Schiava Turca

Parmigianino (Francesco Mazzola)
Parma 1503–1540 Casalmaggiore
Schiava Turca, ca. 1531–34
Oil on panel
26 3/4 x 20 7/8 in. (68 x 53 cm)
Galleria Nazionale di Parma
photo: Scala / Art Resource, NY

Since at least 1675, when the Schiava Turca was in the collection of Cardinal Leopoldo de’ Medici in Florence, the identity of Parmigianino’s sitter has been a mystery. Scholars have suggested many possibilities, even that she is not an actual woman but rather an ideal conjured for the delectation of male viewers, but no proposal has been entirely convincing. This exhibition offers a new interpretation of Parmigianino’s enigmatic portrait by considering the sitter’s relationship to Renaissance painting and poetry.

Parmigianino’s smiling sitter holds an opulent ostrich-feather fan, her hand modestly adorned with a thin gold band on her ring finger. In the Renaissance, beautiful women and their portraits were often seen as poetic muses who inspired male poets and painters. This sitter is directly linked to poetry through the ornament on her headdress, which depicts a winged horse, the symbol of poetic inspiration. Perhaps, however, rather than a muse, the sitter is herself a poet. Seen in this light, her twisting pose — conventional for male portraits (like the Portrait of a Man) — and forthright gaze would convey her creative force. She may even be identified with a specific female poet active in the area around Parma in the 1530s, such as Veronica Gambara, whom Parmigianino had many opportunities to meet.

In the mid-twentieth century, conservators removed dark varnish from the painting, leaving remnants at the top (recently concealed) and bottom edges to document the treatment.The elaborate gilt frame, though not original to the painting, dates to the sixteenth century.