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.
Gambara—herself the descendent of a number of prominent female writers and poets—was a well-educated noblewoman known both for her poetry and her famed Parma salons. Although largely ignored by modern scholars, she is survived by some eighty poems and a vast body of correspondence; throughout her life, she maintained lively exchanges with many of the intellectuals of her day.
Historians have also wondered whether the portrait may portray Giulia Gonzaga, another salonniere, famed for her beauty. (She’s also famed for her scandalous dalliance with a cardinal, an abortive kidnapping plot designed to bring her to a sultan’s harem, and her Inquisition-era correspondences, one of which led to someone’s being burned at the stake for heresy.) Needless to say, she was a popular contemporary subject.Short of a Basil E. Frankweiler–style revelation, it seems unlikely that the definite identity of Parmigianino’s subject will come to light any time soon. But Ng makes a strong case for the literary overtones of the portrait—as she points out, the artist moved in these circles, and well-educated female intellectuals were by no means unusual in the milieu. (If you get the chance, check out Ng’s talk on the subject.) In sum, whoever they portray, the portraits in the show manage to capture not just a subject, but a moment—and an artist at the height of his powers; not long after, Parmigianino would descend into madness, become obsessed with alchemy, and die in penury at thirty-seven. Sic transit gloriamundi.
As Gambara wrote near the end of her life,
Sono qui al casino, vivendo al solito, e stimando poco la fortuna, poichè per lungo uso ho fatto il callo alle sue molte percosse. Dal mio Casino. Here am I in my villa, all alone, valuing fortune very little because after long usage I have become inured to her many blows. From my palace.