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If you lived in France in 1854, your neighbors probably did not include striped, round-snouted quaggas or strong-haunched kangaroos. Chances are also good you didn't routinely encounter a scarlet ibis, tapir, or peccary. But at the time, a group of zoologists and anatomists, under the auspices of the Société Impériale d'Acclimatation, dreamed of a world where these creatures and many more could be imported to mingle happily on French soil. In a dreamy, single-page chart issued by the printers Bouasse-Lebel around 1854, 75 animals, insects, plants, and trees from around the world share a single pastoral scene, with a cottage in the background and a sunset melting across the sky. The idea wasn’t entirely fantasy, but rather a way to show the variety of species that the society hoped to bring to France.
Acclimatization was hot for part of the 19th century, when societies in France, Britain, and several European colonies dreamed of swapping species back and forth in service of expanding the options for flocks and herds of domesticated animals. (Societies in Australia and New Zealand, for instance, were keen on foreign fish—particularly salmon and trout from Europe and North America—and complained that there were few local animals worth hunting.) Michael Osborne, now an emeritus historian at Oregon State University, has described these efforts to resettle creatures from around the world as a key function of “Europe’s colonial enterprise.” As science writer Cara Giamo wrote in a previous Atlas Obscura article, the driving principle behind acclimatization squared perfectly with the colonial agenda: It was predicated on “the idea that European powers knew what was best for the entire world, and deserved both to spread their own way of life to all four corners of the globe, and to harvest all of the earth’s fruits.” Georges Buffon—an 18th-century naturalist who inspired acclimatization’s champion, Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire—could easily have been talking about the entire colonial enterprise when he said of animals, “It is for us to tame and render them subservient to our wants.”
The reasons for selecting a particular species for potential acclimatization ranged from fashion envy—a desire for, say, soft cashmere or Angora wool—to the desire to expand culinary ambitions, writes Harriet Ritvo, a historian at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in the anthology The Ark and Beyond: The Evolution of Aquarium and Zoo Conservation. In a caption on the chart, its authors claim that they're out to vary and improve food reserves and economic resources. "There’s a mix of alleged motives” behind acclimatization movements, Ritvo says in an interview. Many of its wealthy, estate-owning enthusiasts “really were kind of romantics,” she adds. Some of them “just kind of liked the idea of jazzing up the local fauna.”
The idea of a national Noah’s ark sounded pretty good to many people, and by the 1860s, the French society boasted several thousand members and a sprawling home base, the Jardin D’Acclimatation in Paris’s Bois de Boulogne. The attraction was part zoo, part proof of concept. “It included the attractions that had become standard for a zoological garden and were consequently required by the general public—big cats, elephants, and other iconic animals,” Rivto writes in the anthology. “But these constituted only a part of its collection, and not the most important part, at least in theory or principle.” Instead, its custodians considered it “a laboratory for the study of acclimatization” of both plants and animals.
But the garden’s grand acclimatization experiment didn’t last long. Many of the animals were removed the following decade during the Siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War. Legend has it that as bellies grumbled across the city, some of the garden’s former tenants were butchered and served by renowned chef Alexandre Étienne Choron: some well-off human residents were reportedly fortified with kangaroo stew, roasted camel, and more. The garden eventually had a spell as a baldly racist “human zoo” that displayed people from all over the world as curiosities.
The trouble with the acclimatization agenda, Ritvo writes, was that many of the plans were too “ambitious and fanciful” to work. The society members often leapt to action with little regard for which how a species might fare—failing to dig into which plants love a drought, or prefer their roots to be waterlogged, or which animals were equipped to handle a French winter. In some cases, species that had been domesticated—anywhere—were thought to be reasonable candidates. “There are some things they couldn’t replicate,” Ritvo says. “If you get an animal that’s used to the savanna in Africa and you bring it to London, it’s probably going to expire.” According to one of the society’s reports, though, it ought to have been easy. The key to helping a species settle in was apparently just “time and patience.”
