Rome: Palazzo Doria Pamphilj

The Palazzo Doria Pamphilj.

It was a pleasant surprise during our last visit to Rome: the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj (pronounced Pamphili[1]) and its amazing art gallery. The Palazzo is located next to the Baroque church of San Maria in Via Lata and can be entered from the Via del Corso. A ticket to the Palazzo is not cheap: you will pay 12 euros. However, you will also get a free audio tour and the Palazzo has a pretty good one. A member of the extended Doria Pamphili family will tell you all you ever wanted to know about the history of the palace and the art collection. In impeccable English that is. This should not come as a surprise, because the narrator is none other than Jonathan Doria Pamphili, the adopted son of Orietta Doria-Pamphili-Landi and Frank Pogson, and one of the co-owners of the Palazzo. Yes, the Doria Pamphili family still owns the palace, which means that some parts are private and cannot be visited. Visitors are however allowed to admire several rooms, the ballroom, the chapel, the four wings surrounding a large courtyard and two more rooms – the Aldobrandini Room and the Primitives Room – that house parts of the art collection.


Even though parts of the building are more than 100 years older, the history of the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj should start with Camillo Pamphili (1622-1666). He was the son of Pamphilio Pamphili (1564-1639) and Olimpia Maidalchini (1591-1657). His uncle was Cardinal Giovanni Battista Pamphili (1574-1655), who was elected Pope Innocentius X in 1644. Shortly afterwards, Innocentius gave Camillo the official and very important position of cardinal-nephew (cardinale nipote in Italian). Camillo, however, soon grew tired of his new responsibilities and expressed a desire to marry. The woman of his choice was the beautiful Olimpia Aldobrandini (1623-1681). She had just one problem: she was married to a member of the influential Borghese family. But when this man, Paolo Borghese, had died in 1646 while still in his early twenties, Camillo decided to grab his chance. He resigned his position as cardinal-nephew and married Olimpia Aldobrandini just a few weeks later, in February of 1647.

Bust of Pope Innocentius X by Bernini.

Pope Innocentius X was not amused. He did not object to his nephew marrying, but had rather seen a bride from the Barberini family. His predecessor, Pope Urbanus VIII (1623-1644), had been a member of this family and the Barberini and Pamphili families did not get along well. Urbanus and Innocentius had never been friends, and the latter had confiscated property belonging to nephews of the former after becoming pope. A marriage to a Barberini bride could have soothed tensions between the families, but it was not to be.

Camillo’s mother was outright livid about the marriage. Even though she and the bride had the same first name, Olimpia Maidalchini hated her new daughter-in-law and effectively banished the couple from Rome. The love birds were for instance not allowed to reside at the new Palazzo Pamphili on the Piazza Navona (completed in 1650), which is not to be confused with the current Palazzo Doria Pamphilj on the Via del Corso. The latter palazzo, dating from the early sixteenth century, was known as the Palazzo Aldobrandini back then. Camillo’s marriage to Olimpia Aldobrandini brought it into the Pamphili family. In the 1650s, Camillo began buying up the adjacent estates to extend the palazzo. Several apartments were added to the ever growing palazzo.

Camillo’s daughter Anna Pamphili (1652-1728) married Giannandrea Doria from an old and respected family from Genoa. In 1763, when the Pamphili line in Rome had become extinct, the Doria Pamphili family moved from Genoa to the Eternal City and took up residence at the Palazzo Pamphilj, which was subsequently known as the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj. Of course, the new owners had the place thoroughly redecorated. It is nice to walk around through the various rooms, visit the ballroom with its nineteenth century decorations and listen to Jonathan Doria Pamphili’s warm voice as he tells us about how he used to scratch the freshly polished ballroom floor with his roller-skates when he was a kid. The chapel, designed by Carlo Fontana (1634/38-1714) and built between 1689 and 1691, is a bit macabre though, as it has the completely preserved body of a female saint on display.

The collection

The Pussino Room.

The first two rooms that can be visited are the Pussino Room and the Velvets Room. The former is named after the painter Gaspard Poussin (1615-1675). His real name was Gaspard Dughet, but he called himself Poussin after his brother-in-law, the famous French painter Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665). The walls of this room are crammed with paintings, and many of them are by Dughet (for other works by Dughet, see Rome: San Martino ai Monti; for Poussin’s funerary monument, see Rome: San Lorenzo in Lucina). The Velvets Room has a work by Mattia Preti (1613-1699), but more importantly two works by a previously unknown painter from the seventeenth century named Pasquale Chiesa. Virtually nothing about his life is known, apart from the fact that he seems to have been from Genoa. The Palazzo Doria Pamphilj has five paintings which he made, and six more to which he contributed. Apparently the Palazzo is the only museum in the world that has works by this mysterious artist.

The Gallery of Mirrors.

