Cherchez la femme

Parmigianino’s Schiava Turca Portrait, Frick Collection, May 14 – July 20, 2014

by Jai Imbrey, PhD.

She beckons from across the room, a dimpled lady with a warm smile and a peeking décolletage. Her ivory ostrich plumed fan serves more as a beacon to her charms than a shield. Her lively, slightly protruding hazel eyes convey intelligence and a hint mischief. In sizing up Parmigianino’s famous portrait, known as La Schiava Turca, there there is only one point on which all scholars agree: the lady was neither Turkish nor a slave, as her title would imply. If not an odalisque, who then? A courtesan, perhaps, or the artist’s mistress?, Aa great lady, or an allegory? Now this luminous portrait rarely shown outside of Parma is the subject of small focused exhibition at the Frick that seeks to resolve her mysterious identity, but has it actually succeeded?

Francesco Mazzola, called Il Parmigianino (1503–1540) Schiava Turca, c. 1531–34 Oil on panel 26 3/4 x 20 7/8 inches Galleria Nazionale di Parma Photo: Scala/Art Resource, NY
Francesco Mazzola, called Il Parmigianino (1503–1540) Schiava Turca, c. 1531–34 Oil on panel 26 3/4 x 20 7/8 inches Galleria Nazionale di Parma Photo: Scala/Art Resource, NY

La Schiava Turca owes her erroneous appellation to a 1704 Medici inventory – made roughly180 years after she was painted. The cataloguer probably mistook her headdress for a Turkish turban and her coquettish expression as that of a willing Seraglio concubine. Actually, she wears a balzo, a form of silk and gold corona made fashionable by none other than the Marchesa of Mantua, Isabella d’Este, a leading patron of the arts. From her voluminous azure mantel with its slashed sleeves down to her embroidered cuffs, whether harlot or lady of rank, our sitter was beyond a doubt a woman of significant means.

Francesco Mazzola (1503-1540), known as Parmigianino, probably painted La Schiava Turcasometime during his stay in Bologna, after fleeing the sack of Rome in 1527. A child prodigy, Parmigianino had already absorbed while in Parma the lessons of his former mentor and associate, Correggio, by his midtwenties. By the time he left Rome, Parmigianino had mastered much of Raphael’s luminous coloring and skilled drawing techniques. In fact, when Raphael died suddenly in 1520, Parmigianino was regarded in some circles as his heir apparent. Indeed,La Schiava Turca borrows freely from Raphael’s mysterious female portrait types, such as La Donna Velata, whose closely cropped pyramid shaped figure virtually spills out of the picture frame.

What is fresh about Parmigianino’s lady is her sheer radiance. Lit from behind as well as in front, her cheeks glow and even her chest bears a faint flush. Light spills over her shoulders, down her fluffy fan to her long creamy fingers. Like all great portraits, she is vividly present. Parmigianino no longer used pictorial space, anatomy, light and shade to convey a natural appearance but rather to create new and daring painterly effects in keeping with the Mannerist style of mid-sixteenth century. Here, he astutely mixes realistic details with artistic convention: the lady’s slight double chin and tilted head are counterbalanced by her manipulated pose (is she standing or sitting?) and exaggerated boneless fingers that suggest her refinement and beauty.

So how might this wealthy woman have passed her time? For prominent noble women of the period such as Vittoria Colonna (1490-1547), and Marguerite de Navarre (1492-1449), sister to the King of France, poetry was the ultimate status card that showed knowledge of the ancients and a gift of imagination. In this light, Frick guest curator Aimee Ng’s new identification of the Schiava Turca as a prominent poetess makes perfect sense. She notes that smack in the center of the lady’s balzo, Parmigianino has depicted a jewel featuring a stamping Pegasus, long associated in the Renaissance with poetic inspiration. According to ancient myth, when the winged horse stomped on a rock, an enchanted stream gushed forth. As to the fan featured so prominently, it might allude to the Italian word for feather, piuma, also connoting a pen or poet. Ms. Ng singles out the rich and powerful widow, Veronica Gambara (1485-1545), as her prime candidate. Acknowledged as a gifted poet, Veronica was a notable patron and particular friend of the older Antonio Corregio and his artistic circle. Her letters and poems reveal a woman of profound learning and literary ambition but also of a melancholic disposition. Smart and courageous, Veronica used her own wealth to protect her people during a brutal siege of her native city and knew to form strategic alliances with the Medici.

