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“They were rather shocked that we were interested specifically in restoring art by women. And I remember one specific curator said, ‘Well, if you would just open your base to men as well, we would have a lot of worthy things for you to restore.'”
Where are the women artists in museums? The non-profit organization Advancing Women Artists was inspired by this simple, powerful question. Though artists like Artemisia Gentileschi and Plautilla Nelli were prolific and successful in their lifetimes, their works often languished in storage or were left in states of disrepair in Florence’s museums. Yet when Linda Falcone, director of Advancing Women Artists (AWA), began approaching these museums around 2008 looking for art by women to restore and conserve, many told her they would have some incredible candidates if only she would open up her criteria to include art by men. However, AWA maintained its exclusive focus on women, and in the years since, the importance of showcasing and preserving art by women has become widely understood in Florence and around the world.
In this episode, Linda Falcone discusses the history of AWA and shares the stories of some of the groundbreaking women who worked from the 17th to the 20th centuries and whose art can be found in Florentine collections today.
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JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
LINDA FALCONE: They were rather shocked that we were interested specifically in restoring art by women. And I remember one specific curator said, “Well, if you would just open your base to men as well, we would have a lot of worthy things for you to restore.”
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with Linda Falcone about her work with the Advancing Women Artists Foundation and its efforts to preserve paintings and sculptures by women artists.
Established in 2008, the Advancing Women Artists foundation is an American not-for-profit committed to identifying, restoring, and exhibiting works of art made by women and on view in the churches and museums in Florence. The roots of the foundation lay in the Florence committee of the Washington D.C.-based National Museum of Women in the Arts. The committee was founded by Jane Fortune in 2003.
Linda Falcone has directed the Advancing Women Artists foundation since its formation. In 2009, Jane Fortune, with the participation of Linda Falcone, wrote Invisible Women: Forgotten Artists of Florence; and in 2014 the two jointly wrote When the World Answered: Florence, Women Artists and the 1966 Flood. Jane Fortune died in 2018.
Linda Falcone joined me on the podcast from her home in Bologna.
Thank you, Linda, for speaking with me today.
FALCONE: It’s my pleasure, Jim.
CUNO: Tell us how you first became interested in Florence and the women who painted there.
FALCONE: Actually, before I started working on Invisible Women with Jane Fortune, I didn’t know much about art by women. And she really shared her passion with me and more importantly, she shared her question with me, which was, “Where are the women?”
Obviously, I was living in Florence, and inspired by art, particularly from the Renaissance. And Jane, at one point, started asking, “Where are the women in the museums?” She had discovered a work in the San Marco Museum, by Renaissance artist Plautilla Nelli, and saw that it was, in some way, damaged, and wanted to restore it. So she began that process. And she asked me at one point if I would interested in working as a liaison person with the different museum directors and curators in Florence, so that she could continue this process of restoring art by women.
And I was working at the time as the managing editor of an English-speaking newspaper, and Jane was writing columns. And so we started working together on discovering which women were unknown to the public. And then when she was writing Invisible Women, she was diagnosed with cancer at a certain point, and she asked if I would complete her research and go into the museum storages and confirm that the things were where she thought they were. So yeah, it all started with the question.
CUNO: How easy was it to get the Italian authorities to allow you to gain access to these collections?
FALCONE: The awareness with regards to art by women has really grown in recent years. I got onboard in 2008, which was actually before the organization was founded. And when we originally began speaking with the curators, they were rather shocked that we were interested specifically in restoring art by women. And I remember one specific curator said, “Well, if you would just open your base to men as well, we would have a lot of worthy things for you to restore.”
Times have changed. It’s been fifteen years since that initial conversation, and we’re seeing that museum directors and curators in Florence, but all over the world, are becoming more and more interested in art by women. So the work that we’ve done with Advancing Women Artists really has involved people from all fields of knowledge, meaning conservators, museum executives, artists, even tour guides, et cetera. Anything that is linked to raising awareness to art by women.
So in terms of the response of the Italian authorities, I have to say that we’ve done amazing work together. Obviously, the works belong to the state; they belong to the city. They’re a part of civic collections; they’re part of religious collections. And the organization was founded as a resource for museums. And it really has been that. And I think that the doors have been opened, really on all levels, to make this mission known.
CUNO: Am I right that it’s only been in Florence that you’ve worked on this project, or have you taken the project to Bologna, for example?
