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
Anna Axfors
I hate nature

I hate nature

I can't stand looking at moons

night after night


Now the sun lies so smooth

over the mountains and the only thing that remains is

a rabbits gentle leap over everything



And now something inside me comes loose

like ice during the global warming

when lots of ice falls into the ocean, becomes ocean

something inside me comes loose

and becomes me


Soon scene serenade

and bodies

arctic light over the sea and death

I have abandoned my old ideology and my new one is to try to create my own


And I have also had a flower beside me

in bed

when they thought I was dead

I have been afraid of death for six years

but it is not until now that I understand that life is short and then again I become afraid of life itself, just like the dodo dances until the day ends and it makes me so happy when I think about that you can do whatever you want and I don't want to wait until they think I'm dead

with having a flower beside me in bed

arctic light over the mountains on the other


sane swing soft serenity


arctic light over both lungs

I sigh, I fall asleep

I make a phone call

I'm tasting blood in my mouth and

it’s morning

she answers with hair she answers with tears

Time passes

Shame doesn't make you


but stiff in the


I don't like skincare

"constantly moisturize the skin"

I don't like that advice

Oh God

I can't do it

I lie on the ground and close my eyes,

slowly dying

even though I'm pressing my ear to the ground – I hear


it seems like earth

doesn't have a heart

ha ha, I've always known that

that it's only the ocean that has a pulse

And I have stopped believing in


now I believe,

maybe not only,

but a lot


"A gene is a locus (or region) of DNA which is made up of nucleotides and is the molecular unit of heredity"

it is what it is – it doesn't eat

it feels good no longer being able to blame someone

I no longer need to think about if I'm

middle or under class

I only Am

and it's nice

I listen to Celine Dion and drink beer

that's nature poetry to me

My thought is a flower in my head

the pillow smells pee and I don't care

a full meadow soon blossoms there

I will walk on it when I fall asleep

I will walk barefoot because nature is not very hard

I'm harder

For a period in my life I only wore black clothes

that’s why I don't know what to wear tomorrow,

everything is black

When I look through the window I see all the way to

the underground clubs where I used to dream

I loved this city before it had walls

I loved this sea before it bled

and I saw it from

afar and it smelled




I felt it from all directions

Sway sweat sear promises amends

that comes in your mouth, my orgasm

falling asleep to the sound of animals

in flight

My lovely fate is to make sure that air doesn't enter the bread bag and makes the

white bread hard

Then you will be disappointed

And in everything they want to remove

It doesn't live

it's not possible

It doesn't eat

it doesn't collect

It's raining violently, drops are whipped

against the windows, and explode and explode and land on rivers

I’ve never heard of, never been to

It feels like someone is touching my hair, fondly as if life is already over and will

be summarized

don't worry

but the Day that this weather is warning us

for will come

that brownness

has already come

"what can't happen" happen everyday

How I love the sound of


because it's useless and unbearable

Once I watched a documentary about Christiania it was about that kids who

grew up there were traumatized for life b/c all the sex and drugs (just another day in

motherfucking paradise). I could smell the smell of abuse and ashtray through the tv

screen, the edge of dirt under the nails

Someone said that I will never be right in the head and that I was and angel, a small animal.

I sat on Medborgarplatsen today and felt

the winds of change

whatever can happen whenever

you never know when the next thing will happen

I pray to the predictable god that I will be

like a jellyfish floating in the water, that I won't

know what will come later that I won't be ready

because it doesn't have smell nor color but it must

be good

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.