The plants, animals, and insects struggling to adapt to a changing climate all over the world are proof that it takes much more than that. Overall, “there wasn’t much uptake,” Ritvo says, though a few species did settle in, in various places. European starlings, released in (among other places) New York City’s Central Park, by a Shakespeare enthusiast who wanted to fill North American skies with the feathered characters from the Bard’s plays, now number more than 200 million between Alaska and Mexico, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. More commonly, though, societies struggled, including in their quest to convince local agriculturalists that they needed new stock. “If you’re an ordinary farmer, you’re probably perfectly happy with the cows and sheep and pigs you have already, and you’re not feeling the need to introduce a llama or a bison or anything like that,” Ritvo says. The experiments were also “expensive and risky,” she adds, and many animals died in transit.
The acclimatization frenzy largely fizzled by the late 19th century. But the legacy lives on—some societies are still kicking, but have evolved into natural history organizations—and if you find yourself in Paris today, you can still visit the Jardin. The flower-studded grounds recently got a makeover, and the attractions now include amusement rides, wooden boats, as well as rabbits, guinea pigs, goats, and sheep roving around a charming, thatched-roof farm—named after Saint-Hilaire. Just don’t expect to see any quaggas—those South African zebras have vanished not just from Paris, but from the rest of the planet, too. Today, the chart and garden are pretty monuments to an experiment that could never have gone quite as planned.
On a stormy October night several centuries ago, Melckmeyt (“Milkmaid”), a Dutch merchant ship, wrecked off the miniscule Icelandic island of Flatey, in a smuggler’s run gone awry. Since the wreck of the 108-foot vessel was rediscovered under 40 feet of water in 1992, maritime archaeologists have pored over the remains to learn everything they could about it and the circumstances that brought it to Iceland and then sent it to the depths. Now, to commemorate the 360th anniversary of the shipwreck, archaeologists have released a 360-degree virtual dive experience so the public can experience Melckmeyt (nearly) firsthand.
The dive, which can be navigated on YouTube (below; click and drag to look around) or using a VR setup, takes viewers on a brief tour of the length of the vessel’s remains as they appear today, with labels for the parts of Melckmeyt. Then, the experience takes another pass—this time alongside a reconstructed Melckmeyt, showing what it may have looked like the day after the storm that ended its maritime career.
John McCarthy, a maritime archaeologist at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, built the model, which was originally only available to be experienced at the Reykjavík Maritime Museum. He describes it as 2.5-D, since a more immersive 3-D version would have taken some serious computer power, making it available to fewer people.
“We wanted it to go out into the public, and show it to people,” he says. “We showed it to every single person that lives on [Flatey]. All five of them.”
To build the model of the wreck as it appears today, McCarthy’s team created a photogrammetric mesh—combining sonar data with actual photos—of the entire wreck. And to develop the historical view of the ship just after it sank, McCarthy used as a reference his collection of dozens of model ships.
“I've traveled all over Europe to get them, to try and build up this library of 17th- and 18th-century Dutch merchant ships,” he says. “These are some of the most famous ships in the discipline of maritime archaeology.”
Melckmeyt was a flute ship—what some call the “workhorse of the merchant marine,” McCarthy says. It was owned by Dutchman Jonas Trellund, for whom business was booming in 1659. Sweden was at war with Denmark, and Trellund was a merchant of the most intrepid sort. He sent his fleet of seven ships to Danish-ruled Iceland under a false Danish flag, which enabled him to fill the trade vacuum created by Sweden’s pressure to keep actual Danish ships in port. So the wreck of Melckmeyt represents war profiteering, gutsy commerce, and the opportunism of the Dutch mercantile empire. Though Melckmeyt was the only ship that ran aground that night, Trellund’s fortunes turned in time, and he died destitute around 1680.
“The Baltic was filled with thousands of these ships every year,” says McCarthy. “They were the backbone of the wealth of the Netherlands. You see them in a lot of paintings, but actually finding intact shipwrecks of the type is quite rare.”
Now digitally recreated and widely available, Melckmeyt offers a glimpse of this submerged history to people who would rather stay high and dry than brave the frigid North Atlantic in person.
“Most people have never been to Iceland or these remote locations where these shipwrecks are found,” McCarthy says. “I'm hoping that people will get an otherwise completely impossible chance to experience what it's like to visit this site.”