FALCONE: We’ve worked in Florence and Tuscany. So sometimes different churches in Tuscany or villas, some of the Medici villas, we’ve worked with. But not as yet in other parts of Italy or the world. But certainly, the mission has been taken on by others in other places. I can see that with, for example, the various temporary exhibitions that are popping up with women artists in really important museums worldwide.
CUNO: And from the beginning, did you focus your attention on Renaissance painting? Because I know that since then, you’ve gone on to contemporary art and modern art, certainly.
FALCONE: It was originally Renaissance painting, simply because Jane’s first love was Plautilla Nelli. And she was very interested in rediscovering this Renaissance nun’s hidden story.
From there, the second piece that we restored was Artemisia’s David and Bathsheba, in Palazzo Pitti. And that was really when the organization was founded, per se, because we started to see so much interest from the public about the issue of art by women.
But through these years, really, we’ve started to restore works from five centuries. So it’s essentially from the 1500s to the 1900s. And that surprises people at times, because you don’t normally think of twentieth century works needing to be restored. But they’re actually much more difficult to restore than Renaissance works.
CUNO: Now, you’ve mentioned a couple of times the artist Plautilla Nelli. Let’s talk about her, because I think of her as the first known female painter of Florence, and as a Dominican nun. She painted, I think, between— or lived between 1524 and 1588. What do we know about her life, and how did you focus your first attention on her?
FALCONE: Nelli was, as you say, a Dominican convent artist. Something very special about her is that she was an entrepreneur, in addition to being an artist. And she founded, within the walls of her convent, an all-women workshop, and was able to become self-sufficient because of her painting.
This is significant because we know that women in Renaissance Florence weren’t citizens. They didn’t have legal status, and they certainly couldn’t issue invoices. So they couldn’t earn money. A lot of times, early women artists were paid in gifts; for example, they were paid in jewelry. Or art was considered an amateur pastime.
In Plautilla Nelli’s case, her clients included noblemen and women, because in the Renaissance, they believed that artwork by nuns had spiritual value. It was almost as if the nuns would imbue into their paintings, some sort of mystical powers. And so they would use, particularly these small-scale works, for their private chapels.
Nelli was able to capitalize on this feeling. She was also able to capitalize on the interest in simple art. Because in the Renaissance, the believed that religious art had to be very simple.
CUNO: What do you mean by that? Simple in form or simple in content?
FALCONE: Simple in form and content. Because Nelli was part of the School of San Marco. And the School of San Marco was very, very influenced by the teachings of Savonarolo, who we remember as the fire-and-brimstone preacher who was burned at the stake at a certain point. But he had a really specific philosophy on what art meant.
And in his view, art was supposed to be the Bible of the poor. And so it was supposed to be “readable,” quote/unquote, by women and children. Meaning very simple symbolism, really empathetic, in the sense that the viewer would have to be able to empathize with the subject.
So you have Nelli painting devotional works, very simple images—like a Saint Catherine, like a crucified Christ, for example—that people could very easily relate to.
CUNO: Now, Plautilla Nelli’s sister wrote a biography of Savonarolo. What kind of family did they come from that the family produced a painter and author?
FALCONE: They were educated at a young age. Their mother died of the plague. And their father was from a family of merchants. So they were high bourgeois class.
In the Renaissance, really, 50% of noblewomen were in convents. And so what you had is half of the educated female population is cloistered. When Nelli went into her convent, it wasn’t actually a cloistered convent; that happened a little bit later.
I say this because we often don’t think of convents as places of freedom for women. We consider them very closed and repressed places. But in reality, in the Renaissance, they were places of power and places of creativity. Places of power, because prayer was considered an agent of political power. And so all of the noblemen and aristocracy had their sisters in convents, and they would ask them to pray for their different interests, for example. And that was considered a source of power.
In fact, more than two women of the same family couldn’t be in the same convent because they feared female alliance— with rival families, feared female alliances to be formed. On the other hand, convents were also creative centers, because you see that a lot of artistic production. In Nelli’s case, painting, but there are also nun composers; there are nuns who were creating theater pieces, and even some of the great painters would bring drawings of their paintings, and the nuns would embroider off of very famous drawings.
CUNO: Now, her Last Supper, the painting The Last Supper, is notable not only for its size and scale—I think it measures some seven meters long, so it’s extraordinary—but also for its depicted emotion. Could you describe the painting for us?
