Is it Or Isn’t It? The Palazzo Doria Pamphilj in Rome

Situated on the Via del Corso, Rome’s main shopping street, and built in the sixteenth century around a central Renaissance style courtyard, you will find a hidden gem in Italy’s cultural offerings. Once lived in by the Della Rovere family, it came into the Pamphilj family by marriage in the seventeenth century and was expanded and refurbished during Giovani Battista Pamphilj’s pontificate as Pope Innocent X.

Consisting of several large apartments, a hall of mirrors, a chapel and a large gallery space, the paintings, decoration and sculpture cover a wide range of artistic merit. The entrance hall, known as the Poussin Room, is particularly impressive with an original tiled floor, however its title is a misnomer. The majority of the work is by the landscape artist Gaspard Dughet (1615-1675) who was the brother-in-law of the famous French landscape artist Nicolas Poussin (1594-1655) and was known, tenuously, as Poussino. His work is of its time but not nearly as impressive as Poussin and he appears to have been employed more as a decorative artist than as a landscape painter.

The highlight of the collection is the vivid and intelligent portrait of Pope Innocent X by Diego Velazquez (1599-1660) painted during the artist’s visit to Rome around 1650. It’s an impressive portrait which Pope Innocent himself felt was far too realistic and it is dominated by two colours – the red silks, brocades and velvet and the white linen and lace. The series of screaming pope paintings in the 1950s and 1960s by the artist Francis Bacon (1909-1992) are based on this work. Pope Innocent was a member of the Pamphilj family and his pontificate lasted from 1644 to 1655 during which time the interior of St Peter’s Basilica and the Piazza Navona were completed and a great deal of money was spent upgrading this, his family’s palazzo. Alongside the portrait is a bust of Pope Innocent by the leading baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1690) who received many commissions from the Pope, in particular the interior decoration of St Peter’s. This bust is a more idealised likeness than the Velazquez portrait and contains many of the distinctive Bernini flourishes in the creases of the material and the one button on the cape which doesn’t sit quite within the buttonhole. Another bust within the Gallery is of the Pope’s sister in law, Olimpia Maidalchini-Pamphilj, on whom he relied for advice and support but she was a greedy and ambitious woman whose influence was mistrusted. The bust appears to portray her fairly accurately as following the Pope’s death Olimpia emptied his coffers and refused to pay for his funeral. I dare you to stand in front of it and not believe the stories about her.

Other rooms include the Ballroom, with a small area for an orchestra complete with period costume mannequins and curtains strangely reminiscent of British art deco cinemas, and several smaller rooms housing landscapes by artists including Herman van Swanevelt (1603-55) and Jan de Momper (1617-84). It was interesting to hear that Benedetto Pamphilj was an early patron of Handel and the composer was a guest of the family while he was in Rome.

The most impressive part of the Palazzo is the Hall of Mirrors, a miniature version of Versailles, and filled with sculpture, mirrors, clever lighting and painted ceiling and lunettes. This is followed by more corridor galleries where every wall is full of paintings. The most fun I had was attempting to locate Flemish and Italian gems from the myriad of copied and mediocre paintings. By the end you are not sure what, if anything, is genuine. The Caravaggio (1571-1610) paintings are housed in the Renaissance part of the palace, in a room where the original ceiling collapsed after heavy snow in the 1950s and was replaced with a temporary concrete structure, which is still in place today, and which, unfortunately, gives the room the look of a bunk house. There are three Caravaggio paintings, one of which may very well be a copy. It is believed that both the Penitent Magdalene and the Rest on the Flight into Egypt used the same female model and the sheet music held by the angel in the latter was recently recreated at a musical concert in the palace.

If you happen to be walking the Via del Corso and are looking for an escape from the crowds, I can highly recommend taking a couple of hours to visit this Palazzo. You’ll love the Hall of Mirrors, the impressive Velazquez portrait and the Caravaggios and if you love trying to spot fakes then the painting galleries are for you….. By the time I left I was even suspicious of the oranges and lemons growing outside on the trees in the courtyard in the middle of a snowstorm!

For more information visit the Doria Pamphilj website here

Don’t Miss – The portrait of Pope Innocent X by Velazquez. Simply stunning.

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