"Meeting Place" is a statue located in one of Dublin's most popular shopping areas. Unlike many of the city’s statues, which honor famous Dubliners such as James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, and George Bernard Shaw, "Meeting Place" was designed to reflect everyday city life.
The bronze sculpture was created by Jackie McKenna and put in place in 1988 in one of Dublin’s busiest shopping areas. It shows two women chatting together while sitting on a stone bench. At their feet are two shopping bags, also sculpted in bronze. One of the bags is from Arnotts, the oldest and largest department store in Dublin, which has its flagship store on nearby Henry Street. Shortly after the statue’s inauguration, one of the bags was stolen. It was replaced, and now both are securely attached to the ground.
"Meeting Place" is a tribute to the women of the city, but has nonetheless become widely known by a less-than-flattering nickname. Like many Dublin statues, it has been rechristened by the locals and is commonly referred to as “Hags with the Bags” (and occasionally “Slags with the Bags”).
In 2017, the two women were given a voice. "Meeting Place: was included in the Talking Statues Dublin project, whose aim was to bring Dublin's statues to life using some of Ireland's most celebrated writers and actors.
Passersby can use their phones to scan the QR code located on the statue’s plaque, or type in the provided URL. Upon doing so, the phone will ring and the statue will start to talk. Ten statues were included in the project, allowing you to hear the likes of Joyce, Wilde, Bernard Shaw, George Salmon, and Molly Malone.
Meeting Place was voiced by Brenda Fricker, the Irish stage and screen actress who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in My Left Foot. So before you visit Dublin, download the Talking Statues map and take a few calls from some famous Irish figures.
Hot Springs, Arkansas, is home to a national park unlike any other. In addition to its springs and bathhouses, the area is well-known for its storied history of illegal gambling, hiding fugitives, and protecting underworld figures. Al Capone had his own room in the town's Arlington Hotel, while Bonnie and Clyde bathed in the healing waters to recover from injuries.
Although it's no longer a haven for criminals, Hot Springs remains a popular destination for anyone in search of R&R. Walking down one side of Central Avenue today, you'll find a strip of cafes and shops. On the opposite side of the same street, you're in a U.S. National Park lined with a row of bathhouses. After lying vacant for decades, one of these bathhouses has found a new purpose. Superior Bathhouse—a destination where guests could once get hydrotherapy and mercury (yes, mercury) treatments in the early 20th century—is now a brewery. Here, enterprising brewmaster Rose Schweikhart makes beer using the town’s 144-degree spring water.
Superior Bathhouse Brewery serves everything from kölsch to stout to IPAs. They even offer a hot springs–based root beer. As the first brewery in a U.S. National Park, and the only one that relies on thermal spring water, Superior Bathhouse Brewery is as unusual as the place it calls home.
Italy is undoubtedly one of the world’s culinary epicenters. Techniques and recipes honed over centuries, brought to or born on the fertile peninsula, have spread worldwide, attracting millions of tourists each year seeking pinnacles of gastronomy.
On the other hand, Italy’s international food scene leaves much to be desired. Justin Yip pulls no punches: “It’s the worst place in the world for non-Italian food.” Two years ago, he opened the first and likely only Malaysian food truck in the country.
In many ways, Yip’s truck, Sate & Sake, is the antithesis of Italy’s food culture. Selling traditional satays and currys to the robust student population of Turin, Malaysian-born Yip stands for fast-casual foreign fare in the home of three-ingredient masterpieces and the Slow Food movement.
He’d hoped to build a business by feeding Asian exchange students. Instead, it’s the Italians themselves who are the backbone of his clientele—over 90 percent, by Yip’s estimate. “I was hoping to win over some Italians, but I didn’t expect this many,” he says.
The culture isn’t exactly begging for alternative eating formats. In 1986, hundreds gathered at the Spanish Steps in Rome to protest the opening of Italy’s first McDonald’s franchise by handing out free bowls of penne. The protests birthed the Slow Food Movement, whose ranks now number in the millions, spanning more than 160 countries. It’s headquartered in Bra, Italy – an hour from Yip’s truck.
