14 July 2014

Schiava Turca

"Schiava Turca" Parmigianino (ca. 1531-34)

Saturday I took advantage of a free morning to dart over to the Frick Collection (which was, blissfully, near empty) to see a mysterious Italian woman.

There in the center of the Oval Room was Parmigianino's "Schiava Turca," a masterpiece of Renaissance art. Beautiful with a direct gaze and slight smile on her face, the subject of the painting exudes an air of confidence that only adds to her allure. The mystery is no one knows who she is. Some have said she is a fantasy, the ideal woman as imagined by the painter. Others have ventured to guess that she's Giulia Gonzaga, a young noblewoman. Curator Aimee Ng suggests that she may actually be a poet, perhaps Veronica Gambara, who would have been known to Parmigianino and his circle. Hence the title of the show, "The Poetry of Parmigianino's Schiava Turca." 

What we do know is that she was neither Turkish nor a slave. A cataloguer at the Uffizi in the 18th century wrongly identified her as wearing a turban, which led to her misleading name. The rich fabrics of her gown threaded with gold chains on her sleeve tell us she came from wealth and her headdress is not a turban but a balzo, which was popular with court women in Northern Italy at the time. 

As for the poetry connection, there are clues in the painting that could be read as supporting this claim. In the center of the balzo is a medallion of a winged horse, a Pegasus, often used as a symbol of poetic inspiration. And while she is holding an ostrich feather fan, it could represent a feathered pen. Her pose and attitude could also signal that she's a member of an artist circle, not troubled by social convention. Yet whether she was a poet or not, we will never know.

She is accompanied in the exhibit by portraits of four Renaissance men: another Parmigianino, two Titans (one of whom is the playwright Pietro Aretino), and a Bronzino. The last one, of Lodovico Capponi, comes closest to rivalling "Schiava Turca" in the attitude department yet he is but a court page, certainly no match for a grown woman of the world.

Once owned by Cardinal Leopoldo de' Medici, "Schiava Turca" has resided at the Galleria Nazionale di Parma since 1928. This is the first time that she has visited America. She is at the Frick Collection through July 20, 2014, after which she will travel to the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. For more information, visit the Frick's website here.

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