FALCONE: Yes. The Last Supper is, as you say, an incredibly impressive piece. One, because it’s a choral piece, in the sense that you can recognize various hands. Nelli worked in true workshop style. We think there were as many as eight nuns working on the painting. It’s obviously a Last Supper, so there’s a whole feeling of camaraderie, both in the theme of the painting, but also how they created it.
It’s probably that Nelli saw an etching of Leonardo’s Last Supper, which at the time, was absolutely revolutionary, because Last Suppers before Leonardo were very static. They were oftentimes contemplative. Whereas Leonardo is the first who really showed emotion of the apostles. And Nelli emulates that. She actually chooses the moment in which Christ declares that he will be betrayed.
And so you have the different apostles reacting. You have each one of them saying— you know, raising their hand and saying, “No. Oh, no,” et cetera. So it’s a very human rendition.
And it’s human in another way, as well, because on the Last Supper table, there’s food In a lot of renditions—and I’m thinking, for example, of Andrea del Sarto, Andrea del Sarto’s Last Supper. You know, there’re empty plates. There’s, you know, a couple of pieces of bread, et cetera. But in Nelli’s, you have a full meal. You have lamb, you have lettuce, you have fava beans, a lot of wine, a piece of bread for every person, and porcelain and knives and forks.
So there is this idea that Nelli wanted her apostles to eat. And some say that’s representative of the fact that she was a woman, and was linked to dinnerware and food. But we think that a lo of the things that she put on the Last Supper table were actually part of the nuns’ dowries in her convent. And possibly, the porcelain was Chinese, which goes back to the fact that her father was a merchant. So these are all really, you know, interesting details, when you think about the context in which they were living at the time.
CUNO: I gather that the painting was painted for her home refectory, and was transferred 300 years later to the friar’s refectory in Santa Maria Novella, in 1853. What was the painting’s condition like when you saw it for the first time?
FALCONE: It had been very overpainted. Past restorations, oftentimes, they wouldn’t clean certain areas or repaint certain areas; they would simply repaint over the whole thing.
And so there was a lot of repainting. There was a very heavy yellow varnish. What the restorer ended up doing was cleaning the painting, you know, layer by layer, so that she could get down to the original layer. And at that point, you really see how many missing pieces there were.
In restoration, sometimes before you’re struck by how damaged the painting is, you have to wait a couple of months You have to wait for the restorer to reach the original paint. It’s always process of discovery, because you’re never as close to a painting as you are in the restoration studio.
CUNO: Do you remember the conversation you had with the refectory—that is, with the church’s refectory—about the cleaning of the painting, or trying to convince them that this painting needed to be cleaned or was worthy of being cleaned?
FALCONE: There was a lot of discussion because initially, they had given permission to clean it; but they wanted it to be cleaned onsite. It was placed in a modern-day dining hall, where the monks actually live and eat. It’s always more difficult to restore in the place. But the problem was never actually restoring the work; the problem was exhibiting it, because it was in a private venue within the monastery at Santa Maria Novella.
And through research, what we ended up discovering, and what the city curators ended up discovering, is that this painting belong to the church; it actually belonged to the city. Because with Napoleon’s reforms in the 1800s, what he did was take a lot of church property and transfer it to the state. Therefore, The Last Supper, which was a Dominican painting, became property of the city.
This was important, from our point of view, because the moment in which it became city property, we then got permission to exhibit it within the same complex, but in the museum, Santa Maria Novella. I can’t emphasize how important this is, because it’s essential that people see this work. It’s important to restore it, to restore the actual painting; but it’s also important to restore the painting to the consciousness of humanity, you know, so that we can know about it, we can understand that period and what she was actually trying to do.
CUNO: Yeah. Now, her Lamentation with Saints, which is now in the San Marco museum, was conserved by Rossella Lari, with whom you’ve worked on a number of projects, I guess. But describe the painting for us and its particular conservation challenges.
FALCONE: In the case of Lamentation with Saints, there was a problem with woodworm. And that’s common for panel paintings.
The Lamentation with Saints is one of her most famous works. You can see a lot of different relationships within the canvas, with the drawings of Fra Bartolomeo. One of the nicest parts of the various restorations that we’ve had the opportunity to do is that we’ve actually been able to prove that Nelli did, in fact, inherit his drawings. Because we see that Fra Bartolomeo and Nelli use the same cartoons.
CUNO: By cartoon, you mean the study drawing.