After passing through the ballroom and the chapel, visitors can enter the four galleries or wings that form a square around a central courtyard. These are the Aldobrandini Gallery, the Gallery of Mirrors (which faces the Via del Corso), the Pamphilj Gallery and the Doria Gallery. When Camillo Pamphili married Olimpia Aldobrandini in 1647, the Aldobrandini family’s extensive art collection also passed to the Pamphili family. Part of this collection were several works by Ferrarese masters which were confiscated after the Dukes of Ferrara were expelled from the city in 1598 (see Ferrara: Castello Estense). The pope responsible for this decision was Pope Clemens VIII (1592-1605), and he happened to be a great-uncle of Camillo’s wife. Olimpia was also his sole heir. This explains the presence of works by artists such as Dosso Dossi and especially Il Garofalo (see Ferrara: Palazzo dei Diamanti) in the collection of the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj.

And it has to be said that this collection is immense. In the four galleries we find works by Flemish artists like Pieter Brueghel the Elder (ca. 1525-1569) and his sons Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638) and Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625), by David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690) and by Quinten Massijs (ca. 1466-1530), but also by Italian masters such as Giovanni Bellini (ca. 1430-1516), Titian (ca. 1488-1576), Annibale Carracci (1560-1609) and Guercino (1591-1666). Also in the collection is a portrait by Raphael (1483-1520) of two men, who are assumed to be Andrea Navagero and Agostino Beazzano, two Venetian poets. German painters are also represented at the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, as I spotted a work by Hans Memling (ca. 1430-1494), as well as a painting of the Vision of Saint Eustace by a follower of Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). High up on the wall of the Pamphilj Gallery, I even noticed a painting of an Old Satyr attributed to a painter from the circle of Rembrandt (1606-1669), the most famous Dutch painter in history.

Portrait of Agatha van Schoonhoven by Jan van Scorel.

One of the most charming works in the entire collection is a small panel, measuring just 38.3 by 27.1 centimetres, by the Dutch painter Jan van Scorel (1495-1562). The Palazzo Doria Pamphilj counts it among the masterpieces of the extensive collection. The woman depicted on the panel happens to be Agatha van Schoonhoven, the painter’s “wife”. In 1528, Van Scorel had been appointed as a canon of the church of Saint Mary in the Dutch city of Utrecht. In his new capacity, he was not supposed to marry, but the painter more or less ignored this custom and lived together with his beloved Agatha, who bore him six children. Van Scorel executed the lovely little portrait of Agatha in 1529.

And then there is Caravaggio (1571-1610), who needs no further introduction. Caravaggio’s best known works in the Doria Pamphilj collection, the Penitent Magdalene (ca. 1595) and the Rest on the Flight to Egypt (ditto), can be found in the large Aldobrandini Room. Unfortunately, they turned out to be on loan to a museum in Milan when I visited the Palazzo in January 2018. Also in this room is the only work by Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) in the collection, an impressive painting of the Deposition. Just behind the Aldobrandini Room is the Primitives Room, which has many paintings executed on panel. More works by Il Garofalo here, but also by Bicci di Lorenzo (1373-1452) and Pesellino (ca. 1422-1457). For me, the undisputed highlight was a painting of the Annunciation by Filippo Lippi (ca. 1406-1469), the Carmelite friar who eloped with a nun and became the father of the painter Filippino Lippi (1457-1504).

Portrait of Pope Innocentius X by Diego Velázquez.

People who have visited the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj themselves will by now have reached the conclusion that I have saved the best for last. Near the end of the Aldobrandini Gallery and the beginning of the Gallery of Mirrors there is a separate room with the two undisputed highlights of the museum, a portrait and a bust of Pope Innocentius X. The portrait was made in late 1649 or early 1650 by the Spanish painter Diego Velázquez (1599-1660). Innocentius was about 75 years old at the time. It is a deservedly famous work of extraordinary quality and realism, but the Pope himself was apparently a little disturbed when he first saw it. A rather humorous tradition claims that the Holy Father exclaimed “Troppo vero!” (“this is too true”) when the portrait was shown to him. This story is probably a fabrication, but it is amusing nonetheless. The English writer John Julius Norwich used Velázquez’ masterpiece for the cover of his book about the history of the papacy, published in 2011.

In the same room is a bust of Innocentius by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), the greatest Baroque sculptor of all time (see the image above). In fact, there are two busts of this pope by Bernini in the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj. The other one can be found at the beginning of the Aldobrandini Gallery. This latter bust is almost identical, but note that it has a cracked beard. Bernini, who was known for the speed with which he could produce sculptures, then simply made a new bust in just a week. Unfortunately for him, Pope Innocentius X did not grant Bernini a lot of commissions. The artist had been Pope Urbanus VIII’s protégé, and because Innocentius intensely disliked his predecessor, he also usually ignored the artists employed by Urbanus. This situation changed in 1651, when Bernini won a commission to erect the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi in the Piazza Navona. So to sum up, during the eleven years of Innocentius’ pontificate, Bernini was never entirely sidelined. But the Pope could have employed the great artist a lot more. Judging by the comments made by Jonathan Doria Pamphili as part of the audio tour, this is something the family still regrets.


[1] The spelling with a ‘j’ (or ‘long i’) is rather daft, and I will only use it for the Palazzo, not for members of the family.


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