The only fly in the ointment, so to speak, is Veronica’s age. If painted around 1533, Gambara would have been in her mid-50s, while the lady in the portrait appears around 25 to 30. Of course artists often flattered their patrons. Veronica’s stout friend Isabella d’Este demanded that Titian paint her at sixty-two to look twenty years younger (insisting that he base her portrait on an earlier one by Francia). Titian’s Isabella, now in the Kunsthistorische Museum in Vienna, has a frozen, detached quality, lacking the individuality of Parmigianino’s portrait. Also, judging by Veronica’s letters and poetry, it is difficult to envision her as the saucy woman in the portrait. Veronica referred to herself as Dido, the Carthaginian queen who immolated herself for her lost love, Aeneas. Typically she wrote bleak verse, such as this sonnet,

For he who first had joined me to himself Has carried off my love, and may he keep it And its guardian within the grave. “lachrimosi singulti et cum il magior cordoglio,’’ (1518 ) trans. by Jane Moody

Consequently, La Schiava Turca has also been identified as the much younger Giulia Gonzaga (born in 1512) celebrated as a great beauty by the leading poets of her day. Giulia led an extraordinary life. Widowed at the age of 16 in 1527, Giulia was the toast of an influential literary and artistic circle. She may have become acquainted with Parmigianino in Umbria when she took part in daughter-in-law Isabella’s wedding to Luigi Colonna in1532. Two years later, she was abducted by the pirate Barba Rossa, but managed a daring moonlight escape. Most historians suspect her greedy Colonna relatives, possibly eager to recover her dowry and lands. Shortly afterwards, Giulia joined a convent in Naples where she authored highly controversial religious tracts. While Giulia was not known as a poet per se, she inspired poems by the greatest poets of the age, including the likes of Ariosto and Juan De Valdès. No less than Bernardo Tasso addressed her in a sonnet as a beacon of beauty and virtue,

When beauty leads paths of Fame Virtue of mind, powers with gentleness Go with the forth as with the day the sun

(Sonnet CLXXXVIII)

Perhaps it was even Giulia’s lover, the Cardinal Ippolito de’ Medici, who commissioned her portrait, as he was known to have purchased other paintings by Parmigianino and was in Bologna for the Coronation of Charles V in 1532. Still La Schiava Turca bears only a slight resemblance to Giulia’s portrait by Sebastiano del Piombo painted in the 1530s.

More than anything what sets La Schiava apart is her direct gaze and playfulness. She also appears to be wearing rouge. While women of the period certainly wore make-up and collected recipes for skin lighteners and clarifiers, portraits of noble women do not usually show them with such distinctively stained cheeks. Catherine de’Medici (1519- 1589) was said to have introduced cosmetics into the French court but none of her portraits highlight her painted cheeks. Our sitter has also plucked her forehead and eyebrows and crimped her hair into a curly fringe, which was typical of women of high station and well as those who aspired to look like them. Veronica Franco, Venice’s most prominent courtesan, who lived shortly after Parmigianino, bemoaned a fellow lady of the night who had allowed her daughter to do just these things, thus labeling her as a hussy.

Francesco Mazzola, called Il Parmigianino (1503–1540) Schiava Turca (detail), c. 1531–34 Oil on panel 26 3/4 x 20 7/8 inches Galleria Nazionale di Parma Photo: Scala/Art Resource, NY
Francesco Mazzola, called Il Parmigianino (1503–1540) Schiava Turca (detail), c. 1531–34 Oil on panel 26 3/4 x 20 7/8 inches Galleria Nazionale di Parma Photo: Scala/Art Resource, NY

Even within Parmigianino’s portrait cannon, La Schiava Turca more actively engages the viewer more than his other female sitters. The most common images of beautiful women with a frank gaze and bright pink cheeks in the 16th century belong to three distinctive categories: courtesans, goddesses or mythological figures. In keeping with this tradition, Titian’s portrait of the Venetian courtesan Violante ( Kunsthistorische) and his Venus with a Mirror (Washington National Gallery) typically feature rouged cheeks and forward gazes. Courtesans, unlike common prostitutes, were often highly refined and educated. The most noted ladies of their profession, Tullia d’Aragona (1510-1556) originally of Rome and the Venetian Veronica Franco (1546-1591) drew accolades for both their minds and for their beauty. Veronica, a celebrated poet in her own right decried, “When we too are armed and trained, we can convince men that we have hands, feet and a heart like yours…,” would have been too young. While Tullia, who resided first in Rome and then in Bologna around 1530, had many humanist lovers.

So who then is La Schiava Turca? She is too intensely real to be an allegory or a poetic allusion to beauty. No common trollup like some of Titian’s bovine blond beauties, she has ready wit and a knowing air. My guess is a scintillating courtesan who dabbles in poetry, drawn to Bologna for Charles V’s coronation in Bologna, the greatest gathering of nobles in the 16th century. The delicate gold links entwined in her left sleeve refer not necessarily to a woman enchained by love, as once argued, but to the chain attached to her ostrich fan, suggesting that she stirs the flames of passion whether poetic or otherwise.

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