Pope Innocent X

Diego Velázquez (1650)

In the late 1640s, Velázquez travelled to Rome in search of prestige and weighty commissions. The reluctant, ageing Pope only agreed to sit after he’d seen the portrait the painter had made of his travelling companion, Juan de Pareja. Legend has it that, on seeing this finished painting, the Pope exclaimed “é troppo vero!” (it’s too real!) not entirely delighted, maybe as he came out as a dead ringer for Gene Hackman. Look at the attention to detail on the robes: fine white linen, and the glazed red across the cape which seems to catch the light like an impossible jewel. The entire painting seems in one way a hymn to the almost infinite possibilities and nuances of red – in the velvet chair, the natty headgear, and the broad sweep of the curtain behind – as well as a nod to similar portraits by Titian and Raphael. More fascination here comes from the intersection between the status of his position and the visibility of his human nature. The artist shows us beneath the surface as his face seems composed of the vivid whirl of actual flesh and blood. His posture seems uneasy, and is mirrored by the uncanny realism of the eyes: wary and shrewd, fixing us with a gaze of power, control and stern suspicion. Despite all the finery, he can’t hide from his own truth. Nobody can. For all the material wealth and prestige we may accumulate, there are no pockets in a shroud (as a wise man once said), and there is, ultimately, no hiding from ourselves, a reality here laid beautifully, lavishly bare, by an eternal master.