16th century ‘Schiava Turca’ a painting of mystery 

Two remarkable young women recently visited San Francisco, and one — a famous painting of a girl with big eyes, pink cheeks and a “Mona Lisa smile” — is staying for awhile.

Aimee Ng, the painting’s companion, returned to New York’s Frick Collection, where she is a research associate and specialist studying Italian painter Parmigianino (1503–1540). His best-known work, “Schiava Turca” (“Turkish Slave”), is in residence through October (between paintings by Tintoretto and El Greco) at the Legion of Honor.

Ng, the curator for the painting’s exhibitions in New York and San Francisco called “The Poetry of Parmigianino’s ‘Schiava Turca,’” explains that the woman in the painting is neither Turkish nor a slave.

Her identity is unknown, as is the origin of the work’s misleading title.

Her headdress, a fashionable turban, might have prompted a museum cataloguer in 1704 to call her Turkish, but there is no explanation for calling an obviously well-to-do woman a slave.

Even the painter’s name has an air of mystery. His real name is Girolamo Mazzola, but he is known as “the little guy from Parma,” his hometown.

The turban, Ng says, is part of a “remarkable, almost theatrical, costume, which characterizes the picture as much as her arresting face.” She adds that the ball-shaped turban, or balzo, which is “lavishly decorated with a striking gold emblem of a white winged horse,” is a mark of the highest fashion among women of the Northern Italian courts.

In her search for the identity and history of “Schiava Turca,” Ng has been minutely dissecting the emblem, which she thinks offers a clue to the identity of painting’s subject, which could be a writer, one of the few recognized female poets in the 16th century. Suggesting the name Veronica Gambara (1485-1550) as a possibility, Ng nevertheless concludes that no convincing proof exists. Yet she won’t give up.

While the painting’s origin also remains unknown, Ng and others agree the date is in the 1530s, and think the location might have been Bologna or Parma.

For Ng and other art historians, it must be a consolation that, after centuries of global fame and scholarly scrutiny, the person (or thing) that prompted the smile on da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” also remains a mystery — to everyone except, perhaps, a 16th century Italian woman named Lisa Gherardini.


Sciava Turca

Where: Legion of Honor, Lincoln Park, 100 34th Ave., S.F.

When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; closes Oct. 5

Admission: $6 to $10

Contact: (415) 750-3600, www.famsf.org

About The Author

Janos Gereben

Janos Gereben

Janos Gereben is a writer and columnist for SF Classical Voice; he has worked as writer and editor with the NY Herald-Tribune, TIME Inc., UPI, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, San Jose Mercury News, Post Newspaper Group, and wrote documentation for various technology companies.
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