Monday, March 28, 2011

Doria Pamphili

The Palazzo Doria Pamphili sprawls in several directions. Four sides of it enclose this garden, just off the Corso, one of the busiest streets in central Rome. The building grew big and elaborate and became stuffed full of art and riches after Cardinal Giovanni Batista Pamphili became Pope Innocent X, thereafter devoting himself first and foremost to glorifying his family, as was considered normal & uncontroversial Pope-behavior at that time.

Today the Palazzo is an art museum, but with all the quirks and charm of a private though of course very grand house preserved in amber from the 17th century (my favorite century by far, as everyone who has had the patience and/or loyalty to keep reading these impressionistic descriptions knows very well by now).

I was not surprised to find ballrooms (large and small) and chapel in a place of this scale, but the Throne Room did startle me a little. It contains a papal baldacchino brought over from the Vatican and installed to shelter a portrait of the great Innocent.

The picture people most often travel half the world to see here is a different portrait of Innocent X, as painted by Velasquez.

A sizable population of connoisseurs and art historians have gone on record asserting that this is the greatest portrait ever painted. The Gallery absolutely forbids photography so I cannot show the small chamber specially constructed for this one painting, sizzling in its threatening intensity. The story goes that the formidable 20th century Irish painter Francis Bacon refused to visit the Doria Pamphili and confront the Velasquez in person when he was in Rome, even though Bacon had created his own vast series of "Screaming Popes" as an equivocal tribute to it. I can understand why he would refuse, because one of the ways you can identify a masterpiece is the unexpected unpredictable aliveness when you stand face to face with it – it wipes out what you thought you knew from reproductions. And Bacon's whole working method relied on photographs and reproductions to put a kind of safety screen between himself and actual people (or actual great art).

The building was very cold when I was there. I read about this fact. There are no furnaces. There is no heat. The guards’ uniform included an overcoat and all the guards had their overcoats well buttoned up. Wherever I went in Rome, museum guards politely pretended not to notice the existence of any visitors at all (except for babies, the women guards were all over any baby you happened to be carrying). The guards were typically looking out the window or conversing with one another or reading. But at the Doria Pamphili there were hardly any visitors to be ignored or noticed. I wandered often quite alone under those incredible painted ceilings down the long galleries jammed to bursting with furniture and statues and mirrors and canvases.

Many of the paintings – not just the Velasquez – were very famous. It seemed almost spooky to encounter them here and there (buried among so many other objects of more mundane grandeur) suddenly, without warning.

Salome with the Head of John the Baptist

Erminia Finds Tancredi Wounded

Annibale Carracci
Susanna and the Elders

Portrait of Cardinal Bibbiena

Filippo Lippi

Rest on the Flight into Egypt

The whole collection, both the splendid and the relatively less so, had been heavily varnished at some point in the past. The surface shine was so pervasive that it often took some persistent ingenuity to find an angle where one’s eyes could actually see what had been painted. But these did not seem like flaws. They seemed essential to the strangeness that made the place memorable.

We will close this chapter with the perfect marriage in one image of stolid respectability and Baroque excess. Alessandro Algardi carved this marble bust of Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphili at just about the same time Velasquez was painting her uncle. She is – or so I believe – still entirely alive, an emblem of continuity firmly planted on her own plinth in her own house, which she undoubtedly dominated even more aggressively in the days when she was treading its corridors.