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All Too True

April 2, 2014


What happened when one of the world’s greatest painters set out to portray a man who was powerful, vain, nepotistic and suspicious, someone who also happened to be the Pope? In 1650 after leaving his native Spain and traveling to Italy, Velazquez impressed Rome with a brilliant portrait of his assistant Juan de Pareja. He then positioned his easel in front of Innocent X. Velazquez’ encounter with the pontiff was a duel of personalities; the artist was classy, restrained and intellectual; the Pope was coarse, cautious and cantankerous—a pirate in clerical robes.


Velazquez was accustomed to painting the pale complexions of his countrymen, but here he was confronted by a ruddy Italian in red clothing. The temptation to flatter must have been enormous, especially since the artist hoped to enlist the Pope’s help to become a knight of the prestigious Order of Santiago, yet he pulled no punches when it came to revealing Innocent’s stubbornness and almost proverbial ugliness.


Perhaps the best way to appreciate this painting is to compare it to other portraits of the same subject, including one by Velazquez’ servant/slave Juan de Pareja. Pareja never rivaled his master as an artist and this painting shows why; the clumsy representation is devoid of character, a mannequin lacking the spark of life. (Notice how the ermine trim on the hood and jacket, eliminated in Velazquez’ painting, distracts.)






Bernini’s bust is brilliantly executed in the classical manner and conceived for public rather than private consumption, but it’s soulless.





Here’s a different pope in the same pose. Clement XII by Masucci is burdened by frivolous details and says more about the Pope’s apparel than it does his character.  





In contrast, Velazquez’ portrait throbs with vitality. A noted art dealer offered a million dollars for the portrait in 1923 saying, “Velazquez steeped his brush in red the color of wine and brought the bon vivant devastatingly to life… That face is a whirlpool of flesh, and blood, and life: the eyes are searching.”





The Pope is shown on a gilded chair in a composition first conceived by Raphael. He sits uncomfortably and looks as if he’s about to spring from the chair. An optical illusion makes the hands appear to twitch—the artist painted them out of focus. Innocent was a gloomy, undeniably complicated man, so what did he think of this portrait? When first viewed he is said to have surprised everyone by admiring it and muttering, “Troppo vero!" (All too true!) A well-known miser, the Pope offered to pay for the painting but Velazquez is reported to have turned down the offer saying, “My master, the King of Spain, pays me well enough.”


Velazquez’ Portrait of Innocent X  is housed in the Galleria Doria Pamphilj in Rome. In 1988 I decided to pay the galleria a visit. Although it appears in most tourist books, the Doria Pamphilj is a little known gem. While hunting for it, I spent several hours walking up and down the Via del Plebiscito, now mostly shops and apartments. I asked passersby for directions and blamed my pathetic attempts at Italian when several pointed to a dead-end alley. I finally asked a nun and she  pointed in the same direction. In exasperation I threw up my hands in defeat. She grabbed my arm and pulled me across the street into the alley, pointing at a distressed door. When I looked at the nun in bewilderment she pushed me toward it. I opened the door and saw an old woman in a kitchen frying chicken. Dumbfounded, I waited for her to look up at me before asking, “Galleria Doria Pamphilj?”


With her spatula, she pointed beyond her kitchen to a dim hallway.


I continued until encountering a massive oak door, pulled it open and entered what for an art lover can only be described as paradise. Vaulted corridors decorated with gold and ormolu stretched as far as my eyes could see. I inched past masterpieces by Raphael, Titian and Caravaggio until arriving at a small room. I entered and leapt back when confronted by Velazquez’ Pope Innocent X, so lifelike did he appear. Although there was nothing in the man’s expression to like, the manner in which he was brought to life was nothing short of miraculous.


I’m among the countless artists who have been inspired by this painting, judged it to be the greatest portrait ever created. And I agree with the critic who exclaimed that once having seen this portrait it’s impossible to forget it. In Innocent’s words—All too true. After all these years I still can’t get it out of my mind.



