VELÁZQUEZ, Diego Rodriguez de Silva y
(b. 1599, Sevilla, d. 1660, Madrid)
Portrait of Innocent Xc. 1650
Oil on canvas, 141 x 119 cm
Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome
"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...". These were the words used by Giacinto Gigli in 1655 to describe the pope (Giovanni Battista Pamphilj [1574-1655], made a cardinal in 1629 and elected to the throne on September 16, 1644), adding that "his face was the most deformed ever born among men." Justi and later Morelli considered his head "the most repugnant... of all the Fisherman's successors" and "insignificant, indeed vulgar," with an expression similar to "that of a cunning lawyer." And yet this ugly and sullen man was paradoxically the subject of one of the most admired portraits of the seventeenth century, and perhaps of all time.
Pope Innocent, aged seventy-five at the time, was a man of remarkable vigour, with a great capacity for work and a hot and violent temper. In the painting he wears the white liturgical under-vestment known as an alb, a biretta, and a red cape to which subdued highlights lend a sheen suggesting the texture of fabric. The Pope is seated in a red armchair, which is picked out from the opulent red of the curtain behind it by its gilded ornamentation. In the strong, almost rustic features of the Pope's reddened face with its fleshy cheeks, the critically keen suspicious eyes strike a note of lively intelligence. The fascinating nature of a man aware of his own power is wonderfully expressed in the contrast between the face and the fine nervous hands, which convey the sensitivity of this powerful figure.
Mention has often been made of the chromatic unity of this portrait, in which the red flesh tones, the red cape, the red camauro, and the armchair of red velvet against the backdrop of a red door create such a dramatic effect that, if the pope were to open his mouth, even his saliva would be blood red. This marvelously orchestrated profusion of crimson tints - sometimes, as in the cape, with cold reflections as if "lit by neon" - undoubtedly derives from the example of Titian, while the representation of the contrasting white gown certainly harks back to Veronese, the only sixteenth-century Venetian painter who knew how to handle this difficult "non-colour." A man of power, bolt upright, depicted in magenta, an aggressive and vital colour, that together with white symbolizes creation.
The portrait of Pope Innocent X is by common consent one of the world's supreme masterpieces of portraiture, unsurpassed in its breathtaking handling of paint. Apparently the Pope was not at first very enthusiastic about his portrait, describing it as troppo vero, "too real". However, we are told that it eventually won his approval, and he presented the Spanish painter with a very valuable gold chain. Velázquez himself must presumably have been very pleased with the portrait, or he would not have taken a replica back to Spain with him. His art colleagues certainly praised it, and many copies of the work were made.
With this portrait Velázquez joins the ranks of those painters who, from the Renaissance onwards, produced magnificent papal likenesses. Outstanding examples, which he must have known, were Raphael's portraits of Pope Julius II (c. 1511/12; London, National Gallery), and Pope Leo X with two cardinals (1518/19; Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi), and several pictures by Titian of Pope Paul III, still extant in Naples.