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The mystery of the man in the mirror

Parmigianino’s Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror (c. 1524)
Parmigianino’s Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror (c. 1524)
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

In a first-time U.S. appearance the portrait known as Schiava Turca (Turkish Slave) by 16th century painter Parmigianino (Francesco Mazzola) is showing at New York’s Frick Museum. And with this display comes a lot of chatter about who the woman in the portrait is. This much is known. She wasn’t a slave - Turkish or otherwise. Scholars say her lavish outfit was the style of Italian court Renaissance women.

OK, she was a somebody that no one can identify. So what? Does it really matter who the sitter was? Would the identification make the painting better?

I ask because there’s another mystery that’s going without attention. Despite Parmigianino’s reputation as “Raphael reborn” he quit making art and turned to alchemy, to changing metals into gold. Why? Isn’t that the better question to ask?

Giorgio Vasari, historian and Parmigianino contemporary, saw him as a little strange when he painted a self-portrait by looking in a convex mirror to capture the distortions that the roundness of the mirror made - down to close-up magnifications. Vasari saw this as odd, but accepted it as long as Parmigianino continued to paint.

Only when Vasari saw the artist “wasting all the day long rummaging about with charcoal, wood, glass and bottles” did he begin writing about him in a concerned way, like this:

“Would to God that he had always pursued his studies in painting, and not indulged in fantasies of solidifying quicksilver to make himself richer than he had been created by Nature and Heaven.“

It’s hard to take seriously Vasari’s view that Parmigianino was “making himself richer” given the attendant change he saw in him, and it wasn’t the materialism of someone bent on riches that you’d expect. The artist, he said, had changed “from a gentle and fastidious person into an almost savage man quite different from what he was, with a beard and long straggling locks.”

Sad to say, Parmigianino had a bad end. As Vasari described it, “He was assailed, in this sorry state of melancholy and oddness, by a grave fever and cruel dysentery which in a few days made him pass to another life.”

So as scholars busy themselves with trying to uncover the true self of the woman in the painting, I continue to wonder why they’re not trying to uncover the true self of the painter instead. Or does an artist have to cut off his ear to get that kind of attention?

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