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.
Vanishing one evening
without a trace.
Without forgotten clues
on the threshold of my room
and no arrow
to show me the way.
Wherever I could have gone
Would be of no relevance:
Laid at the bottom of the sea
Buried in the darkness of the woods
In China devoid of memory
Looking for a pitiful story
Or in the desert with a shroud of sand.
Everything is fine
As long as nobody ever knows.
Vanishing without a certificate of death
So that one day they will understand
What is baffling me now.
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?