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Diego Velasquez's long-lost portrait of 'Papessa' - the 'lady Pope' comes to auction this summer

  • Auktion
    Diego Velasquez's long-lost portrait of 'Papessa' - the 'lady Pope' comes to auction this summer
    03.07.2019

London, 23 June 2019: She was the most powerful woman in 17th-century Rome. Ambitious, domineering and deeply corrupt, Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphilj – sister-in-law, reputed lover and puppet master of Pope Innocent X – controlled all aspects of Vatican life. Arguably one of the earliest feminists, Olimpia was adored by women from across the Catholic world who would crowd around her Palace and cheer her arrival, but despised by the men of the papal court who condemned the enormous influence and control she exerted over the pontiff. Ruling in all but name as the de facto Pope, this formidable woman, centuries ahead of her time, took control of one of the most powerful and male dominated institutions in European history.

On 3 July, Sotheby’s will bring to auction a newly-discovered painting of Olimpia Pamphilj by Spanish master, Diego Velázquez. Lost for almost three centuries, this captivating portrait once formed part of the illustrious collection of Don Gaspar Mendez de Haro y Guzman, 7th Marques del Carpio - one of the greatest patrons and collectors of arts in 17th-century Italy.  Last recorded in 1724, it subsequently disappeared without trace. The whereabouts of the painting remained completely unknown until one day, an unattributed work, sold in the 1980s as ‘anonymous Dutch school’, was brought into Sotheby’s Amsterdam office. An intriguing old cypher hidden on the back of the painting prompted Sotheby’s specialists to begin a process of research and discovery – all of which ultimately lead to the realisation that this striking portrait was the long-lost original by Velázquez: a painting much revered in its day and executed during the artist’s ‘golden period’.

James Macdonald, Sotheby’s Senior Specialist of Old Master Paintings, said: ‘The search for Velázquez’s portrait of Donna Olimpia is finally over. Painted in Rome in 1650 by perhaps the greatest portrait painter of all time, this depiction of one of the most powerful and domineering woman of her time has long been recorded through early documents and engravings but was lost for nearly 300 years. Its recent rediscovery represents a highly significant addition to the great Spanish master’s oeuvre and the painting can be counted amongst only a handful of works by the artist remaining in private hands today.’

Painted in 1649-50 during Velázquez’s second trip to Rome, the Portrait of Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphilj (est. £2 - 3 million) will be offered at Sotheby’s London on July 3rd in the context of one of the strongest Old Master sales ever staged. On view to the public from 28th June till 3rd July, it will hang alongside major works by the titans of British Art – Thomas Gainsborough, John Constable, J.M.W. Turner – as well as leading Renaissance and Baroque painters Botticelli, Pieter Brueghel the Younger and Sir Peter Paul Rubens. A newly discovered drawing by 16th century Mannerist artist Rosso Fiorentino will also be unveiled to the public for the first time.

The portrait of Olimpia belongs to a moment during which Velázquez produced some of his most celebrated masterpieces, including the Portrait of Pope Innocent X – a work that was to have a profound influence on subsequent generations of artists, culminating most famously in Francis Bacon’s seminal Pope series. One of a few, and the only lady, to be selected to be painted by Velázquez during his visit, the painting depicts a stout, strong-jowled woman, and exudes the artist’s unique ability to capture and convey the personalities of his sitters.

Commissioned either by, or for Olimpia herself, the painting is documented as having been in the collections of numerous notable figures of 17th and 18th century Rome, including the sitter’s grandson Cardinal Camillo Massimi, a famous connoisseur and art patron, and Don Gaspar Mendez de Haro y Guzman, 7th Marques del Carpio, who by his death had amassed over 1,800 paintings for his collection, including no fewer than six paintings by Velázquez. Well documented in a number of collections thereafter, the painting was last recorded as being in the collection of Cardinal Pompeo Aldrovandi of Bologna and Rome in 1724, after which traces of the work are lost.

Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphilj

Born into a noble family in Viterbo in 1591, Olimpia married and was widowed twice, latterly by Pamphilio Pamphilj, the elder brother of Cardinal Giambattista Pamphilj, later elected Pope Innocent X in 1644. The Pope’s sister-in-law and his reputed lover, Olimpia Pamphilj was one of the most influential figures at the papal court during her brother-in-law’s tenure. Her influence over the pontiff was well-known with one Cardinal, Alessandro Bichi, on the election of Innocent in October 1644, supposedly angrily declaring, “Gentlemen, we have just elected a female pope.” 

Eleanor Herman, New York Times best-selling author and writer of a captivating biography of Olimpia Pamphilj, ‘Mistress of the Vatican’ comments: ‘The most powerful and notorious woman of her time, Olimpia Maidalchini was a baroque rock star. Women from all over the Catholic world came to Rome to station themselves outside her palace to cheer as her carriage rolled out. They could not believe that a female from modest beginnings had risen to such heights – running the nation of the Papal States and the Catholic Church, an institution where women were not allowed any power.’








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  • Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez, Portrait of Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphilj_£2-3 million (ii)
    Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez, Portrait of Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphilj_£2-3 million (ii)
    Sotheby’s Auktionshaus
  • Newly discovered portrait of Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphilj by Diego Velázquez (£2-3mill) pictured here with a self-portrait by Francis Bacon £15-20 mill) who was deeply influenced by the Spanish master
    Newly discovered portrait of Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphilj by Diego Velázquez (£2-3mill) pictured here with a self-portrait by Francis Bacon £15-20 mill) who was deeply influenced by the Spanish master
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  • Newly discovered portrait of Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphilj by Diego Velázquez (Est. £2-3 million) pictured here with Girl with a Tambourine by fellow Spanish artist Jusepe de Ribera’s (Est. £5-7 million)
    Newly discovered portrait of Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphilj by Diego Velázquez (Est. £2-3 million) pictured here with Girl with a Tambourine by fellow Spanish artist Jusepe de Ribera’s (Est. £5-7 million)
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