I have just returned from a week-long trip to Florence, during which I met The Renaissance Woman, Suor Plautilla Nelli. This is not an official title, but one that perfectly suits this fascinating artist who, despite the odds against women of her time, was busy creating enduring (and some enormous) works of art during the high Italian Renaissance of the 16th century.
Having the chance to “meet” Nelli was the perfect way to spend International Women’s Day on March 8th. Known in Italy as Festa della Donna, International Women’s Day is a day on which women around the world are celebrated by the men and women in their lives. I love the Italian tradition of giving mimosa flowers to women that you treasure.
On this particular March 8th, my last night in Florence before flying back to California, I brought several small bunches of the cheerful yellow flower to a dinner with friends at one of my favorite restaurants, Tuga. It has become a sort of tradition to go to this restaurant on my last night in town. Now to walk in there is to conjure up bittersweet feelings. I know I will have great food with great friends, followed by a goodbye, until the next time.
Ending this trip on Festa della Donna was not necessarily the plan. (The plan was to find the dates for the best deal on flights.) But it turned out to be apropos. From the outset, this trip was all about connecting with and celebrating strong women. First of all, my travel companion was a very important woman in my life, my mom. The story begins with a small tragedy for another important woman, my Tuscan Travel Group partner Brandy. Unfortunately, she badly sprained (tore!) her ankle just days before our departure and was rendered unable to travel. Though she felt guilty about sending me on the business trip on my own, and I felt extremely guilty about going without her, the decision was made to take the solo trip. Enter Mom. With less than 24 hours to go until lift off, she jumped on board. Now that’s pretty sprightly for a sixty something year-old.
The trip flew by quickly in a blur of cappuccinos, mouth-watering food, tours of beautiful rental properties and visits with beautiful friends.
My mom and I quickly settled into our routine. Each morning, while she slept in or took a morning stroll through our exquisite Florentine neighborhood, I would stave off jet lag with a work out. I attended 2 yoga classes in my friend Hirono’s studio (pictured), which was such a treasured part of my experience when my family lived in Florence 2 years ago. Hirono is an exceptional teacher, and it was incredible to be back in her beautiful studio, hearing her guiding voice. I also made it to 2 workout sessions taught by my friend, Boot Camp Sergeant Extraordinaire Christina (again, not an official title). I forgot how much I missed the burn of those classes, which were also part of my routine when we lived in Florence. But I had not forgotten how much I missed Christina and her amazing family.
Speaking of Christina, she and her husband Charles, who are two of the most hospitable people I know, provided the home base for this particular Tuscan adventure (pictured). When warm, welcoming people with exceptional taste renovate an apartment in the perfect location in Florence and make it available for rent, stay there. That’s my advice for the day.
Back to the routine— Each day, after aforementioned workout, I would return to the lovely apartment and pick up my mom. We would set out on our adventure of the day. Over the course of the week, we toured some spectacularly beautiful properties that I will be proud to add to Tuscan Travel Group’s portfolio, including some great apartments in the city and luxury estates in the countryside. Photos coming soon to the website.
We also toured what I’m convinced is the absolute best winery in the Chianti region (and there’s no shortage of good ones), met with a Florentine tour guide who regularly leads visitors on journeys through the Renaissance city and surrounding areas, met the butcher of Panzano (see strange photo), tasted Pecorino cheese in Pienza and tried some outstanding and memorable new restaurants in Florence. I’m very much looking forward to sending our guests on some of the adventures that we had during this trip.
When my mom and I woke up on the last day of our fleeting time in Florence, it was March 8th, Festa della Donna or International Women’s Day, and there was a palpable feeling in the air. It had been a fantastic mother-daughter trip as well as a very successful villa and services-scouting trip for Tuscan Travel Group. Most of the villa owners we work with are women. Without exception, they are savvy businesswomen who take pride in their hard work and in the beautiful setting of Tuscany. I’ve been so inspired by the women I’ve met over the years through this business, not only the villa owners but also entrepreneurial friends like Christina (boot camp and Zumba instructor) and Hirono (yoga instructor), who run their own businesses. On a day like March 8th, with the Tuscan sun shining after a few days of rain, and a feeling of solidarity with strong women everywhere, it’s time to celebrate.
