Elizabeth Wicks and Marina Vicente working on the restoration of the painting "Saint John [San Giovanni di Dio] cures victims of the plague" by Violante Ferroni, which will be reinstalled at the San Giovanni di Dio Hospital in Florence. Photo: Francesco Cacchiani

Owhere are the women? This was the question posed by Advancing Women Artists (AWA) to museum spaces and visitors to tourist museums in Florence over the last 14 years. THE philanthropic organization americana dedicated itself to identifying, restoring and displaying works of art made by women in the city of birth of the Italian renaissance. Since its foundation, 70 works by different artists who lived between the 2020th and XNUMXth centuries have been restored, including paintings by Artemísia Gentileschi, Marisa Mori and Plautilla Nelli. In XNUMX, AWA announced the end of its activities.

The decision is linked to the lack of funds to continue the project. However, “while the closure is sad for many, it is actually a sign of 'victory', not defeat. AWA never sought to establish its perpetuation, it was created as a resource to raise awareness for the museums of Tuscany, so that – through individual conservation projects – they could shed light on little-known treasures, and restore the forgotten part of Art History”, says Linda Falcone, director of the organization. The team believes that this mission has been accomplished, as they see clear evidence of the continuity of the restoration project in the different institutions with which they have signed a partnership. At Uffizi Galleries are an example, while the number of works made by women in their permanent exhibition increased and, in 2017, they held a temporary solo exhibition by Plautilla Nelli. “We are determined to carry on the AWA mission and legacy,” declares Eike Schmidt, director of the Galleries, in an interview with The Art Newspaper. 

Stefano Casciu, regional director of museums in Tuscany, also echoes Falcone's ideas. In his opinion, the organization was very important for the rediscovery of the artists and their body of works. Supervisor of the administration of 49 museum spaces in Florence and surrounding cities, he says: “AWA's work was courageous and innovative, not only in the restoration of specific works, but through the expansion of knowledge about the participation of women in the history of Italian art. and in the museums of Florence”.

restoring stories

This legacy, however, is not only due to the conservation of paintings and sculptures. Complementing the process, the AWA team researched the lives of each artist who had their work recovered. “Our job was not to restore each and every work attributed to a woman,” explains Falcone. “What we seek is a permanent restoration of the personality of the artists and their productions”, she adds.

Most of the rediscovered artistic trajectories started from pieces that were part of the collections of Florentine museums, which was made possible thanks to the partnerships established with important institutions, such as the Uffizi Galleries, Galleria dell'Accademia, Complexos de Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella, Museum of San Marco, San Salvi, among others. Although the works were already preserved in these collections, they remained unknown and received less attention than works by internationally renowned male artists. This was the point that worried Jane Fortune, founder of the project. After being enchanted by a painting by Plautilla Nelli in the San Marco Museum, the American decided to pay for its conservation. Fascinated by the artist, she wondered how many others were in the same condition, with paintings in need of repair. The question became an objective: to give these women more visibility.

“Twenty years ago, it would have been more difficult to get funding to restore works attributed to unknown artists of the past,” says Schmidt. The director of the Uffizi Galleries believes that Advancing Women Artists has played an important role on the local and international stage in increasing popular interest in these works, and he hopes that local organizations will feel motivated to conserve more works by women.

However, to achieve Jane Fortune's goal, the process cannot end up within the archives. For the organization's team, the exhibition of the works is the only way to make these artists really known in Italy and in the world. Therefore, during the years of activity, they worked to establish permanent exhibitions of their work in museums and churches in Florence and, in some cases, supported temporary exhibitions. In addition, AWA has been looking for exhibition spaces around the world, where paintings and sculptures can be displayed temporarily – and then returned to the collections of Italian museums. “It is through education and the exhibition of these works in Florence and internationally that it will be possible to showcase this vital cultural legacy and its importance in Florence, Italy and the world”, declare the organizers on the project's official website.   

An ongoing process

For the project, they put women on the front lines. “It is an honor to be involved with the final AWA project. Over the years, the organization has provided precious opportunities for conservator-restorators to work on works by women artists – which in the past was rare,” explains Elizabeth Wicks, responsible for the restoration of Violante Ferroni’s painting, which is scheduled for release. be presented to the public in May 2021. 

For her, as well as for everyone involved in the team, one thing is clear: although the AWA's mission to research, document and exhibit works by artists ends with the delivery of this latest restoration, there is still a long way to go. There is still a large part of Italian Art History to be restored and presented to the public.  

Rossella Lari restoring Nelli's “Last Supper”. Photo: Francesco Cacchiani

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