across a volume in English entitled Suor Plautilla Nelli: The First Woman Painter in Florence by Jonathan Nelson. I snapped it up and was instantly intrigued by the story of a sixteenth-century nun whose works were virtually unknown to most Florentines. I began to wonder how many artworks by unknown or ‘invisible' women might be hidden in the city's churches and museums. That was when my quest to learn more about women artists in Florence became a personal mission: to help invisible women artists in Florence become more fully visible.

TF: How does one begin to search for ‘hidden' artwork in Florence?
JF: Because scholars and museum administrators have rarely focused on gender when classifying artwork, I knew that it was going to take some serious digging in the archives of local museums. Luckily, through my work with The Florence Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts I have developed relationships with the majority of the women museum directors in the city. Every director was extremely generous with her time and resources when she learned of my mission to create a ‘women artists trail' spotlighting art by women. Some even turned their computer databases over to me and said, ‘Go for it!' Others showed me handwritten archives-'systems' of index cards and ledger books.

TF: What were some of the biggest obstacles you faced in doing your research?
JF: One of the most difficult things was that many of the artists cited in museum archives are listed by first initial and last name. Obviously this isn't a problem for well-known individuals, but what about lesser-known artists whom even the archivists have never heard of? Does ‘G' stand for ‘Giovanni' or ‘Giovanna'? Sometimes even further research doesn't provide the true identity of the artist.

The greatest difficulty was the inconsistency among the various archives. Although directors and archivists made themselves available for questions and provided information, there is simply no consistency within the archives themselves, making research extraordinarily difficult.

TF: What is your response to Linda Nochlin's oft-quoted question, ‘Why have there been no great women artists?'
JF: There absolutely have been great women artists throughout history; it is simply a question of poor access. For centuries, women's artwork has been relegated to dark, unprotected corners of museum storerooms, where rats scurry and rain drips on canvases caked with dirt and pigeon droppings.

TF: To our knowledge, this book is the first that has begun to catalogue works of art by women in Florence. What are your hopes of finishing what you started?
JF: First, I would like to stress that this is just the beginning of the project; it is far from completion. The book is the result of five years of research in the city's archives and is really a starting point to reclaiming every single piece of art by women in order to fully celebrate their accomplishments. I hope my work serves as a rallying cry to all those who share this mission and would like to be part of making these women truly visible.


Book reviews and related articles

‘Indiana Jane’ pens another Florence Book / Indianapolis Star 'Indiana Jane' pens another Florence book It would be difficult to find someone who loves Florence, Italy, more than Indianapolis philanthropist Jane Fortune . Fortune lives there with her partner, Bob Hesse , about four months out of the year. As evidence of her soft spot for the city, she has done everything from penning “To Florence con Amore,” a 2007 book about the art-filled city’s best behind-the-scenes places, to starting a foundation aimed at restoring and preserving Florentine female artists’ work — pieces Fortune says have been largely overlooked. She added to that list last month when her latest book came out: “Invisible Women: Forgotten Artists of Florence,” an art history book that spotlights the work of women. Fortune is known as “Indiana Jane” for her efforts in the Italian city, where her culture column shows up in “The Florentine,” a biweekly publication for English speakers. In Indianapolis, she is better known for her recent support of the inaugural performance of the Indianapolis City Ballet. “Invisible Women,” ($28, The Florentine Press) made its debut in Indianapolis this month.

To celebrate, Fortune’s local friends (and Hesse, to whom the book is dedicated) gathered for a book-signing party Dec. 8 at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Fortune explained that the proceeds of both books are channeled to her foundation, which helps advance Italian female artists. The IMA gift store carries both of Fortune’s books, and they can also be ordered online at Equal access to holiday fun The Italianate home of Ken Ramsay and Joe Everhart on the Old Northside created some holiday magic for Indiana Equality this month. It’s where the organization brought in more than $50,000 in a Dec. 10 fundraiser, “Holiday IN the Old Northside.” According to the event program, civic leaders William Fortune and Joe Blakley donated more than $10,000 to the effort to end discrimination in Indiana based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Nearly 300 people — among them philanthropists, educators and politicians — showed up for the soup-tasting event held inside Ramsay and Everhart’s lavishly decorated home. (The house used to be a clubhouse for a German-American singing and social group.) Tom John , chairman of the Marion County Republican Party; Edward T. Treacy , chairman of the Marion County Democrats; and Timothy Maguire , chairman of the county’s Libertarian Party, all attended and even got together for a photo at one point. Setting the stage for sing-off Supporters of Michael Feinstein ‘s effort to bring the music of the early and mid-1900s to high school students are preparing for next year’s incarnation of the Great American Songbook High School Academy and Competition.

The June 2-6 event will mark the second time students will face off in an Indianapolis vocal competition, trying to win a chance to perform with Feinstein — a pianist, singer and archivist of American popular songs — in his New York City club. To do so, they must perform a selection from Broadway, Hollywood musical theater or the Tin Pan Alley era of the early to mid-20th century. Trying to raise awareness for the unique competition, Mag Cole Russell (cousin to famous Great American Songbook contributor Cole Porter ) and Indiana arts philanthropist Richard Ford co-hosted a Dec. 3 event at Woodstock Club. Laney Wilson , Indianapolis, who earned third place last year in the first Songbook competition, performed during the event, which was attended by former Indiana first lady Judy O’Bannon; John Herbst , president and CEO of the Indiana Historical Society; and Indianapolis Symphony President and CEO Simon Crookall , among others.

