by Roderick Conway Morris

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Velazquez in Rome

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 28 April 2001
Prado, Madrid
View of the Garden of Villa Medici by Velazquez, c.1630



When Velazquez unveiled his portrait of Innocent X to the sitter, the pope found it, according to tradition, uncomfortably close to the mark, exclaiming: 'Troppo vero!' (Too true).

The anecdote nicely sums up the paradox of the Spanish artist's career: his relentless pursuit of social advancement, yet his refusal to flatter on canvas those who held the keys to his achieving it. And the fact that this story should have Italy as its setting highlights the decisive effect of his visits to the peninsula on both his art and the accomplishment of his worldly ambitions.

Velazquez's multifaceted relationship with Italy is the theme of a fascinating exhibition at Palazzo Ruspoli (where it continues until June 30). Curated with an admirable mixture of learning and evident enthusiasm by the Prado, which has been exceptionally generous in its loans, with additional works from other collections in Spain, France, Germany, Italy, Hungary, Puerto Rico, Russia and the United States, the show (and its catalogue) can lay claim to be the most important dedicated to Velazquez for more than a decade.

Disinclined to spend his life painting religious pictures, Velazquez's only serious alternative lay in gaining employment at Court in Madrid. This he managed to do at a remarkably young age, acquiring the protection of the powerful Count Duke de Olivares - represented here by a striking early full-length portrait - and soon after King Philip IV, who subsequently granted the artist more or less exclusive rights to the royal image.

These two patrons made possible Velazquez's first trip to Italy, in 1629-1630. At the urging of the veteran Rubens, the young prodigy was granted leave from his duties as court painter to complete his artistic education in Italy. The king provided him with 400 ducats, and de Olivares a sheath of letters of introduction, which assured him access to the great private collections there.

The artist already had considerable knowledge of Italian painting, notably of Caravaggio, derived from original and copied works in the royal and other collections. He had also been able to cultivate personal contacts with several Italians - including the papal nuncio, Giulio Sacchetti, and leading figures, such as Francesco Barberini, Giovanni Battista Pamphilij (the future Innocent X), and the antiquarian and connoisseur Cassiano dal Pozzo - who were later to play a vital part in promoting him.

But direct experience of Italian art, both ancient and modern, had a radical impact on the manner in which he painted, as this show clearly illustrates, down even, as recent analysis has revealed, to the way he prepared his canvases. After visiting Genoa, Milan, Venice, Florence, Parma and Bologna, Velazquez stayed first at the Vatican and then the Villa Medici.

While at the Villa Medici, he painted an extraordinary work, apparently purely as a personal souvenir, of a boarded-up archway in a corner of the Medici gardens. This is one of the first en plein air oils ever executed, both its subject matter and technique - which has long been recognized as prefiguring Impressionism - startlingly innovative. It was Manet who was later to dub Velazquez 'the painter's painter,' and by the same token the Villa Medici vignette is surely a classic 'painter's painting.'

Velazquez did not make it back to Italy again until 1649, when, furnished with ample funds, he was charged with buying large quantities of pictures and sculptures, and having plaster and bronze casts made of celebrated pieces that could not be bought, to adorn the Alcazar and other royal palaces. This was a mammoth undertaking that forced him virtually to abandon painting for many months. Given the parlous state of the Spanish exchequer, the enterprise attracted vigorous criticism at home, and met with resistance in certain quarters in Italy as well.

One eccentric collector, Ippolito Vitelleschi, who was in the habit of conversing with his antique statues as though they were living beings, realizing that Velazquez had his eye on one of them, removed and hid its head, obliging Velazquez finally to make do with a bronze cast of it. But, in the end, more than 260 crates of original sculpture and copies were shipped off to Spain.

Through his efforts, Velazquez greatly augmented his country's collections of classical and Italian art, but was less successful in the second part of his mission, which was to recruit fresco painters to return to Spain with him to decorate royal residences. Spain had acquired a bad name among Italian artists for bleak living conditions and the chronic negligence manifested by the monarchy and local grandees when it came to paying bills. Consequently, Velazquez's first choice, Pietro da Cortona, refused more or less point blank, and even less well-known alternatives were reluctant to go to a place that had so often proved a graveyard for visiting artists.

However, despite the continual distractions of negotiating purchases, permissions to copy and abortive attempts to cajole recalcitrant artists into making the journey to Spain, Velazquez also succeeded in using his second stay in Italy to consolidate his name as a painter there, guaranteeing that his fame would in due course spread wider still.

He was elected to the Roman artists' Academy of San Luca, and did a stunning portrait of Juan de Pareja (now at the Metropolitan Museum in New York), his Moorish slave, who was also a painter and whose freedom his master granted while they were in Rome. This work won Velazquez membership in the society of the Virtuosi of the Pantheon, (and was partly undertaken, according to Velazquez's 18th-century biographer Palomino, to help the artist get his hand back in practice in preparation for his portrait of Innocent X).

As a contemporary Flemish artist recorded, when Juan de Pareja's likeness was shown at the annual art exhibition at the Pantheon in 1650, both the communities of local and foreign artists concurred that it was 'the only true portrait' there, all the rest being merely pictures.

This acclamation from his peers was indicative of the more general recognition of the new depth of observation and subtlety of style Velazquez had brought to the art of portraiture. For, although he had learned much from the Italian masters, it was now the Spanish artist who had become the measure of excellence in the field.

The triumphs of Velazquez, both at home and abroad, hugely raised the status of painters in Spain. But for all the titles and honors showered on him by the King, there was one accolade after which he still hankered - to be made a Knight of the Order of Saint James -- and to this end he turned once again to his Italian connections.

This order was strictly reserved for men of noble birth who had never engaged in any manual or commercial activity. Velazquez was neither of convincing aristocratic lineage, nor could he claim never to have worked for his living. Thus, his desire to join this exclusive club would have been doomed, had he not been able to appeal to his Italian friends to obtain a papal dispensation. This at last arrived in late 1659, just a few months before the painter's death in the summer of 1660.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023