2,000 Paintings by Female Renaissance Artists Have Been Found

Renaissance Venice at the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum, Madrid, Spain

If you’ve ever wondered if there's a female equivalent to Leonardo da Vinci, you’re not alone.

In 2009, a women-founded nonprofit based in Florence, Italy, set out to uncover the underrepresented female masters of Renaissance art. What they found was quite astonishing.

Linda Falcone, the director of the nonprofit Advancing Women Artists (AWA), explained to NPR that she "started going into museum storages and attics and checking what was actually there — what works by women."

Female artists were not given the same privileges or honors as their male counterparts because they were not allowed to enter academies, have citizenship, or produce art as a profession.

"It was something that had never been done before because no one had ever before asked the question, 'Where are the women?' " she said.

Founded by the late philanthropist Jane Fortune, AWA's goal has been to seek out the work of women artists who have been otherwise lost to time. Through investigations into Italy's museums and churches, they've managed to identify 2,000 works by female Renaissance artists and even "financed the restoration of 70 works spanning the 16th to the 20th centuries."

Falcone explained to NPR that a major reason female artists were not given the same privileges or honors as their male counterparts was because they were not allowed to enter academies, have citizenship, or "produce art as a profession."

"They couldn't issue invoices. They couldn't study anatomy," she said. "No in-the-nude figures, for example, because it just wasn't considered appropriate. The inability to study in the same forum as male artists is very significant."

These limitations led to women primarily painting still-lifes or small portraits, but despite all of the odds, many female artists continued on. We are discovering those artists thanks to organizations like AWA, which has discovered artists like Artemisia Gentileschi, daughter of the 17th-century painter Orazio Gentileschi; 18th-century prodigy Violante Ferroni; and 16th-century Dominican nun Plautilla Nelli.

Falcone says finding these women has been a process of healing. 

"Art is a living entity and a piece of art has its life," she told NPR. "You know, it gets hurt. It gets damaged. It needs renewal. It needs to be talked about and paid attention to, et cetera."

However, it seems this chapter of healing is coming to a close:  On the heels of all of their success and after more than a decade of work, AWA is slated to shutter next June for insufficient funds. 

"It's a victory because we're saying, wow, we're at a point where the museums are starting to place value on the female part of their collection," says Falcone.

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