Making the invisible visible
Jane Fortune brings women's art to light
by Alexandra Korey (issue no. 113/2009 / December 10, 2009)
Women is an expression of love for the female artists of Florence's past. Jane Fortune has dug through the archives of the Florentine museums in search of women's names and their works, which are often in storage and away from the public eye. We learn that Florence conceals a dark and dusty world of female artists who, throughout the centuries, were born here or came here from Venice, Rome or from as far away as England, and who left works in the Medici and the state collections. In this lavishly illustrated volume, we are invited to learn about these women's lives, see some of their paintings and discover the works on our own by following the ‘Women Artists' Trail,' a map at the end of the book.
Fortune emphasizes that she is not an art historian or a scholar but an art lover, collector and philanthropist. Like the artists about whom she writes, Fortune finds her voice and communicates her ideas in an approachable manner. Likewise, the design and layout of the book by Marco Badiani and Leonardo Cardini is suited to a general audience. In this way, the greatest possible number of readers may become aware of Florence's overlooked female artists and their paintings. Despite Fortune's claims not to be a scholar, Invisible Women is impeccably researched and contains valuable resources for further scholarship, thus inviting art historians to expand upon the work begun by Fortune or extend her method to other cities or countries.

The book's 26 short chapters might better be termed ‘articles' as they are approximately the length of a feature news item. They are gathered into six thematic sections (plus the introduction and conclusion). Most of the chapters provide a biography of the individual artist, a presentation of her works in Florence and their locations. Many of the chapters address self-portraiture or still-life painting, which accurately reflects the dominance of these genres in women's art: women generally lacked access to the academy and thus to the training in painting nude models required to get a good base in figural depiction.

Fortune's book brings to light many artists about whom I had never heard, despite being rather up to date on the scholarly bibliography in this field. Recent art history has paid quite a bit of attention to early sixteenth-century Italians such as Artemisia Gentileschi, Lavinia Fontana and Sofonisba Anguissola. That the names Giovanna Fratellini, Arcangela Paladini and Teresa Berenice Vitelli are less known reflect not only the struggle of the female artist, but also the fact that Tuscan artists of seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are not on publishers' hot lists. (Art historians consider Florence to have lagged artistically behind Rome and Venice during this period.)
Fortune writes in an informed manner about this impressive range of artists, from the first known female artist in Florence, Suor Plautilla Nelli (1524-1588), to Emma Bardini Tozzi (1883-1962), a landscape painter who taught art to needy children at the Istituto Demidoff in the San Niccolò quarter. Finally, Fortune contributes a great deal to the English-language biography of Elisabetta Sirani, a prolific painter who died tragically young. Fortune highlights the artists' personal or artistic achievements in a way that is both historically sensitive and interesting to the modern reader.

Reading along, we notice common factors between artists across the centuries. For example, we learn how, in the nineteenth century, Louisa Grace Bartolini used a ‘shield of devout Catholic virtue' that enabled her to enjoy a degree of freedom not known by her contemporaries (p. 129), a fact I find interesting in its parallel to the lives of the various artist-nuns of the sixteenth century, like Suor Plautilla Nelli whose ability to ‘hobnob with prominent male painters' surely depended on her chaste habit (p. 33). The women in this book enjoyed success unusual for their sex: Artemisia Gentileschi was first woman admitted to Florence's Accademia dell'Arte in 1619, while Rosa Bonheur was invited to exhibit at the male-dominated Paris Salon in 1841. Fortune's chapters are interspersed with contributions by other authors, including a curator, a restorer, and an art historian-all women, of course! I particularly enjoyed the tightly written essay by Sheila Barker recounting her archival study of women who applied for permission to copy from the great masters inside the Uffizi Gallery, a project nicely framed by the dates 1736-1859. Based on documented permission to female artists, which even included examples of male artists being made to wait until women finished copying, Barker's heartening conclusion is that museum bureaucrats were indifferent ‘to the applicant's gender and professional ranking' (p. 114).

During this period copying from the masters was considered the best font of professional formation; at the Uffizi, men and women had the same access. Fortune closes her book with one resource for art enthusiasts and another for scholars. Visitors to Florence are encouraged to visit works of art on public view by following the numbers on the map on pages 194-195. This enlightened idea for residents or return visitors to the city is just part of what makes this book a great gift for the art-lovers on your holiday list. The art-lovers (and even scholars or aspiring art historians) on your list will especially appreciate the 22-page inventory that lists all the women artists that Fortune has located in Florentine collections organized by last name, with a short biography and the inventory numbers of each of their works. Fortune says this work is incomplete, but her five years of research have certainly turned up an impressive number of ‘hidden' drawings and paintings. In my opinion, this inventory is her greatest gift to the study of women in art, providing not only a list to follow for future study in Florence, but also an example to anyone who wishes to embark on a similar, ambitious project in another city.

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