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The Best Italian Renaissance Masterpiece You'll See All Month

Sofia Perez | July 24, 2014 | Story Galleries and Performance

For the first time this Saturday the painter Parmigianino's Renaissance masterpiece Schiava Turca (1531-1534) will show at the Legion of Honor. This is not only its first time in the museum, but also in San Francisco. In fact, this is the first time in nearly 90 years since the painting has taken leave of Parma, Italy, where it has hung at Galleria Nazionale di Parma since 1928 (it was at Florence's Uffizi Gallery for centuries before that.) So what is the Schiava Turca, and why should you go see it?

“[The mystery] is definitely the most intriguing thing about her,” says Melissa Buron, Assistant Curator of European Painting at the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco. “Spending time standing in front of her and trying to understand who she was and how she may have know Parmigianino really draws you in.”

Like the Mona Lisa, Schiava Turca is an early Renaissance painting that features a beguiling—yet unknown—woman. The name of the portrait—which means "Turkish Slave" in Italian—comes from a 1704 misinterpretion by a cataloguer at the Uffizi, who believed the mystery woman's headdress was a turban and that the chains in her gown represented slavery. It is now thought that the headdress was a “balzo,” a fashionable style in Northern Italy. So who is she really? No idea. She may be a poet, a noblewoman, or someone else entirely. “We are uncovering more information all the time,” says Buron, “It’s like art historical detective work.”

Schiva Turca will be shown at the Legion of Honor from July 26th to October 5th. To celebrate her short time in the US (it arrived in New York at the Frick on May 13th), the Legion of Honor will be filling the Saturday introduction with numerous events, from opera and musical programming, to lectures and other festivities. The Legion completely revamped one of its display rooms to house the painting—recoloring the walls, bringing in new furniture, and pulling out paintings that had been in storage for over a decade to go with it.

Asked for comment about her first trip to SF, the woman remained silent and demurely smiled.

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