Art: Highest Ever

It was, in a sense, a limbering-up exercise. When Diego Velásquez was living in Rome in 1649, he was summoned to paint the portrait of Pope Innocent X. The artist was out of practice; he had done no heads for some years. So, to get his hand in, Velásquez decided to make a portrait of his color grinder and studio hand, a husky mulatto slave named Juan de Pareja. Roman cognoscenti greeted it, according to one of Velásquez's contemporaries, "with admiration and astonishment," and from then on this aloof, brooding presence on canvas with...

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