Postcard from Rome, Italy: Palace reflects vestiges of papal perks

It has never been easy to obtain first-class relics worthy of designing a gilded chapel around, but it certainly helped to have a pope in the family.

Among the prizes contained in reliquaries in Palazzo Doria Pamphilj are “the perfectly preserved remains,” according to the website, of Saint Theodora. We are not sure which Theodora, but this one, before final martyrdom I assume, purportedly was spared from a fiery end by flames that parted around her. Stretched out below the chapel altar are the remains of a saintly centurion who, prior to his conversion and martyrdom, served as an imperial guard standing by during the crucifixion of Christ.

The basic structural bones of Palazzo Doria Pamphilj date from 1435, but the Pamphilj family undertook major remodeling during the second half of the 17th century. Later redo’s Rococo-ed things up a bit.

The Doria portion of the family originally was from Genoa, while the Pamphilj branch had roots in Gubbio. Both powerful families, but the glory years of consolidating prime property and accumulating wealth and art in Rome followed the papal inauguration of Giovanni Battista Pamphilj in 1644 as Innocent X (1574-1655). Papal perks awarded to friends and family were chief causes of stormy Vatican politics for centuries.

Pope Innocent X lived in office for more than a decade, a decade during which he presided over the 1650 Jubilee Celebration. Traditionally during Jubilee years of the church, currently held every 25 years:

families were expected to find their absent family members, the Hebrew slaves were to be set free, debts were to be settled and illegally owned land had to be returned to its owners.

“The Jubilee Year,” www.vatican.com

In honor of the Jubilee, Pope Innocent X added opulence to St. Peter’s and, for the public, made Piazza Navona the incredible landmark it remains today. He moved an immense Egyptian red granite obelisk of Domitan there and commissioned artists of the caliber of Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) to add ornate Baroque fountains.

But wait, was that project for the public good or for the pleasure of the Pamphilj family whose palazzo happened to be located there? The family who would flood the plaza to float boats for elaborate summertime parties? No matter now, it is a stunning, if ridiculously overcrowded, public space.

Among the major paintings included in the palazzo’s collection is a portrait of Innocent X by Diego Velazquez (1599-1660). Some critics regard this portrait as one of the finest in the world; artist Francis Bacon (1909-1992) obsessively turned to reproductions of the painting as the basis for his two-decade series of “screaming popes.”

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