Francesco Mazzola (1503–1540), called Parmigianino after Parma, his city of birth, was one of the leading artists of the generation after Raphael (1483–1520). He was renowned for his portraits, of which almost two dozen survive. Only four of them depict women. Today, his painting known as the Schiava Turca (Turkish slave) is an icon of his native city. Rarely seen outside the Galleria Nazionale di Parma, the Schiava Turca has traveled to the United States for the first time for this exhibition.
The portrait’s misleading title was coined in 1704 when a cataloguer interpreted the subject’s turban-like headdress, ostrich-feather fan, and chain embedded in the slashes of her sleeve as the costume of a Turkish slave. In reality, such sumptuous, seemingly exotic accessories were fashionable among the Renaissance women of Northern Italian courts. The headdress, or balzo, was a luxury item of ornate and spectacular design that was often personalized for the woman who wore it.
Parmigianino, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, ca. 1524. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (Photo: Scala/Art Resource, NY)