Parmigianino's SCHIAVA TURCA Comes to US for the First Time at The Frick, Now thru 7/20

Parmigianino's SCHIAVA TURCA Comes to US for the First Time at The Frick, Now thru 7/20

Parmigianino's "Schiava Turca," newly interpreted and in the US for the first time, will come to the Frick Collection, today, May 13 through July 20, 2014.

Francesco Mazzola (1503-1540), called Parmigianino after Parma, the Northern Italian city of his birth, was one of the most prolific and celebrated artists of the sixteenth century. Known as "Raphael reborn," he mastered the arts of painting, drawing, and printmaking and was renowned for his portraits. Today his exquisite portrait of an unknown woman called the Schiava Turca (Turkish Slave) is an icon of Parma. The painting, which has rarely been seen outside its home institution, the Galleria Nazionale di Parma, travels to the United States for the first time for its presentation at The Frick Collection (and subsequently at the Legion of Honor, part of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco). The showing at the Frick marks the museum's third collaboration with the Foundation for Italian Art & Culture (FIAC), a series of loans focused on the female portrait in the Renaissance. The collaboration previously featured Raphael's La Fornarina (Rome, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini) and Parmigianino's Antea (Naples, Museo di Capodimonte).

The Poetry of Parmigianino's "Schiava Turca" will be accompanied by a catalogue and numerous public programs. The exhibition is curated by Aimee Ng, Research Associate at The Frick Collection and Lecturer in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University, and is organized by The Frick Collection with the Foundation for Italian Art & Culture.

Comments Guest Curator Aimee Ng, "We are particularly thrilled with the rare opportunity that this project presents, as there are no portraits by Parmigianino in public collections in the United States. We will be able to present two of them at the same time. The Schiava Turca will be joined in the Oval Room by a private-collection work by the artist, Portrait of a Man. These paintings will be shown with the Frick's own magnificent Renaissance portraits by Titian (Pietro Aretino and Man with a Red Cap) and Bronzino (Lodovico Capponi), creating a very special panorama of Renaissance pictures in the Oval Room this spring and summer."

Parmigianino painted the Schiava Turca in the early to mid-1530s. The sitter wears an extravagant, almost theatrical costume comprised of a ball-shaped headdress, voluminous sleeves, and a striped garment with a plunging neckline. She holds an ostrich-feather fan in her left hand. In the early eighteenth century, when the portrait was in the collection of the Uffizi Gallery, the style of the woman's costume inspired a cataloguer to invent the title "Turkish Slave" by which she has since been known. He likely mistook her headdress for a turban, associated her feather fan with the exotic East, and interpreted the small gold chain tucked into the slashes of her right sleeve as a reference to captivity. Her costume, however, is not Turkish, and is certainly not that of a slave. Her sumptuous garments of silk, accessories of gold, and a fan made from imported feathers and ivory reveal her elite social status. Her turban-like headdress, called a balzo, was worn by Italian Renaissance women of high standing and identifies her as a member of the Northern Italian courts.

For centuries the Schiava Turca has eluded interpretation and, to date, no proposed identity for Parmigianino's
mysterious woman has been convincing. Scholars even have suggested that the portrait does not depict an actual person but rather an ideal woman invented by the artist for the delectation of male viewers.

At the center of the sitter's headdress is a gold ornament depicting the winged horse, Pegasus. Classical myths tell how Pegasus struck the ground of Mount Helicon with his hoof, thereby creating the Hippocrene spring, whose water was the source of poetic inspiration sacred to Apollo and the Muses. In Renaissance Italy, Pegasus was the quintessential emblem of poetic inspiration. (Pietro Bembo, the most significant poet of Parmigianino's time, adopted Pegasus as his personal device in the 1540s.) Poetry was often associated with portraits of women through the Petrarchan tradition, in which the poet Petrarch competed against the painter Simone Martini to determine what best captured female beauty-the poet's pen or the painter's brush. Because the Schiava Turca wears the poetic emblem of Pegasus, scholars have emphasized her connection to poetry, although the precise nature of this relationship remains to be clarified.

Parmigianino's portrait differs from other Renaissance female portraits in several ways. Her active pose-with her face turned toward the left and her body to the right-is common in depictions of men of the time, but not
women. Also, her direct gaze and lively expression stand out when compared to the reserved, aloof expressions often seen in Renaissance portraits of women, in which it was considered appropriate to retain a dignified modesty. Finally, the Pegasus ornament on her headdress is an accessory borrowed from men's fashion: it is likely a hat badge, an adornment worn almost exclusively by Renaissance men that bears a personal, usually humanist, emblem. With her frank expression, typically "masculine" pose, and an accessory appropriated from male fashion, it seems reasonable to believe that the Schiava Turca was intended to be seen not so much as the passive recipient of male poetic dedication, but to be regarded as a poet herself. After all, she wears on her head-the source of intellect and creativity-an emblem of Pegasus, the symbol of poetic inspiration.

When representing a sitter as a poet, Renaissance painters would sometimes include an attribute of the writer's
profession, such as a pen, book, or sheet of poetry. Parmigianino does not mark the Schiava Turca as a poet with an explicit attribute; he chose instead for her to hold an ostrich-feather fan, a luxury item commonly owned by Northern Italian noblewomen. The fan she holds so prominently before her may, however, be interpreted as a play on words that occurs in poetry of the period: in Italian, the words piume and penne mean "feathers" and, in their singular forms (piuma and penna), "pen." Rather than holding an explicit symbol of a poet, Parmigianino's Schiava Tura may instead be challenging the viewer to decipher a clever play on words that identifies her profession. The artist seems to enter into the competition between painting and poetry by using a tool of the poet-word play-to paint his portrait.

If there was a practical function for the gold chain visible through the slashes of the Schiava Turca's right sleeve, it is unknown. Usually gold chains were used to connect fans or similar items to a belt worn around a woman's waist, but the chain in the portrait does not seem attached to anything. Figuratively, the chain evokes a central motif in Renaissance poetry of "the chains of love" and the power of love to enslave its conquests. It also may allude to the idea of Love chained by Chastity, which is a Petrarchan theme. Perhaps Parmigianino intended this detail to be more evocative than direct, compelling his audience to engage in a witty game of poetic invention, enticing the viewer into a more complex interpretation of his art.