My Favourite Painting: Stephen Fry

'The white strokes that make the red fabric shine are the boldest imaginable' says Stephen Fry.

Stephen Fry on Velázquez’s Pope Innocent X:

‘This is one of the most striking images I know. That hard, guileful face (so far from innocent), but below it the shimmering robes of office so fantastically rendered. The white strokes that make the red fabric shine are the boldest imaginable; like Rubens’ impasto, they are proud to be paint, but even more so. I love the totally relaxed right hand. Only real power can be so at ease.’

Stephen Fry is an actor, comedian, presenter and author, well known for his role as Lord Melchett in Blackadder and hosting the general-knowledge quiz QI.

Art critic John McEwen on the painting:

‘The painter of painters,’ Manet called Velázquez; so it remains. This portrait is more famous for Francis Bacon’s translations, colloquially known as his ‘Screaming Pope’ series, than for itself. When he was asked what he particularly admired about it, Mr Bacon cited the ‘magnificent colour’, although his Pope wears purple not scarlet. he also said that, in a Velázquez, ‘you feel the shadow of life passing all the time’.

Innocent X had been papal nuncio to Spain before he became Pope, where Velázquez, court painter since 1623, would undoubtedly have known him. Innocent was 70 when he was elected Pope, and 76 in the portrait, which was done when Velázquez was in Italy on behalf of Philip IV, buying art for the Spanish royal collection. Today, most of these purchases are in the Prado, Madrid. In Italy, Velázquez also painted his only known nude, The Rokeby Venus, now in the National Gallery. During the english Civil War, Innocent supported independent Confederate Ireland, albeit to ‘sustain’ the king, sending arms and money to help Irish Catholics win full religious freedom.

Nonetheless, he was an often irresolute and suspicious Pope, unduly influenced by his brother’s widow, Olimpia Maidal- chini, who controlled the papal purse-strings and was nicknamed the ‘Popess’ (Papessa). Gossip inevitably said she was his mistress, a crude assumption dismissed by historians. This highly charged, capable but avaricious woman has sullied the reputation of a man ‘not without noble and reform- ing impulses’; so avaricious was she that it was left to Innocent’s former butler to pay for his papal master’s funeral.’

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This article was first published in Country Life, July 1, 2009