That is a lot better than those others. Sounds like a weird place for a gallery. They need a better marketing department to put up some signs or something: Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Just Past the Old Woman Frying Chicken.
By: PT Dilloway on April 2, 2014
What a thrilling life you have led. Such determined exploration is rewarded. I would go on an art tour with you anyday!
By: Tabor on April 2, 2014
quite imposing! fierce, bitter, angry. quite a 'pope'.
By: TexWisGirl on April 2, 2014
what a history lesson- thanks for showing us the comparisons to beter enable us to "see". and seriously? One has to go through the kitchen? I am planning a trip to Italy for next year....will have to put this on my list. Grazie tanto!!
By: Kathe W. on April 2, 2014
Holy cow - that portrait certainly will NOT leave my mind. I may base my next villain on him. He's terrifying! It's amazing that any of the subjects are related considering how different they look.
By: Lexa Cain on April 2, 2014
Once again a fascinating adventure in art. This is my first viewing of the portrait. It does indeed have power. I'm intrigued about the portion from mustache to chin. Is he pursing his lips, biting his tongue, preparing to snarl or some such? Wonderful story about finding the Galleria Doria Pamphilj.
By: Tom Cochrun on April 2, 2014
Stephen: You would make a great guest on TV or radio about art and your career!
By: Michael Manning on April 2, 2014
That is the portrait of a man to be greatly feared. Mercy. Loved the unique way you found it.
By: Akansas Patti on April 2, 2014
It would be just another painting to me without your art appreciation explanation. Thx.
By: Cranky on April 2, 2014
There's a real sneer on this pope's face. You wouldn't want to cross this guy.
By: red on April 2, 2014
Thank you for yet another fascinating story about art. Pope Innocent certainly looks like he would inspire fear in many people!
By: Pixel Peeper on April 2, 2014
He looks like he's ready to jump up and tear somebody limb from limb. Not innocent.
By: Val on April 2, 2014
He looks conniving! Good fir you, not giving up, and for the nun, making sure you got in to the right place.
By: mimi on April 2, 2014
Your enthusiasm is infectious. The portrait is, indeed, intimidating. Your stories make me want to develop more knowledge of the world's greatest artists, but I'd be starting from such a low baseline.
By: Bryan Jones on April 3, 2014
That is one intense looking Pope. He doesn't across as warm person.
By: Daniel LaFrance on April 3, 2014
Velazquez was the most brilliant portrait painter I've ever studied. I've been thrilled to be able to see many of his works here in Spain. It's also incredible what he managed to "get away with"!
By: Mitchell is Moving on April 3, 2014
A truly wonderful work of art.
By: John on April 3, 2014
The third portrait doesn't look like the other 3 in terms of being the same man. Of course, that could just be me as I don't have a good eye for facial recognition. (let's hope muggers never get wind of that) I see what you mean about he the painting exudes the sour disposition of the Pope. That is bizarre how the gallery is in such a out of the way place. About the time I saw a woman cooking chicken, I would of given up.
By: Cheryl P. on April 3, 2014
My, a pirate dressed as a pope could not be a more appropriate comparison! I think he was badly misnamed, Pope Angry? Wow. And yes, that is a spooky lifelike painting, even from the computer screen! (Hang a left at the fried chicken... Hmm...) Cat
By: Cat on April 3, 2014
It "throbs with vitality." I've nothing to add. That's a perfect description. The red is spectacular too. I can imagine staring at this one for hours. Thanks, Stephen. xoRobyn
By: Robyn Engel on April 3, 2014
That truly is a great portrait in comparison to the others. Not to mention the history you always teach makes for an interesting read! Thanks.
By: Bouncin Barb on April 3, 2014
This looks more like a photograph than a painting - what skill!
By: jenny_o on April 3, 2014
The other works of art seem lifeless when compared to the Velasquez painting. Perhaps it's because it's a more realistic interpretation and he's the only one who has managed to capture the Pope's true persona? I'm not surprised you will never forget this remarkable Gallery and your journey there. It's a lovely post, thank you!
By: Sharon Bradshaw on April 4, 2014

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