Italians don’t have the world’s most adventurous palates, either. “My friends say it’s too spicy,” says Andrea Fogli, an Italian engineering student who travels alone to eat Yip’s food. “I think it’s because they’re wary to try something new.”
Another Sate & Sake regular, Malaysian-born transportation student Hasan Rosman, runs into the same issue cooking for Italian friends. “They’re very arrogant about foreign food. They’re used to simple ingredients, so when they try something more colorful and vivid, they worry they’ll have stomach problems.” A 2011 study showed that 40 percent of Italians had never eaten any foreign food.
Given this lack of appetite for foreign fare, Turin, like many Italian cities, offers little in the way of non-Italian cuisine. The handful of Chinese buffets and sushi restaurants it does offer, says Rosman, “lack a certain level of emotion."
If the generalizations are just that, municipal legislation is illuminating. In 2009, the Tuscan city of Lucca stopped issuing permits to non-Italian eateries, as one city council member said, “to preserve our cultural and historical identity.” The same happened in Forte dei Marmi in 2011, and again in Florence in 2016. Culinary patriotism hit a fever pitch when the Minister of Agriculture appeared in a news conference to back these measures that banned foreign cuisine. Asked if he’d ever eaten kebab, he replied, “No. I prefer the dishes of my native Veneto. I refuse to even eat a pineapple.”
Yip moved to Italy nine years ago and earned a degree from the University of Gastronomic Science in Bra. He says he fell in love with the country and opened the truck as a means to stay, but also to expose Italians to a world beyond their own heritage. “I hate to see people turn their nose up at something they’ve never tried before. They don’t want to know. I wanted to change that.”
He knew he’d have his work cut out for him. When presenting something new in a food mecca, says Rosman, “you have to make it right the first time.” To change minds and make a good first impression, he spears more than 200 chicken skewers, which soak overnight in a marinade he’s spent years perfecting, every morning.
But unrealistic food-truck regulations made simply parking his truck a challenge all its own. By law, the truck must be relocated every hour, even though it takes him 15 minutes to set up and another 15 to pack up. He’s also barred from operating within 200 meters of a school or 100 meters of a church. “But this is Italy,” he says, “there’s a church on every corner.”
Yip quickly learned that if he parked under a pedestrian bridge between two buildings, the authorities would leave him be. The son of a nurse and a surgeon, he's not sneaky by nature. To run his business, however, “I’m totally flouting the law,” he says, “but I guess that’s a very Italian attitude itself.”
Over the years, Yip has perfected the art of employing traditional Malaysian techniques to make satay Italians love. “I’ve lived here so long I can almost think like an Italian in terms of food,” he says. While he cut the spiciness and sweetness from Malaysian standards (“Sweet and savory don’t mix here”), he takes care to spear a bit of chicken skin between each chunk of thigh meat. “That’s how traditional satay sellers do it in Malaysia, that’s the secret,” he says. A healthy charring adds flavor as well as texture.
Yip knew getting Italians to eat fast-casual Malaysian would be an uphill task, but figured, “Who doesn’t love barbecue?” Italian-born media student and now Sate & Sake-regular Lorenzo Dell’Anna certainly does. “I didn’t know what satay was,” he says. “It was a bit crunchy, but also tender, which really made it one of a kind. There’s nothing like Justin’s truck anywhere in Italy.” For Rosman, Yip’s satay hits on nostalgia; he grew up in a Kuala Lumpur neighborhood called Kajang that's famous for its satay. “Justin makes satay just how I remember eating it as a child,” he says.
The warm Italian reception still surprises Yip. “Seeing my customers every day, I can sometimes forget that not every Italian would like my food. But whatever, it’s a free market.” If the next two years look like the last, he is prepared to open a brick and mortar location in Turin. He now hopes, with his food, to invite others to faraway lands: “I want to let them experience a world outside of Italy which is scary, which is exotic, and might have some offensive flavors.”
Johnstone Castle isn't in the usual setting for such an old, storied building. You won't find any snow-capped mountains or black woodland here. Instead, the remains of this 16th-century castle are surrounded by ordinary terraced homes, with the castle forming the center point of a post-war housing development.
