Church of Santo Spirito, Florence

Depicting male body

Whilst visiting Santo Spirito, Nelli may have used sculpture to understand male anatomy. Vasari, the world’s first art historian and an admirer of Nelli, wrote in his ‘The Lives’ that Nelli’s faces and figures of women were “much better and have much greater verisimilitude than her heads of men, because she was free to study women at her leisure” in the convent. Autodidact, nun and prioress living under constraints of convent, how was she capable of painting a nude male body, as depicted in Crucifixion? Nelli had inherited six hundred drawings by Renaissance painter, Dominican monk, Fra Bartolommeo who lived in the nearby monastery of San Marco. San Marco governed Nelli’s convent and she interacted with San Marco artists’ workshop, in particular with Fra Paolino who had been heir to Fra Bartolommeo’s drawings. A miniature oil-on-panel authored by Bartolommeo depicts a Crucifixion with Christ as a slender, schematic figure, very similar to Nelli’s. Also, Nelli owned a partial sketch of Michelangelo’s Risen Christ.