For me the recent discovery of a lost portrait by Diego Velasquez revived memories of the talk given at last year’s Marlborough LitFest by Amy Sackville.
Her novel Painter to the King is a fictional account of the artist’s life at the Madrid court of Philip IV. Amy Sackville gave a brilliant talk and showed how Velasquez continues to play on her imagination.
Painter to the King is a breath-taking book. It works wonders with words and speech patterns, and it successfully takes you into Diego Velasquez’ inspiration and his way of painting – at time almost brush stroke by brush stroke. It certainly confirms the critics’ view that Amy Sackville has extraordinary gifts as writer.
The book is about Diego’s relationship with the strange King Philip – about seeing and recording what the artist sees in a way that makes the two dimensional visual art of painting leap into three dimensional life. It is also about the collapse of Philip’s court and about death.
Listening to Amy Sackville as she described her search for the real Velasquez was almost as good as reading her book. However, shortly after her talk, I returned to the book and read it again – with even greater pleasure.
One of the delights of the book are the descriptions of Velasquez’ travels, especially his visits to Rome – visits that take us further into his private life rather than his official, court life. Did he have an affair while he was in Rome?
And Rome brings us back to the discovery of Diego Velasquez’ portrait of Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphilj – painted during his second visit to Rome in 1650.
For 300 years it was thought to be lost – even destroyed. Nicknamed the Papessa – the lady pope – Donna Olimpia was a fierce feminist, championing Rome’s women from prostitutes to nuns. She was strongly opposed by angry members of the Vatican’s male majority.
Soon after she died of the bubonic plague in 1657, the Vatican’s men tried to expunge her from the records. How cross they would be that her portrait has survived – against the odds – and has revived interest in her life.
She was certainly a female figure – stern and dressed in black in his portrait – to intrigue a painter of deep character portraits like Velasquez.
It is a far cry from watching Velasquez pay his taxes as he returns from Rome to Madrid, to the auction at Sotheby’s at the beginning of July. His long lost portrait of Donna Olimpia was sold by its private owner for £2,375,000.
by David Williams who lives near Marlborough