The castle itself originally belonged to the Laird of Houston. In time, it passed through the hands of Archbishops and other nobility. By coincidence, the listed building played host to a number of Polish guests over the years. First was famed composer Fredric Chopin, who stayed as a guest in the castle in 1848. Less than 100 years later, Polish soldiers were billeted on the grounds during the Second World War. Afterward, it saw service as a POW camp.
Brought into private ownership and refurbished in 2001, Johnstone Castle is now a private dwelling, but visitors can read the plaques and information boards on the street outside.
Painted in the trompe-l’oeil style (trick the eye), "Le Mur des Canuts" is a gigantic mural depicting ordinary life in the La Croix-Rousse neighborhood of Lyon, France. Hyperrealistic in imagery and packed with intricate details, this massive mural is considered one of the largest displays of public art in Europe.
CitéCréation, a group of mural painters, initially created the mural in 1987 to pay homage to the history of the neighborhood. La Croix-Rousse was the economic nerve center of Lyon’s silk industry during the 19th century. The word canut in French means "weaver" and refers to the silk weavers who lived and worked in La Croix-Rousse. In the late 19th century, nearly half of Lyon's working population was employed by the industry.
Although La Croix-Rousse is no longer the hive of silk weaving activity, the quarter still takes pride in its moniker of being "the hill that works." It's this indomitable spirit that led La Croix-Rousse’s silk workers to revolt against the silk merchants in 1831, protesting their harsh working conditions.
Since its inception, the mural has been updated twice, once in 1997 and then again in 2013, keeping in tune with the transformations of the neighborhood. The mural is filled with colorful buildings, high windows rendered in pastel shades, a stone stairway, a small theater Guignol, and of course, a silk shop. The landscape of the painting also features several Croix-roussiens, the inhabitants of La Croix-Rousse. Life-like and three-dimensional in effect, this mural is an integral part of the architectural heritage of present-day Lyon.
This Western-themed American diner is hard to miss. The 36-foot tall neon cowboy in an apron out front is far from subtle, making the full-sized fiberglass palomino horse overlooking the outdoor patio seem quaint. It also may be the westernmost traditional diner in the country.
William Lyman Davies fell in love with the diners of the East Coast while traveling the country as a restaurant supervisor for over 20 years, but lamented the lack of diner culture back home in Colorado. When he returned in 1947, he saw U.S. 40—the main East-West route through the small city of Lakewood at the time—as the perfect spot for a diner, with throngs of tourists and truckers passing daily. The fact that the closest diner manufacturer was over a thousand miles away would not sway him.
In 1957, the two 50-foot-long halves of what is now Davies’ Chuck Wagon were shipped by rail from New Jersey to the foot of the Rocky Mountains. The tabletop jukeboxes are originals, playing everything "from Country to Rock & Roll." The prefabricated steel eatery is one of the last of its kind, earning it a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.
While diners typically attract out-of-towners passing through, the familial staff of Davies’ Chuck Wagon over the years has earned the diner more local favor: 80 percent of the customers are regulars. When a municipal bill was put forth in the 1990s to address roadside distractions that caused highway accidents, the town rose up in support of the diner's oversized mascot. After a five-year court battle, the diner kept its cowboy.
Although diners like this largely fell out of fashion throughout the second half of the 20th century, Davies' Chuck Wagon became a staple of the Lakewood skyline, standing out much like any 36-foot neon chef-cowboy would anywhere.
Located right by the Roma Street train station and Brisbane police station headquarters, this giant iconic Australian animal statue is hard to miss. She seems to have her hands tucked into her pouch, and is shown striding forward in large wellies (waterproof boots).
Smiling slightly even though she’s rather isolated on a traffic island, "Emblem" is artist Geoffrey Ricardo's humorous tribute to the Australian coat of arms inspired by “the peculiar notion of using an animal totem to represent the virtues of a group or culture which is ambivalent towards it.”
