The picture, which is one of the most important of the Doria Pamphilj collection and absolutely one of the masterpieces of portraiture of the whole seventeenth century, portrays one of the key figures of the family, Giovanni Battista Pamphilj, pope from 1644 to 1655 with the name of Innocent X.. The portrait does not mask the almost proverbial ugliness of Innocent X, ‘that satirical, saturnine, coarse and hideous aspect’, which made his contemporaries, and above all his enemies, think of a ‘contumacious spirit’. The result is a masterpiece of fundamental importance, in which the artist has preserved over the centuries the unforgettably forbidding face, with its vivid and omnipresent look. The picture was painted by Diego Velázquez probably between the end of 1649 and January 1650.
In the eighteen months of his stay in Rome, the artist executed a series of other prestigious portrait commissions: of the sister-in-law of the pope, Olimpia Maidalchini, of the adopted nephew, Camillo Astalli Pamphilj, of Prince Camillo Massimi. The portrait always stayed within the Pamphilj family, but is not listed clearly in the inventory of Camillo Pamphilj in 1666. It might be, judging by the pose of the person described and the dimensions, the “picture on canvas with frame of six palms, with portrait of Pope Innocent seated, with gilt frame”, described as being “in the rooms in which died his Excellency, the Prince”.
In order to find it indicated precisely and a precise positioning, we must wait for the inventory of Giovanni Battista, son of Camillo and heir to the title. Here are described, in the “big room”, many of the pictures still in situ, (“Pope Innocent X of 5 and 6 palms, seated, by Diego Valasco, with smooth, gilt frame”). The mention is important, because it does not often happen in seventeenth-century inventories that portraits are given an attribution; the great reputation acquired by the artist in Rome as a specialist after painting Innocent are probably the reason for this detailed mention.
In 1794 was printed the first complete guide of the Doria gallery, written by Salvatore Tonci and aimed at “lovers of painting”, with long comments on the most interesting pictures. The portrait of Velázquez is found, as in the relief attributed to Nicoletti, in the third wing, where it was still visible in 1818.
Tonci talks of the picture in amazed tones, particularly for the way in which the artist was able to create harmonies and clashes, all in tones of red, achieving “an effect so terrible, so strong, while at the same time so harmonious, that it is a great pity for all the pictures which are displayed around it”. The pale Madonna adoring the Child by Guido Reni suffers in particular; this picture, although “superb…, resembles, in comparison with that one, a piece of parchment”.
In his “Promenades dans Rome”, Stendhal includes the palace amongst the compulsory places to be visited by the foreign visitor, on account of the “magnificent galleries” it contains, and the enthusiasm displayed by Tonci for the portrait of Innocent X in particular is soon shared. An authoritative English guide credits Reynolds with the judgment on the painting of Velázquez as being “the finest picture in Rome”.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, the then owner, Prince Filippo Andrea V, also seems to have realized that the picture was of particular importance to the Gallery, both as a symbol of the power reached by the family in the past and for the general appreciation of its qualities as a painting.
Entrusting the reorganization of the Palace and the Museums to the architect Andrea Busiri Vici, he accepted the idea of putting the portrait on its own in one of the two pavilions with which Busiri Vici defines the wing of the Gallery on the Corso at its two ends.
It is therefore in the middle of the nineteenth century that the idea comes up of separating the portrait from the rest of the collection and displaying it in isolation as it is today. At the time it was still grouped together with other portraits, according to the description of the catalogue ordered by Prince Filippo Andrea and published in 1855, but by 1876 the Gabinetto was already mentioned as the “small chamber of Velázquez”.