Donna Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphilij was once the most powerful woman in 17th century Rome. As the sister-in-law (and rumoured lover) of Pope Innocent X, she supposedly wielded enormous control over the pontiff and acted as the puppet master within the shadows—and was purportedly even responsible for his election as pope. One Cardinal Alessandro Bichi was said to have declared, “Gentlemen, we have just elected a female pope,” upon the election of Innocent in October 1644. It should thus come as no surprise that Donna Olimpia’s nickname was “Papessa”—the Lady Pope.
Women across the Catholic world adored her, while the men of the papal court despised her for her influence, even seeking to eradicate her scandalous memory after her death in 1657. This is a woman whose life is the stuff of movies. Sadly, her visage was thought to have been lost—until now.
This painting, painted in the mid-17th century by Spanish master Diego Velázquez, is one of the few (if not the only) thought to exist of Papessa Pamphilij, and it has just resurfaced after being thought lost for nearly 300 years. Named the Portrait of Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphilij, it was last recorded in 1724 as part of the collection of Don Gaspar Mendez de Haro y Guzman, one of the greatest art patrons of the 17th century. It subsequently disappeared without a trace, languishing in ignominy as an unattributed work.
It was only when it was brought into the Sotheby’s Amsterdam office that suspicions arose as to its true nature. It had been sold in 1980 as ‘anonymous Dutch school’, but an old cypher hidden on the back of the painting prompted Sotheby’s specialists to begin researching its true provenance.
The painting is intriguing for two reasons; Its subject, the Papessa, is a controversial figure whose life’s story fascinates us even today. Its painter, Diego Velázquez, was the leading artist in the court of King Philip IV, and one of the most important artists of the Spanish Golden Age. His masterpiece Las Meninas (1656) is considered a seminal work and is one of the most analysed paintings in the western art world. The Portrait of Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphilij was executed in Velázquez’s ‘golden period’ and much revered in its day. Velázquez’s paintings were inspirational fodder for future generations of painters, including
“The search for Velázquez’s portrait of Donna Olimpia is finally over,” said James Macdonald, Sotheby’s senior specialist of old master paintings. “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.’
It is not the only painting in recent memory to have surfaced after lost time— Leonardo da Vinci’s much-disputed Salvator Mundi was famously rediscovered by art speculator Alexander Parish, going under the hammer for an astounding US$450million at Christie’s despite being surrounded by much controversy.
The auction of the Portrait of Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphilij at Sotheby’s is not estimated to fetch nearly as high a price, but it will undoubtedly close for a pretty penny. Sotheby’s has it pegged for somewhere between £2-3million. The hammer falls tonight, 3rd July 2019, at Sotheby’s Old Masters Evening Sale. It is lot 28.