That’s probably true, since the kangaroo is on Australian coins and is seen almost everywhere in various forms across the country. Despite this, it’s still a shock for many to learn that Aussies eat kangaroo meat (though hunting them is illegal).
"Emblem" isn't the only artistic depiction of a kangaroo you'll find in the city. There’s also a statue of a kangaroo in Brisbane’s Botanic Gardens, and on busy George Street a gang of four shifty-looking "City Roos" made out of scrap metal by local artist Christopher Trotter loiter around a couple of benches.
In the early 1990s, Jonathan Nelson was searching for a little-known but historic Florentine painting: “Last Supper” by Plautilla Nelli, an Italian nun who is said to have taught herself to paint in the 16th century. Nelson, an art historian, was working on the first-ever book about Nelli, but he wasn’t sure whether her painting of the famous Biblical scene still existed, or where, exactly, it had ended up. He tried the museum of Santa Maria Novella, a Dominican church where it was last seen in the 1930s. When he couldn’t find it there, he asked the father superior for permission to enter the Santa Maria Novella monastery.
“It was in the refectory used by the friars,” says Nelson, who now teaches at Syracuse University’s Florence Program. “I had to go see it right after lunch.” A refectory is a dining hall or cafeteria used by nuns or monks, traditionally decorated with a Last Supper, and this refectory, Nelson recalls, was far from monumental. “This was a simple, modern room that had this Renaissance painting on the wall, and beneath it was a Formica table that had the remains of the friars’ lunch,” he says.
Nelson didn’t even notice Nelli’s signature in the painting’s upper left corner, until he returned to study the work with conservation-grade lighting. “It says orate pro pictora, which is ‘pray for the painter,’” he says. “So the scene you should imagine is that, with some dirty plates next to us, in a dirty, humble room, we’re looking at an unknown work that virtually no one had ever seen. And we found the artist speaking to us, asking us to pray for her. It was a moving moment.”
Nelli’s “Last Supper,” completed around 1568, was remarkable for several reasons. Of eight iconic paintings in Florence that showed Jesus dining with his 12 apostles, six were frescoes, painted directly onto wet plaster and nearly impossible to move. But this one was portable, painted on a canvas that had moved several times over the centuries. More strikingly, this was the first-known depiction of the Last Supper by a woman worldwide. Both these facts help explain why the painting still exists—and why it was just unveiled in public for the first time in 450 years.
Plautilla Nelli first picked up a paintbrush at Florence’s Santa Caterina da Siena convent, which she entered at age 14 in the footsteps of her older sister. The convent attracted many creative women from respectable Florentine families, and within its cloistered walls, Nelli and her sisters painted and sold manuscripts, devotional paintings, and embroidered textiles. Nelli is often described as Florence’s first woman painter, and she was either taught how to paint by another nun, or, more likely, taught herself.
Soon she was painting large, elaborate compositions, highly uncommon for women at the time. Her “Last Supper,” created for the refectory of Santa Caterina, was especially ambitious. At roughly 23 feet wide and six-and-a-half feet tall, the canvas was almost as long as Leonardo da Vinci’s famous take on the subject, and filled with life-sized figures. Nelli’s grand project would have required scaffolding and assistants, an expensive undertaking that the nuns proudly paid for themselves.
Nelli didn’t paint her “Last Supper” background to look like the dining hall it was designed for, a trick other artists used to make the scene relatable. Instead, she showed Jesus and his apostles dining on the same food that Santa Caterina’s Domincan nuns ate: a whole roasted lamb, bread, wine, heads of lettuce, and fresh fava beans—the last two dishes unprecedented in any depiction of Christ’s last meal. The fava beans were a wink to local cuisine, a Florentine specialty normally eaten by peasants (and nuns).
Giorgio Vasari, the early art historian, saw Nelli’s “Last Supper” when it was still surrounded by dining tables at Santa Caterina. “She shows that she would have done marvelous things if she had enjoyed, as men do, opportunities for studying, and devoting herself to drawing and representing living and natural objects,” he wrote in the 1568 edition of his book Lives of the Artists. Vasari’s comment recognizes Nelli’s talent, but also hints at the fact that Nelli was limited by what she could teach herself. Nelli couldn’t paint in the highly technical and physically demanding medium of fresco, which was then considered strictly a man’s job.