FALCONE: Yes. The study drawing.
This is important because a lotta people don’t realize that in the Renaissance, the painting wasn’t the thing; the cartoon was the thing. And they would oftentimes use what’s called a spolvero technique, with charcoal and pinprick little holes in it and then brush charcoal over, to trace it, to basically transfer the drawing onto a new canvas.
And so the great artists would make a drawing. Say Michelangelo would make a drawing, or Fra Bartolomeo, and all the other artists of the time would pass that drawing around and make their painting based on that drawing. So the fact that Nelli inherited Fra Bartolomeo’s drawings was incredibly significant. And this is something that we see within the Lamentation with Saints at San Marco.
CUNO: So it’s now in the museum at San Marco, but it was obviously painted not for the museum, but for something else. For whom was the painting painted?
FALCONE: Many of Nelli’s works were painted for her own convent of Santa Caterina. So that’s another thing to consider; the nuns were painting for themselves, as well.
CUNO: Tell us about the Baroque painter Giovanna Fratellini, who was born in Florence in 1666, and whose patroness, I gather, was the Grand Duchess Victoria della Rovere, a great noble family.
FALCONE: Fratellini was, I guess, typical of the Baroque period, of artists of the Baroque period. We have to consider that a lot of women artists were also ladies in waiting for, for example, the Medici grand duchesses. The grand duchesses themselves were often educated in art, and so they wanted their ladies in waiting to be women in the arts. You have Fratellini, who was a court painter for the Medici. And she worked a lot with portraiture.
Consider, for example, that women didn’t study anatomy. And so they created a niche for themselves, particularly in the Baroque period, in which portraiture became very important. And so they were working with fully-dressed sitters, you know, wearing quite interesting clothes and laces and jewelry, et cetera.
But this was particularly within the Medici dynasty, because what they would do was they would use painting as a way to further their status. Painting was a form of marketing. And so Giovanna Fratellini, for example, has at least thirty pastels at the Uffizi. The majority are in storage. But they were pastels of noblewomen. And so in order to gain Medici favor, for example, the Medici noblewomen would commission paintings or pastels representing other noble families, other noblewomen.
You know, this is the world without photography. And so how did the non-royal Medici, for example, with no aristocratic blood, make themselves well known? By gifting paintings. And women artists had a role in this. Fratellini had a role in this, for example.
CUNO: Now, she was a woman painter. And she had had a teacher who was a woman painter, Violante Beatrice Siries Cerroti, if that’s how you pronounce it. What was her—that is, the teacher’s—career like? And how common was it to be a woman teacher teaching a woman painter?
FALCONE: I wouldn’t say it was that common. But this was a fabulous example in Baroque Florence, because you have various women who are teaching other women. And Violante Siries Cerroti taught, for example, Maria Hadfield Cosway, the platonic love of Thomas Jefferson. But she was also an English painter who studied with Violante.
Violante’s father was a director of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure. It was a precious stones laboratory. He would do almost mosaic work with precious stones. So they would basically take paintings and make them into precious stone tables, more or less.
But Violante’s story is interesting because she was amazingly successful. And I think it’s really important to remember that women artists were very successful, as diplomates, on the one hand; but also as copy artists.
Violante Siries Cerroti was the first woman to copy at the Uffizi. The Uffizi was very liberal, compared to a venue like the Louvre, because the Louvre, if you were a woman and you wanted to copy in the gallery, you had to do it in the company of a bodyguard. Whereas the Uffizi, you could have a private room, and have the painting pulled down for you and brought for you to copy from.
I just wanna say something really quick about copying, is that we sometimes from a modern perspective, think that copying is a slavish imitation of the original. Whereas in reality, in the Baroque period and further on in history, they considered copies sometimes even as valuable as the original. And a lot of times, the rulers of Europe would want copies of great works to put in their own galleries. So there was a lot of collectionism. And Violante was able to zero in on this interest for copies.
CUNO: So she was copying as a way to sort of improve her skills.
FALCONE: Yes. Yes. And this was common for both men and women. It was sort of the thing to do.
CUNO: Now, if her teacher was Violante, Violante was also the teacher of Anna Bacherini Piatolli, whose husband, Gaetano Piattolli was also a teacher, as was their son, Giuseppe. So teaching the craft of painting or the art of painting was passed down from generation to generation within the family.