Here’s where Plautilla Nelli (The Renaissance Woman) comes in. A couple of months ago, I read that the new director of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, German art historian Eike Schmidt, announced he would make an effort to showcase the works of women artists. As an amateur art history buff, I love this news. He launched this plan by opening an exhibit of Nelli’s work on International Women’s Day. The Uffizi (and all other state museums) were free for women that day, so we made our way over. First of all, the Uffizi never disappoints. Once the offices (“uffizi”) of the ruling Medici family of Florence, the building itself is grand and breathtaking. It also houses a dizzying collection of Medieval and Renaissance art, including the work of some of my favorites like Bronzino, who did some incredible portraits of Medici family members, and Botticelli, who is responsible for the famous Birth of Venus and Primavera. It was great to be in the company of these important works.
The Nelli exhibit exceeded my expectations. I did not know a great deal about the artist before visiting the exhibit. (Remember, my “art history buff” status is very amateur). But I knew that she was the most famous female artist of the Italian Renaissance. Her story is quite extraordinary, given the era in which she lived. She was born to a wealthy Florentine family but ended up in a convent. From what I know about the lives of Renaissance-era women, my guess is that her family may not have been able to afford the astronomical dowry required to marry her into a family of equal or higher social status. Some girls in this predicament were cloistered as early as 11 or 12. Nelli was just a couple of years older. Whatever the reason for her becoming a nun, there is little doubt that she was very devout. The subject of her work is, without exception, religious and very pious. Also, I learned that she was a follower of the Dominican monk Savonarola, who many thought was crazed in his preaching of self-deprivation and who was responsible for the Bonfire of the Vanities, a massive public spectacle during which Florentines were pressured to burn their worldly possessions. Savonarola felt that religious women should paint devotional artwork to avoid sloth. Crazy or not, we may have him to thank for the works of Nelli and some other nun-artists of the time.
I mention this background because I’m always interested to know what goes on in an artist’s mind and what inspires and drives her. So, it seems that Nelli was very devout and did not live a life of luxury or excess. However, her cup of talent runneth over. She is known for her detailed pencil sketches, many of which were on display at the Uffizi exhibit. She is responsible for an enormous life-sized The Last Supper, the first and largest work on the subject ever made by a woman. This painting is currently under restoration and, when ready, will be displayed at the Santa Maria Novella church in Florence. The Uffizi exhibit displayed a series of portraits Nelli painted of Santa Caterina of Siena. I snuck a flash-free photo of the display when the strict museum staff looked the other way (see photo). The portraits are beautiful and show so much emotion. In fact, many of the women in Nelli’s works are shown with life-like tears dripping from their eyes in moments of grief, loss or devotion. Her work is powerful and moving to the viewer.
For the recent prominence of Nelli and other female Florentine artists, in large part we have Jane Fortune to thank. I wrote about Ms. Fortune and her Advancing Women Artists Foundation in my Women’s Day blog post last March (here). Dubbed “Indiana Jane” for her tireless work in recovering lost art of the “forgotten half,” she has made a measurable difference in the Florence art scene for women. Last March, I wrote that I’d like to follow her Women Artists’ Trail map, which guides the reader through Florence on a tour of woman-made artwork available for public view. I remember thinking that unfortunately it wouldn’t take too long to follow the trail, as not much is actually on public display. However, as Ms. Fortune’s foundation and others continue to uncover and restore lost works, and as the Uffizi continues to display and celebrate artists like Nelli, the trail map may indeed grow busier.
This was a wonderful way to spend the last day of our trip. Now I am home, happy to see my family, Brandy’s ankle is on the mend, and we’re gearing up for a big website update with new properties and adventures. And hopefully, soon, we’ll be planning our next scouting trip to Tuscany. There’s always so much more to see.