The Schiava Turca (Turkish Slave) is one of the many mysteries of art history. The painting, a 1530s Mannerist masterpiece by Parmigianino, is considered an icon of the artist’s hometown, but no one is sure of the sitter’s identity. Was it a noblewoman? A courtesan? Or just an ideal of feminine beauty? One thing is more or less certain: nickname aside, the woman pictured was almost certainly not Turkish. The painting acquired its commonly used moniker in 1704, when a cataloguer assumed its subject’s dress spoke of the East. Rather, her sumptuous costume and turban-like balzo headdress would have been characteristic of court dress of the Northern Italian Renaissance.
Aimee Ng, guest curator of the Frick’s current exhibition, “The Poetry of Parmigianino’s ‘Schiava Turca’,” has another theory altogether. As the show’s title indicates, she feels the portrait may have had everything to do with the literary culture of the era. She explains,
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 … 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.