FALCONE: Yes. Yes. And they were also collectors. The Piatolli family are known to have had thousands of paintings and drawings by masters. Which I’m sure for her, would’ve been more than you could ever ask for, you know, you to have a collection from which to work.
It’s interesting. In the self-portrait collection, there’s a lovely self-portrait of Anna Piatolli. She has a very severe countenance. But she is shown copying gone of the grand duke’s favorite works, which was Andrea del Sarto’s Madonna of the Sack. And according to urban legend, let’s say, she showed herself in this pose hoping to get the grand duke’s favor, so that he would purchase the work. And in fact, he did.
The Medicis were very much in favor of purchasing women for their self-portrait collections because women artists were, on some level, seen as a marvel of nature.
CUNO: Women feature prominently in the collection of self-portraits in the so-called Vasari Corridor, which stretches over the Arno River, as a way to go from one side of the river to the other side of the river. Now it’s a gallery of self-portraits collected by the families. And there, we see self-portraits from the late eighteenth century French painter Vigée Le Brun and her Swiss contemporary, Angelica Kauffman. Tell us about the Corridor and the role of women in its collection.
FALCONE: The Vasari Corridor rignt now actually doesn’t host the self-portrait collection. It did for centuries. But several years ago, it was emptied because of conservation problems. The director of the Uffizi felt that the Vasari Corridor wasn’t an appropriate venue for these paintings, because there was no temperature control, for example. As you were saying, it’s a corridor over the river.
And so they were moved out and put into the storages of the Uffizi. And a little at a time, they are, with the reorganization of the gallery— Because galleries are living spaces; they’re dynamic, they’re not static, and things change. And so a little at a time, the self-portrait collection is going into different segments of the gallery.
CUNO: Well, tell us about the prominence—when it was a gallery itself—of artists like Vigée Le Brun and Angelica Kauffman. What sort of intermingling of artists were there between French and German and Swiss and Italian painters?
FALCONE: For example, if you look at Goethe’s Italian Journeys, she figures prominently in his descriptions of Italy, for example.
CUNO: Angelica Kauffman does.
FALCONE: Yes. She does, yeah. And there’s a lot of discussion, you know, of how famous she was. The same with Vigée Le Brun. You know, there’s this idea of, ‘Oh, how successful I am,’ in their own writings.
Vigée Le Brun’s self-portrait, for example, was almost received with some scandal. And the reason why it was scandalous is because you could see her teeth. It was considered, you know, very sort of risqué for a sitter to show her teeth, an open smile. And so in that way, she was revolutionary.
Angelica Kauffman has two self-portraits in the collection. And I’d like to— I mean, if you have the opportunity to go online and look those up. I wanna mention them because they’re incredibly different. One is a realistic self-portrait, in which you see this very simple Angelica, almost in a home dress, with her box of paints. She was very unhappy with that one; she didn’t feel like it represented her grandeur as a painter. So years later, decades later, she painted another one, in which she’s much younger and in which she is dressed almost like a Greek muse.
So I think with the self-portraits, we always have to think about what they were actually for. It was a form of self-promotion. It was a form of marketing. And Angelica Kauffman was amazingly skillful from that point of view. I mean, a lot of her works became printed on teacups, for example. She was one of the first whose art became linked to manufacturing products.
But she had a lot of really, you know, famous friends. And they say that when she was buried in Rome, you know, Rome had not seen such glory in a funeral, such pomp and circumstance, since the death of Raphael. So you know, she was high up, in terms of connections.
CUNO: And when she and the other women artists were collected together in the Vasari Corridor, that was a sign of some great achievement, because it was overwhelmingly self-portraits of men. Was there a political battle to get women into the Vasari Corridor?
FALCONE: There was interest. Starting with Pietro Leopoldo di Medici, he was very interested in having women in the collection. So you have Lavinia Fontana, you have [inaudible] Gusola[sp?], for example. It was actually kind of a new thing. Portraiture was a new— a new genre. And the Medici really supported portraiture, because as I said before, they wanted to promote themselves.
Because there was a whole pyramid of what art was considered worthy and what art was considered less worthy. And historical paintings were the most worthy, right? And still lifes were the least worthy. But what the Medici did was they made both still lifes and portraiture noble genres. So for women, that was really important. And that’s one of the reasons why we have so many works by women in Florence, is because the Medici supported those genres that women, quote/unquote, “could do,” still life being one of them.
