Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X – a real, perceptive and effective portrait

Portrait of Pope Innocent X, fragment, Diego Velázquez, Galleria Doria Pamphilj, pic. Wikipedia

Portrait of Pope Innocent X, fragment, Diego Velázquez, Galleria Doria Pamphilj, pic. Wikipedia

Rome was visited by numerous foreign artists. Some of them desired to improve their workshop, others counted upon commissions generously given out in the city. The outstanding and valued at the Spanish court painter, Diego Velázquez, came here for an entirely different reason, this being his second trip to Italy. Just as previously the aim of his journey was to collect works of art for the Spanish king, a great collector – Philip IV, but that was not all. The artist counted upon something more than just artistic enrichment.

Portrait of Pope Innocent X, fragment, Diego Velázquez, Galleria Doria Pamphilj, pic. Wikipedia
Portrait of Pope Innocent X, Diego Velázquez, Galleria Doria Pamphilj, pic. Wikipedia
Portrait of Pope Innocent X, fragment, Diego Velázquez, Galleria Doria Pamphilj, pic. Wikipedia
Portrait of Pope Innocent X, fragment, Diego Velázquez, Galleria Doria Pamphilj, pic. Wikipedia
Portrait of Pope Innocent X, fragment, Diego Velázquez, Galleria Doria Pamphilj, pic. Wikipedia
Portrait of the pope, Francis Bacon, Musei Vaticani

Rome was visited by numerous foreign artists. Some of them desired to improve their workshop, others counted upon commissions generously given out in the city. The outstanding and valued at the Spanish court painter, Diego Velázquez, came here for an entirely different reason, this being his second trip to Italy. Just as previously the aim of his journey was to collect works of art for the Spanish king, a great collector – Philip IV, but that was not all. The artist counted upon something more than just artistic enrichment.

      Portrait of Pope Innocent X, Diego
      Velázquez, Galleria Doria Pamphilj,
      fragment, pic. Wikipedia

 

Initially Velázquez visited Italian cities and did some shopping. He only began painting after coming to Rome. It is here that the outstanding portrait of his servant and at the same time aide – Juan de Pareja (1650, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), who had Moorish roots, was created. In it, the artist thoroughly focused on the man’s face, on the proper depiction of his proud visage, which many a high born aristocrat could envy. This image was admired by Roman art enthusiasts. How triumphant it must have been for a painter from the other side of the Pyrenees to gain renown in the Eternal City, the capital of the that world of art. However, the painter also had another goal apart from manifesting his talent. He soon achieved it – Pope Innocent X from the Pamphilj family entrusted him with painting his portrait, while the artist, it seems, created the most outstanding papal portrait of all times. The painting was praised for its faithfulness, realism and truth shining from the face of the portrayed. The pope himself, seeing his image, reportedly said: “troppo vero, troppo vero” (all too true, all too true). What did he mean? Most likely the inquisitiveness of the painter, from whom it was impossible to hide the suspiciousness of character and uncertainty of the seventy-five year old at that time bishop of Rome. In describing the pope, the Venetian diplomat, Antonio Giustiniani claimed that “some were put off by his dour and dark physiognomy, a mirror of a resistant and restless soul, and in it one could notice habits which were unfit for the gentleness, which should be shown by a man who called himself the father of us all.”

The face of Innocent on the canvas of Velázquez expresses tension, which is highlighted by crossed eyebrows and forehead giving it an almost aggressive character, as if he was posing impatiently, almost unwillingly, treating this activity as a tiring duty. We can only agree with Ortega y Gasset, who wrote: “There is probably no portrait that is more volatile, more uncovering the represented figure. The pope does not look appealing, but everything in him – that which is dignified and that which is less so – was expressed on the canvas”.

      Portrait of Pope Innocent X, Diego
      Velázquez, Galleria Doria Pamphilj,
      fragment, pic. Wikipedia

The task of painting Innocent X was by no means easy, since the pope was known for being “famously ugly” and possessing a violent temper, which manifested itself it fits of rage. Closed within himself and arrogant, he trusted only his sister-in-law – Olimpia Maidalchini, who when he was upon his deathbed – was only too glad to “take care” of the fortune he left behind. The fate of the second portrait pained by Velázquez, in which he immortalized the equally difficult in terms of appearance and character papal advisor, remains unknown. A testimony that both of them valued the artist’s skill can be a fact that, the pope gifted the artist with a gold medal and a chain, as well as support in his requests, which only the pontiff was able to fulfill. For Velázquez had a certain private and delicate matter to attend to in Rome. This is suggested by a letter visible in the pope’s palm with an inscription: To the Most Holy and Dignified Person of Innocent X by Diego de Silva y Velázquez” – this is the painter’s signature but also something more: a reminder of a matter, which needed the pope’s attention and the reason why he painted the pope’s image. He wanted to become a member of the elite Spanish Oder of Santiago. This could only be achieved by those who were high-born and who did not perform any profession for money – as was fit for a true Spanish nobleman – namely aristocrats. We know that Philip IV thought very highly of the painter, however when faced with the traditional ritual of noble titles he was powerless. That which was fit for   only the highest of nobles, could neither be ignored nor commonized by him. There is a rather extensive correspondence conducted by the Chapter of the Santiago Order, from which we learn that artists questioned about Velázquez loyally testified that the painter Velázquez who was known to them, had never painted anything for money and if he had ever painted anything for the king, he did it of his own free will and for the glory of the Almighty. However, in order for Velázquez to become a Knight of Santiago, which automatically meant ennoblement, a decision had to be made by Pope Innocent X, from whom the artist thoughtfully did not request payment for the portrait. His life goal was attained many years later – a craftsman supporting himself with the work of his hands, of a rather unclear family background, attained the highest honor in Spain.  However, this occurred only after his death.

 

      Portrait of Pope,Francis Bacon,
      Musei Vaticani

During Velázquez’s nearly yearlong stay in Rome, one more outstanding work was created. The artist once again competed with Italian painters and thus was created Venus at her Mirror (1650, National Gallery, London). This painting would have been difficult to complete in Spain, due to the Inquisition which explicitly forbade the painting of acts. Objecting to their will could have ended in exile and loss of one’s fortune even for several generations. However in papal Rome, the artist dared to undertake the subject, thanks to which a painting masterpiece was created.

However, let us return to the work, which aroused such widespread admiration among Roman painters – the portrait of Innocent X. Surprisingly enough, the exceptional refinement of colors, present in the painting, was achieved by the painter using only two of them – red and white. The wealth of their nuances is however so great, that in no way do we experience a limitation of colors, just the opposite, the canvas glows with true splendor. The image is a masterpiece of its kind; when it was created it was something completely new, also in seventeenth century Rome. It would become an inspiration mainly for future generations of nineteenth century portrait painters, but even painters of the XX century, for example Francis Bacon, who in 1965 in hundreds of sketches and canvases will struggle with Velázquez and his pope, while this well-known series will become known as “Screaming Popes”. One of his paintings is even found in the collection of the Vatican Museums (Musei Vaticani).

Diego Velázquez, Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1650, 140 x 120 cm, Galleria Doria Pamphilj