Saint Catherine in Prayer and Saint Domenic receives the rosary


A word from the Superintendent of Florence’s Polo Museale

Suor Plautilla Nelli - Saint Catherine in prayer,
XVI century; Restoration 2009;
San Salvi Museum, Florence

‘Brought to international attention with the restoration of the San Marco Museum’s Lamentation with saints and the studies published as a result of this process (documents, 2008), this Dominican nun—a follower of Fra Bartolomeo—finds herself once more at the center of a noteworthy project.

Her two lunettes, dedicated to the founder of Nelli’s order and the great Saint Catherine, constitute precious pieces of the mosaic of knowledge we have about the painter. In these compositions, which are both of which portray miraculous epiphanies of the Sacred, we can appreciate the Virgin with the rosary and the dazzling glow of a heavenly vision.

One is struck by the energetic brightness of their affected contours, the strong chiaroscuro effects that surround the habits’ white wool and the candid linen of the veil touched by supernatural light. The iconic nature of the figures, which characterizes the naïveté of the votive offering, is tempered by the surprisingly fresh and vivid feeling the landscape exudes: the profiles of trees in backlight, the glow of sunrise or sunset, the courageous bluegreen strokes that give the background a northern touch and indicate an updated knowledge of the pictorial developments of the territories that stretch beyond the Alps. ’

Cristina Acidini, Superintendent for Historical, Artistic and Ethno-anthropological Heritage and for the Polo Museale of the city of Florence


Recuperating our spiritual heritage

Suor Plautilla Nelli - Saint Dominic receives the
, XVI century; Restoration 2009; San Salvi
Museum, Florence

‘Suor Plautilla Nelli’s lunettes are devotional pieces and they are part of our spiritual heritage. These forgotten or overlooked paintings by the first known woman painter of Florence, whose noteworthy talent still has the potential to inspire the modern mind, truly represent a brilliantly woven strip of Florence’s unique cultural fabric. This restoration is reason to celebrate. The ‘impossible’ proved possible. As these works become more fully revealed, we are all invited to discover another sacred piece of our forgotten historical selves.’

Rossella Lari, Restorer


A Technical Focus

Detail, Saint Catherine, pre-restoration

Detail, Saint Domenico, pre restoration

SUOR PLAUTILLA NELLI’s lunettes were found in storage in a state of considerable disrepair. Previously, a large amount of repainting had been executed in an attempt to redress their extensive loss of color and both paintings had been severely damaged by various causes, including centuries of pigeon droppings, whose acidic composition had corroded the paintings’ surfaces in many places.

Over time, rice paper storage tissue had inadvertently stuck to the panels, which were also sorely pockmarked in numerous spots: someone had taken a hammer to the crevice-ridden lunettes in a disastrous effort to minimize the panels’ uneven grain. The restoration of Nelli’s rediscovered lunettes was led by the director of San Salvi (Andrea del Sarto’s Last Supper Museum) and executed by Florentine restorer Rossella Lari. The restored works were unveiled in November 2009, in collaboration with the Soprintendenza del Polo Museale Fiorentino.


A restorer’s vision

Detail Saint Catherine receives the stigmata,

The restoration focused on thinning the varnish and completely removing any re-touching, so as to reveal the panels’ original paint and their real dimensions. We discovered that the shape of these lunettes had been modified several times in order to allow the works to be exhibited in different locations. A strip of wood glued transversally to the horizontal panels, for example, suggests that for a certain period of time these paintings had been placed inside wooden frames that no longer exist today.

The decision to integrate the missing parts of the panels’ pictorial surfaces brought about the project’s subsequent phases, which involved plastering their lacunae and applying watercolor, followed by the use of resin-based colors. The works were successively varnished to obtain homogeneous reflection conditions.

Thanks to an infra-red reflexology test, carried out by the National Institute of Applied Optics (INOA-CNR), we were able to better understand the genesis of these works. The test revealed that both paintings are the result of preparatory drawings in charcoal with dry point, which were probably traced from a cartoon. The reflexology study revealed that certain changes were made directly with paint during the works’ creation, which demonstrates how the painter constantly tried to achieve an increasingly precise definition of the figures as the various pictorial phases moved forward and the applied color set in.

During this restoration, it was possible to compare the two lunettes with Lamentation with saints, a painting by Suor Plautilla Nelli, housed in Florence’s San Marco Museum, which was restored in 2006 by Jane Fortune and The Florence Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts. This comparison allowed us to develop a technical study that focuses on how the paintings were created, as well as to observe various similarities between the works, such as the identification mark imprinted on the back of one of the lunettes. Although its shape is different, the same kind of mark was found on the two axes that support the San Marco painting. As is often the case, this restoration uncovered new knowledge. Yet above all, it has generated many other questions that bring together the work of the art historian, the scientist and the art restorer.

Rossella Lari, restorer for Suor Plautilla Nelli’s lunettes at San Salvi