And so women could, you know, paint their meal or paint a flower or paint themselves. And Frida Kahlo, in the 1900s, would say, “I can always paint myself, because I— I am who knows myself best.” You know. So it was a really important genre. The fact that they popularized the genre was very important.
CUNO: Now, we skip from Vigée Le Brun and Angelica Kauffman, we skip to Elizabeth Chaplin, an artist I’d never heard of before your book, who lived from 1892 to 1982, and whose uncle was surprisingly named Charles Chaplin, or [changes pronunciation] Charles Chaplin, but not the Charlie Chaplin. Was court painter to the French Emperor Napoleon III and the Empress Eugénie. Now, there’s something striking about her paintings and I was very grateful to you to introduce me to them.
The way that she captures the individual characters of her models, the way the sun falls across their forms. We see this in her 1906 Portrait of a Family and her Self-portrait with a Green Umbrella, which looks a little bit like Virginia Woolf, as she might have been painted by John Singer Sargent. Tell us about her and her family’s background, and tell us about her paintings.
FALCONE: Yes, Elizabeth Chaplin. If I’m not mistaken, the portrait with the green umbrella was painted when she was sixteen. So she was very precocious. And in fact, what is considered her “best art,” quote/unquote, was art that she produced when she was very young.
She has several works, I would say—about fifteen, if I’m not mistaken—in the Pitti Palace. And a lot of them are family scenes. She did a lot of portraiture of her family. She painted her sisters quite often. You see, you know, her youngest sister begins as a child and goes into adulthood, et cetera.
But she’s a wonderful colorist. Was considered a Nabis painter, but she’s self-taught. And her family is from France, as you said. They actually didn’t mean to live in Florence. Elizabeth Chaplin, her sisters, and her mother were on their way to Rome to meet up with her father. I think it was in the first decade of the 1900s. And they stopped off on the train, to take a break. And the mother, you know, sent a—we don’t know what they sent—a wire to the father, and said, “No, we’re living in Florence. We’re staying in Florence.” And so they set themselves up in a villa in Fiesole. She actually has another self-portrait in the collection, in the Uffizi collection, where she’s right in front of San Domenico, which is a district of Fiesole. Lovely colors again. Yes. She’s one to remember.
CUNO: Now, a prominent Baroque painter—you’ve mentioned her once already—Artemisia Gentileschi, opens and closes your earlier book. In the opening, she seems to stand for the invisible woman, which is close to the title of your book, Invisible Women, given her history as an overlooked artist in the shadow of her more prominent artist father, Orazio Gentileschi.
And in the closing of your book, she stands for the forgotten artist and the neglected work of art, a much-damaged painting by her, of David and Bathsheba, which languished in the Palazzo Pitti storage rooms for almost four centuries.
Invisible and overlooked women seem to be the theme of your books and the foundation. Have I exaggerated that?
FALCONE: No, that’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. And Bathsheba was interesting. I mean, Artemisia— Well, let me put it this way. Orazio Gentileschi is losing ground to Artemisia as we speak. She just had, as you know, a wonderful exhibition at the National Gallery in London. And is becoming really the superstar that she was in her time.
CUNO: I should interrupt you and tell you that if you don’t know already, that the Getty just recently acquired an Artemisia Gentileschi.
FALCONE: I read that, I read that. And it’s a Lucretia. Is it a Lucretia?
FALCONE: Yeah. No, I read that recently. It’s very exciting, and very much proves the point that there is such renewed interest in women. Artemisia’s Bathsheba, the painting at the Pitti, which you mentioned, was really significant, because so much of the painting was damaged.
How they ended up restoring it was by using neutral tones, so that they wouldn’t repaint. Because the restorers felt, and the museum executives who led the project, felt that if they repainted it would no longer be an Artemisia. So what happened was, the protagonist of the painting is missing an eye. So she can’t see. And for us, she has always represented, you know, the protagonist who can’t see and who can’t be seen.
So she was the invisible woman. And I’m really happy to say—and I know Jane would be so happy—that she is no longer an invisible woman. I mean, in Artemisia’s case, she really is gaining ground.
CUNO: Now, in 2014, with Jane Fortune, you cowrote When the World Answered: Florence, Women Artists, and the 1966 Flood. What attracted you to write this book when you did?
FALCONE: We were moving towards the fiftieth anniversary of the 1966 flood. When the Arno River flooded, 600,000 tons of mud, water, and rubble invaded the city. And I think 14,000 works of art were damaged. And this situation basically made Florence into one of the foremost restoration centers in the world.
