Stephan Wolohojian, Curator, Department of European Paintings
Few practices seem as objectionable and resonate as distastefully in our day as nepotism, the practice of which originated within the hierarchy of the papal church in Rome. Without legitimate offspring of their own, popes regularly appointed their nephews (nepotes in Latin) and other relatives to high secular and ecclesiastical office in order to solidify their power and to assure its continuity after their reign.
Arguably the highest position was the cardinal nephew, who, in the best of circumstances, assumed a status somewhat commensurate to the American secretary of state. This appointment not only invested the young nephew with political power, but the pope would often ensconce his appointee in lavish family palaces, give him the reign of feudal seats, and bestow upon him other forms of status and privilege. So great were the political advantages of having a cardinal nephew that, when biological ones didn't exist, popes would often go so far as to adopt one from another family. Such was the case of Camillo Astalli (1619–63), a distant relative by marriage to Pope Innocent X, who on September 19, 1650, was elevated to the rank of cardinal nephew and, as Cardinal Camillo Astalli-Pamphili, became a short-lived member of Rome's powerful Pamphili family.
Recognizing his rapidly advancing years, the 76-year-old pontiff quickly installed his young cardinal in the Pamphili's grand palazzo on the Piazza Navona, made him protector of the church of San Agnese next door, and even granted him the Pamphili's sumptuous park and recently built villa on the Janiculum where portions of the family's great art collection were placed on display. Rife with ambition, the newly appointed cardinal focused on consolidating his own power and prestige rather than solidifying alliances with the pontiff and the curia.
Within weeks of his elevation, Astalli, who had a strong attraction to all things Spanish, commissioned Velázquez to paint his portrait. Earlier in the year, the artist had executed the celebrated portrait of Pope Innocent X, made indelible in modern times through the paintings of Francis Bacon. Velázquez captures the newly minted cardinal in an incredibly direct and animated way, almost exaggerating the bright red biretta that crowns his head and confirms his recently gained status.
Astalli soon proved neither interested in nor capable of navigating the complex political obligations and responsibilities of a cardinal nephew. Four short years after he sat for this portrait, he made the misguided decision to warn the Spanish king of the pope's plan to attack Naples, a major stronghold of the Spanish empire. The pope swiftly stripped Astalli of his office and the material wealth he had granted him, and banished the disgraced cardinal from the Eternal City.
Velázquez (Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez) (Spanish, 1599–1660). Portrait of a Young Girl (detail), ca. 1640. Oil on canvas, 20 1/4 x 16 1/8 in. (51.5 x 41 cm). The Hispanic Society of America, New York, NY