VELÁZQUEZ, Diego Rodriguez de Silva y
(b. 1599, Sevilla, d. 1660, Madrid)
The Buffoon Don Cristóbal de Castañeda y Pernia (Barbarroja)1637-40
Oil on canvas, 200 x 121 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid
In a manner that is always striking and sometimes curiously moving to modern observers, Velázquez shows human nature in all its diversity when he presents the gallery of dwarfs and jesters who lived at court and whose task it was to preserve the king from boredom in the midst of routine etiquette.
Under cover of joking, the court jesters or buffoons, in Spanish truhanes, would often tell their lords and masters the home truths openly discussed by the ordinary people. They could move freely in the king's presence, trying to amuse the naturally melancholic Philip IV with their caustic remarks. To judge by their salaries, their position in society was quite high. Velázquez himself, on entering the service of the palace as a court painter, had at first been classed with the royal servants, and as a result shared the life of these truhanes.
Velázquez painted a masterly picture of the buffoon Don Cristóbal de Castañeda y Pernia, who was first in rank among the court jesters. He gave himself airs as a great military expert, thus earning the nickname of Barbarroja (Barbarossa or Red-beard). The ambitious buffoon aspired to military roles and he even acted as toreador in the arena although he was ill-fitted for doing it. His red robe is almost Turkish in style, and his head-dress suggests a fool's cap. He glares fiercely into space, and while he grips the sheath of his sword firmly, the sword itself is held in a relaxed position.