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A piece of work by the Spanish painter Diego Velázquez, entitled the Portrait of Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphilj, which was thought to be either lost or destroyed for nearly 300 years, has recently been rediscovered. Velázquez, who has been called ‘one of the absolute standout titans of European and world painting’, painted the portrait during the 17th century in Rome.

Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphilj, also known as Donna Olimpia, is reputed as having been the ‘power behind the papal throne’ as well as simultaneously being the lover and sister-in-law of Pope Innocent X and was nicknamed ‘Papessa’ – the lady pope. She is said to have been ‘an ardent feminist, championing Rome’s prostitutes and nuns alike’. Donna Olimpia played an important role in determining foreign policy and choosing cardinals; no decision which was taken by Pope Innocent X was ever made without prior consultation with her. A significant part of the population in Rome at the time celebrated the lady pope: ‘they could not believe that a female from modest beginnings had risen to such heights, running the nation of the Papal States and the Catholic church’ and would station themselves outside her palace, cheering as her carriage went past. However, the male community of the papal court both despised and feared her, deploring the ‘monstrous power of a woman in the Vatican’.

The rediscovery of this long-lost portrait is not only of interest to present scholars and admirers of Velázquez and other 17th century pieces, but it also reignites discussions surrounding the position of women in power and women’s rights to power more generally.

Fine Art students may wish to familiarise themselves with a variety of works, learning the history and fascinating background of such pieces. Philosophy, as well as Politics students, can reflect on the debates surrounding power relations such as the role of women over time in power positions, and how power, both in history and presently is a social construct which can be moulded and ever-changing.

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