The nuns dined alongside Nelli’s oil painting for over two centuries—but then came a new era. In the late-18th century, Napoleon’s forces invaded Italy and began to suppress religious orders. In 1808, the Santa Caterina convent was dissolved, and Nelli’s “Last Supper” was almost lost to history.
It is said that when God closes a door, he opens a window. When the powers-that-be shuttered Santa Caterina, Nelli’s masterpiece began a journey that would ultimately allow the public to see it. The helpfully portable oil painting was rolled up and moved to a still-active Dominican order, Santa Maria Novella, just a mile away. It migrated a few times within its adoptive home, first to the attic (where some damage and paint loss occurred) and then to a grand 14th-century refectory that would serve as a long-term home.
By the 1930s, it was in the smaller, more modern dining hall where Nelson spotted it. It remained there even after Santa Maria Novella’s historic refectory opened as a museum in 1983. “The monks wanted it in their dining hall, essentially,” explains Linda Falcone, director of Advancing Women Artists (AWA), an American nonprofit that identifies and restores art by women in Tuscany. “They chose to have it in their private quarter.”
The friars were supportive of restoration efforts on Nelli’s “Last Supper,” but they didn’t want to permanently release it from their refectory. “They saw it as part of their day-to-day life and were very concerned that I and other art historians and officials would want to remove it from their dining room,” Nelson recalls of the monks’ attitude when he saw the painting in the 1990s. “Which is exactly what happened.”
As it happened, AWA advocated for the restoration and relocation of the painting. Jane Fortune, the late founder of the nonprofit, embarked on a 10-year project to raise $220,000 for conservation, research its legal ownership, and negotiate its placement in a public space. In a strange twist of fate, Napoleon’s reforms not only closed Santa Caterina, but also provided the AWA with a legal justification for moving the painting to a museum: Under Napoleon’s law of suppression, the “Last Supper” became public property when it was removed from the convent.
It’s not easy to relocate a monumental painting in Florence—a city that can feel more like a museum than a metropolis, with every church, building, piazza, and bridge packed with original cultural treasures. For one thing, there’s the tricky matter of moving a wall-sized canvas. Not wanting to roll the “Last Supper” up like Napoleon’s henchmen, six art movers carefully conveyed the painting out of Santa Maria Novella’s refectory.
“They built scaffolding and had mechanical things to lay the painting flat and lower it,” Falcone recalls. “Almost like Legos, or a car jack.” The art handlers hoisted the painting into a truck and drove to a restoration studio, where they built more scaffolding to bring it in through a window. “There are two flights of stairs to get to the first floor,” explains Falcone. “The painting couldn’t make the turn.”
Of course, you can’t just hang a painting anywhere you want in Florence. “Whenever you put a painting in a public museum, there has to be a historical justification for it,” Falcone explains. The Santa Maria Novella Museum seemed like the most suitable new home, because it is part of the same church complex and has a refectory that is big enough to accommodate it. It will also share the space with another Florentine “Last Supper,” painted around 1582 by Nelli’s contemporary, Alessandro Lori. “It’s going to be placed in an environment in which the painting is dialoguing with other paintings of its time,” Falcone says.
Falcone hopes this dialogue adds to a different Renaissance narrative, one in which more women artists have a seat at the table. Nelli’s “Last Supper” is the only permanently exhibited original artwork by a woman at Santa Maria Novella, which has become a hub housing in situ masterpieces by Italian Renaissance greats such as Masaccio, Brunelleschi, and Ghirlandaio (made with help from his apprentice, Michelangelo). Starting in October 2019, visitors can buy tickets to see it any day of the week.
After the long and winding history of Nelli’s “Last Supper,” its installation in Santa Maria Novella’s museum was surprisingly straightforward. Nothing had to be cleared from the wall of the rectangular refectory to make room for her “Last Supper.” A 23-foot stretch of wall was already available, sandwiched between the historic monastery’s basilica and grand cloister. “The wall was waiting," says Falcone. "It was waiting for Nelli."