Why have there been no great women artists? That was the trailblazing question posed by art historian Linda Nochlin in 1971. Now, a 21-foot painting of The Last Supper expertly rendered by female Renaissance artist Plautilla Nelli - resurrected from storage where it languished for 450 years before going on view in Florence's Santa Maria Novella Museum this month- nullifies Nochlin's question.

Plautilla who?

Consigned to oblivion for more than four centuries, this painting took four years to restore to its former glory courtesy of crowdsourcing and Advancing Women Artists.

What glory? Nelli's way of conveying the states of mind of the apostles. That's the painting's most distinguishing characteristic - "the expressions of emotion on the apostles' faces," according to art historian Linda Falcone in her Book "When the World Answered"

Then there are the words of the chief conservator for the restoration, Rosella Lari, Artnet News quotes her saying, "She had powerful brush strokes and loaded her brushes with paint. Plautilla knew what she wanted and had control enough of her craft to achieve it.

Big picture

Nelli had to control a lot of picture plane given its giant size that also included lifesize figures. The scale of the painting has its effect on author Jane Fortune who wrote in her review for Florentine Magazine: "I am overcome with a sense of wonder. There is no other way to feel when standing before this immense oil-on-canvas masterpiece, created in the 1570s by Florence’s first female painter."

School days

The wonder is that Nelli was self-taught.

Women weren't admitted to art schools, which Nochlin contended was one of the reasons there were no great female artists. Except maybe there were and got disremembered like Nelli. As Artnet News noted, "More female painters existed during the Renaissance than is immediately apparent."

Who knew?

Not that Nelli was a stranger in the Renaissance. Her fellow Florentines knew her as the first female artist of their time.

So did historian Giorgio Vasari. (More about what he said in a moment). But when museums in Europe carry on and on about the 500-year anniversary of Da Vinci's death, it's easy to see how Nelli might have been overlooked.

Old story

You might even say the overlooking began 450 years ago when she and all other women were barred from art school. Tara Field, writing for Artnet News explained the barring: "The social contract of the time did not allow women to hold any occupation outside of the home unless it was in a convent." Clearly aware of the ill-effect of keeping women from art training Vasari wrote of Nelli this way in 1568: “She would have done wonderful things if she had only studied as men do.”

Making history

Another first: Natasha Maura pointed out in Women in Art that Nelli's picture of Jesus at his final meal with his apostles was the first time in the history of art that a woman painted it.

And it was further significant owing to its mammoth size. Summing up, you have this colossal painting made by a woman who had no training at a time when women were kept from even making art. Even if Nelli's work was not excellent, her accomplishment would be heroic, don't you think?.

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