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Velazquez Paintings: Pope Innocent X

Posted by Susan Benford

One of the most highly regarded Velazquez paintings, Pope Innocent X is the signature work in the Galleria Doria Pamphilj, a private art collection of 650 works by famous painters including Caravaggio, Titian, Raphael and Velazquez. This comparatively little known museum is a jewel.

describe the imageDiego Velazquez.  Portrait of Innocent X, 1650.  Oil on canvas, 4' 8" by 3' 11".  Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome.

Giovanni Battista Pamphilj (pronounced Pom-fee-lee) became a cardinal in 1629 and was elected to the throne in 1644 as Pope Innocent X.  Giacinto Gigli (1594-1671), an Italian who wrote about Baroque Rome, described the Pope:

He was tall in stature, thin, choleric, splenetic, with a red face, bald in front with thick eyebrows bent above the nose [...] that revealed his severity and harshness...". 

Ouch.

How ironic that such an unkind person is memorialized in a portrait now considered one of the finest of the 17th century -- and of all Velazquez paintings.

Diego Velazquez (1599-1660) was the court painter for Spain's Philip IV, who granted permission for Velazquez to travel to Rome to paint Pope Innocent X.  For unknown reasons, however, the Pope didn't immediately grant an audience to the great Spanish painter, who bided his time and painted his manservant in another marvelous portrait, Juan de Pareja (below, left).

Velazquez paints Pope Innocent X in the traditional three-quarter pose utilized in papal bust Olimpia Pamphilj resized 600portraiture since Raphael.  Pope Innocent X is an explosion of red and crimson hues, with a red velvet armchair in front of a red door; red skin tones; his red cape and red camauro, or papal headdress. 

While Velazquez pays homage to traditional papal portraiture, he concurrently presents a man who looks irritable and angry, as if he might explode.  That tension is amplified by the shadows which don't sync with the illumination: Pope Innocent X is lit from the right, but Velazquez has painted a menacing shadow behind the Pope's chair on the right, too.  

Alessandro Algardi, Bust of Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphilj.  Galleria Doria Pampilj.

Pope Innocent feels as if he's about to rise from his chair while grasping a petition signed "Velazquez" in his left hand. It's as if Velazquez is telling us that something isn't right here.

And that's true.

Pope Innocent X's sister-in-law, Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphilj (1594-1657), convinced him that it was immoral for the Vatican to collect taxes from brothels, offering instead to perform this unseemly work herself.  When police interfered with the brothels, Olimpia had the family coat of arms installed over their doorways.  

Need we mention that the clergy were the main patrons of these houses of disrepute?

Olimpia was unquestionably the most powerful woman in Baroque Rome, amassing considerable influence and enormous wealth due only partially to her illicit, amorous relationship with Pope Innocent Velazquez self portrait resized 600X. When visiting dignitaries began calling on her prior to seeing him, Innocent X exiled her.

Prince Jonathan Doria Pamphilj, an heir who resides in the familial palace, considers Portrait of Innocent X  "a turning point in the

Diego Velazquez.  Juan de Pareja, 1648.  Oil on canvas, 32" by 27 1/2".  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Purchase, Fletcher Fund, Rogers Fund, and Bequest of Miss Adelaide Milton deGroot

history of Western art" because it allegedly depicts the humanity and vulnerability of its subject, rather than his power alone. According to Prince Pamphilj, Innocent X, when first shown the completed portrait, exclaimed, "E troppo vero!" -- or, "It's too true!".

I don't find humanity and vulnerability here, but see an implacable, unforgiving and forbidding man.

Conversely, Olimpia recalibrated the way in which she lived the rest of her life: she re-populated S. Martino al Cimino, the town to which she was exiled, with prisoners she had released and prostitutes she relocated from nearby Rome.  Each couple was given a house and the opportunity to build a new life alongside Olimpia for the remainder of her life. 

Do you see the humanity and vulnerability in Portrait of Pope Innocent X that the Prince does? Why is this portrait so enduring? And what was the Velazquez's intent in painting illogical shadows? 

Please share your thoughts.

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Topics: Velazquez paintings, Diego Velazquez, Pope Innocent X

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