It hadn’t been before that. But really, with so many art victims they had to suddenly become experts in the field. And a lot of people came from abroad, et cetera, and a lot of students came from abroad to help save, quote/unquote, “Western civilization.” Because really, we were struck in the heart of Western civilization when Florence was damaged in this way. A lot of the artwork from that period still needs restoration. And I think that we often find flood victims.
The Last Supper was a flood victim. Not because it was immersed in the floodwaters, but because the floodwaters had gone into the walls of the convent, and from the back, seeped into the painting. And this is the case with a lot of different paintings.
Violante Siries Cerroti, we discovered in 2015 that her painting had also been a flood victim. And we realized it when we took it out of the niche and saw that basically, mold had eaten through the painting from the back and caused a huge hole in the cheek of the baby Jesus. It was a Madonna and Child.
So essentially, restoration was always at the front of our mind, on the one hand. But what was really important was when these artworks were lost, modern-day artists donated their works to, quote/unquote “replace” what the city had lost. And so there were hundreds of women, as well, who donated. And Jane and I really were interested in gathering their stories. Some of them are still alive, and we really wanted to interview them. We wanted to hear what kind of works they were producing, and some are still producing. There are two in particular who are sculptresses, who are still producing, and we were able to interview them and visit their studios, et cetera.
So it was a very meaningful experience to be able to see this connection between the past and the present. That’s something that we’ve always tried to do with restoration. But also to gather the memory of people who are living, as well. Because artists oftentimes, for them, the painting is the thing. For someone who comes later and wants to study, we also need words. We need archives, we need documents, we need photographs. And so that’s part of the work that we do.
The restoration process is never just the material restoration of a painting; it’s the restoration of a whole process: the artist’s techniques, the diagnostics, the life story of the artist, her personality and how that comes out in how she works, et cetera. With the flood ladies—we called them the flood ladies—we were able to talk about a lotta things that really has[sic] influenced Florence immensely.
Also because there’s a real feeling of, you know, “Oh, in 1966, we really rolled up our sleeves and we all saved the city, and we all band[sic] together and we all worked together and—” I mean, we need to continue that idea. We don’t need a tragedy to safeguard what is ours. I mean, to safeguard the treasures that have been left to us from posterity.
CUNO: Now, you and your friend Jane Fortune, your coauthor, you close the book with these words, “This is not the end of the journey; it is merely the beginning.” What’s next for the Foundation?
FALCONE: Well, right now, we’re just about to inaugurate two paintings. We’re finishing a project called The Art of Healing, by another Violante, Violante Ferroni, a little bit later. She was born in 1720. She worked with the end of the Medici dynasty.
So we’re restoring two large-scale works in a hospital that was once home to Amerigo Vespucci, who discovered America. And it was a hospital built for plague victims, by the followers of this Portuguese saint, Saint John of God. And so that will happen in the end of May.
And then AWA is closing its doors in June. The organization had actually meant to finish with the restoration of The Last Supper, but really, there was so much, you know, good will and so much interest that we decided to do a final project, which was Violante’s project, The Art of Healing.
And it ended up being actually very apropos for the time that we’re living in. And I know for the restorers, to have restored a painting on plague victims, healing plague victims, in this period of time, has been really significant, because it no longer was only a historical sort of theme, but it was a very modern theme.
CUNO: Yeah. Well, Linda, thank you for speaking with me today. Thank you for your good and noble work, and it’s great to have you here.
FALCONE: Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.
CUNO: This episode was produced by Zoe Goldman, with audio production by Gideon Brower and mixing by Mike Dodge Weiskopf. Our theme music comes from the “The Dharma at Big Sur” composed by John Adams, for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003, and is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and other podcast platforms. For photos, transcripts, and more resources, visit getty.edu/podcasts/ or if you have a question, or an idea for an upcoming episode, write to us at email@example.com. Thanks for listening.
JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
LINDA FALCONE: They were rather shocked that we were interested specifically in restoring art by wo...
“The Dharma at Big Sur – Sri Moonshine and A New Day.” Music written by John Adams and licensed with permission from Hendon Music. (P) 2006 Nonesuch Records, Inc., Produced Under License From Nonesuch Records, Inc. ISRC: USNO10600825 & USNO10600824
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Fabulous topic. Linda Falcone is very knowledgeable