The Secret History of Art

Velazquez vs Bernini

Innocent X Throw-Down

/ by Noah Charney

In Rome’s Galleria Doria-Pamphilj, there is a room that contains two portraits of the same man, Pope Innocent X. One is a painting by Diego Velazquez, the other a bust carved by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Their juxtaposition is an intentional throw-down between arguably the two greatest artists of their shared era. Who would you declare the winner in this duel of portraitists?



Portrait of Pope Innocent X”


In the 16th and 17th centuries artists and intellectuals liked to debate the relative merits of painting versus sculpture versus poetry. Which was the “best” art form? Today it seems clear that all are great, and do different things well. But back in the day, this was a hot topic of conversation, referred to as the “ut pictura poesis” debate, drawing from a line by the Latin author, Horace, which translates roughly as “as in painting so in poetry.” The curators of this museum have done an admirable job in setting up a special room in which this debate comes to life, juxtaposing two portraits of the same person, Pope Innocent X of the Pamphilj family, in a painting by Velazquez and a bust sculpture by Bernini. Let’s first examine who Innocent X was, then consider the Velazquez portrait of him, before moving on to the Bernini portrait. It’s up to you to decide which you prefer in this showdown of two of the leading Baroque artists.


Poet of the Week
Valentina Neri
The little match seller

Every match a dream

Every dream a flight!

One flight after another

On the filthy and shear snow

That scratches the child with asphalt

Death makes its way

And turns her body to marble.


Swallow her silent and alert mouth

Grab her round bare little hands

Snatch her lifetime interrupted

By a macramè frill

Grab her knees dirtied on all fours

Grasp her fury without aims

Seize! Her vices as impulsive butterflies

Grasp! Her oxymoron that prolongs time

Seize! The freezing cold of her motionless tender feet

Grasp! Her waiting at the pulsing of the body

Seize! Her implacable disposition to die

Grasp! The scream of her dreaming heart

Seize! Her frozen match on the ground

Grasp! Her last fleeting moan!


Light  the burn out match

Brighten the enchantment of her dream

Clean the filthy snow

Melt that marble body

Soothe the asphalt scratches

Release her breath

Raise her body from the floor

Allow her the last flight.

Born Giovanni Battista Pamphilj (1574-1655, and pope for the last ten years of his life), Innocent X descended from a line of aristocrats from the Umbrian city of Gubbio. He trained as a lawyer and was made cardinal in 1629, before being voted in as pope in 1644, succeeding the charismatic patron of the arts, Pope Urban VIII. As a cardinal he worked in Spain for an extended period of time, where he encountered the work of Velazquez, the favorite painter of the Spanish Habsburg monarch, Philip IV. The 1644 papal conclave, the cardinals locked inside the Sistine Chapel to decide on the next pope, last nearly a month and was hotly contested, with Innocent X narrowly winning the election, just ahead of arrival of the powerful French leader, Cardinal Mazarin, who objected to him because of his pro-Spanish, anti-French sympathies. No sooner was he elected than he brought legal action against a rival family of Roman nobility, the Barberini, who he disliked personally, prompting them to flee to Paris, seeking the protection of Mazarin. Seizing the opportunity, Innocent commandeered the Barberini family property (including several palaces and a magnificent art collection. It was only when Mazarin threatened to send troops to Rome that Innocent reinstated the Barberini and returned most of their goods. Like many popes, Innocent likely had lovers, foremost among them Olimpia Maidalchini, the ex-wife of his deceased brother.


Velazquez made this portrait during a visit to Italy, where he was sent by his patron, Philip IV, to acquire art for the royal collection in Madrid. Velazquez paints in a painterly manner—meaning that brush strokes are evident, the painting clearly comprised of blocks of color. You can imagine the feel of the garments, in linen and satin and silk, as the light glints off them. Signatures are rare in paintings prior to the 18th century, but Velazquez signed his name on the piece of paper he painted in the pope’s hand. Based on the light weight of the pope’s clothing, we can guess that the portrait was painted during the summer.


There is a legend about this painting, its truth uncertain. It is said that Velazquez offered to portray the pope, but the pope was not familiar with his work, and asked him to show him an example, to see how good he was. Velazquez showed him a portrait he had done of his servant, Juan de Pareja, which astonished the pope and he consented to commission his portrait. When he saw the finished product he exclaimed troppo vero “Too true to life!” This story is improbable because the pope would surely have encountered the work and reputation of Velazquez when he worked in Spain, but a nice story all the same. But is this painting better than Bernini’s bust of the same man?



Portrait of Pope Innocent X”

Now turn to the sculpted portrait in white Carrara marble of the same pope. It was made by the genius of Baroque Rome, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the man responsible for a huge number of buildings, monuments, and sculptures, the favorite artist of Pope Innocent’s predecessor, and a one-man dynamo. Bernini was obliged to do two versions of this same bust (the other is also on display at this museum), because he hit a fault in the marble around the beard when carving the first. Marble sometimes has cracks or faults in it that cannot be seen from the outside, so an artist can be nearly finished with a sculpture then suddenly hit a fault and a bit breaks off! But Bernini was not phased. He was renowned for working very quickly, and fired off another bust in no time. One of Bernini’s trademarks is sculpting garments that give the illusion of a texture other than the stone in which they are carved, and also inserting a single button that is not quite buttoned fully—a bit of an inside joke. The fact that he can transform a cube of stone into a lifelike portrait, which this incredible level of realism and delicacy (see how deeply-carved the beard is, and note the vein on the skin) is remarkable—he is certainly a candidate for the title of the greatest sculptor in history.


But what of the portrait itself? There is a saying that a great portrait should reveal something hidden about the sitter that the sitter would prefer remained hidden. Some family skeleton in the closet, or a revealing truth or personality trait that the sculptor is aware of, but the sitter is shy to reveal. It is also of interest to consider whether you can “read” the thoughts and emotions in the face of a portrait. Can you tell what the pope is thinking in either Bernini or Velazquez’ portraits? It is up to you which you think is more successful. To me, the Bernini is more impressive in terms of the artistic skill required to transform a hunk of marble into a lifelike portrait, but I feel that I can “read” more about what Innocent X was like in Velazquez’ painting.


What about you?

Noah Charney

is a professor of art history and best-selling author of, most recently, The Art of Forgery. You can learn more about his work at or by joining him on Facebook.