In an alcove of the Galleria Doria Pamphilj in Rome, Diego de Silva y Velázquez’s oil portrait of Pope Innocent X (1650) shares the intimate space with a bust of the same pope by Gianlorenzo Bernini, one of the greatest sculptors of all time (see illustrations on page 55). Bernini’s bust is a tour de force of virtuosity, from Innocent’s wispy beard to the unbuttoned button on his short cape (mozzetta), a magnificent image of a man otherwise renowned for his astonishing ugliness. But anyone who takes time to look at the Bernini portrait crosses the steely-eyed stare of Velázquez’s painted pope, peering at his viewers as suspiciously, and as shrewdly, as he once peered across his throne room at the Spanish painter.
Bernini’s Innocent, displaying a stunning repertory of sculptural special effects, is plausibly the man who fell victim to the ruthless scheming of his sister-in-law, Donna Olimpia Maidalchini (whose terrifying marble visage dominates another section of the same gallery). Velázquez’s scowling Innocent, on the other hand, for all his red satin and shimmering white lace, looks like the man who in 1648 condemned the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War, as “null, void, invalid, iniquitous, unjust, damnable, reprobate, inane, empty of meaning and effect for all time,” and a year later destroyed the Italian city of Castro, which had humiliatingly defeated his predecessor in battle.
Both Innocents, the pawn and the ruler, are equally real, and the two artists responded to the man’s complex personality according to their own natures. Bernini knew from experience that Donna Olimpia dictated the Pope’s artistic commissions, and he sculpted Innocent for her as much as for the pontiff, showing him, cannily, as a man not quite in charge of himself. Velázquez, on the other hand, owed Donna Olimpia nothing; he had been court painter to the King of Spain for a quarter-century, and he portrayed Innocent as he had portrayed Philip IV and Philip’s favorite, the Count-Duke of Olivares, by fixing his attention on an aura of authority that came from deep within the Pope himself. Contemporaries would have judged these two portraits on their likeness to life. By that standard, despite the trademark sketchiness of Velázquez’s brushwork and the meticulous precision of Bernini’s detailing, there is no contest between the two images; the painted Innocent is so disconcertingly alive that we can almost forget that he died in 1655.
In our own time, Velázquez is no less captivating for the bold abstraction of his surfaces, and for his penetrating awareness of painting as an act. Innocent’s unsparing fish-eye may once have been directed above all at the Spanish visitor, whose portrait the Pope was finding “too lifelike,” but Velázquez has transformed it into a fish-eye reserved for everyone who ever crosses the pontiff’s path. He achieves the effect in part by catching the old man’s wary expression in high resolution, along with Innocent’s …
The King’s Cross? February 15, 2007