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Interview: Prince Jonathan Doria Pamphilj, joint owner of the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, and landlord of the Anglican Centre in Rome

22 April 2016

‘Art gives me enormous joy, and some of the paintings we have are stunning’

Officially, titles don’t exist in Italy any more. My mother used to insist that we complied with this, though she was born in Italy in the reign of the Savoyards, when titles still existed. But, after the 1947 referendum, Italy became a republic, and they are not used now.


The origin of the title goes back to Charles V of Spain, who bestowed on my ancestor Andrea Doria various properties in the south of Italy. It was a means of thanking him for their alliance in trade, but, above all, of helping to ensure security in the Mediterranean. He was captain of Charles V’s ships. Charles donated two castles to Andrea, and these came with their titles, the most important of which was Prince of Melfi, though there were another 26 titles.


Giovanni Battista Pamphilj, who was elected Pope Innocent X in 1644, was our most famous ancestor. His cardinal nephew, Camillo, some years later renounced his cardinalate and married Olimpia Aldobrandini. She was the widow of Paolo Borghese; so that was when an immense amount of art came into the family, not least the Aldobrandini and Borghese collections. The palace where I live now was remodelled to house the new art collection.


The most important person behind Pope Innocent was Olimpia Pamphilj, his sister-in-law. She was a very ambitious woman. She certainly promoted her brother-in-law’s career, to such an extent that he was piloted to become the Pope, and she gained an immense amount of power and wealth through him.


I’ve just sponsored a symposium on her in San Martino al Cimino, where she lived and died. She’s very much loved there, because she largely built their city, and was very generous to the people, and was always connected with that Viterbo area. She may not be so much loved in Rome, where she was ambitious, and possibly unscrupulous, and became very rich at their expense. But certainly it’s thanks to her that the family has these great collections and possessions.


What do I do? I have to answer that question every time I fill out an immigration form to go to the United States or Brazil, and I never know what to put. I suppose I manage all our family properties with my sister; so the work goes from art curating, running the gallery as a business, running the properties, the farms, you name it.


The inheritance I most enjoy is the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, where I live in Rome, and the art collections.


For any family, when you’re a child, your situation seems to be the norm. So growing up in a really beautiful building was absolutely normal for me. I became aware of the difference when I started seeing other people’s homes; but my parents, Frank and Orietta, were very down-to-earth people, and, as much as possible, we had a simple life in these grand surroundings. As children, we were brought up to contribute and help out. We weren’t waited on hand and foot.


Inheriting this family property is a huge responsibility, but it’s the legacy of our parents, who taught us how to live in this way, and consider it as something that it is not at our disposal to do with as we wish. It is a huge burden, and it’s not made easier by recent laws in Italy, which have heavily penalised historic properties. I’ve always said that we’re lucky to be in the centre of Rome, because a lot of our income comes from renting apartments in the palazzo; but there are a lot of historic properties in Italy which are rural, in the middle of nowhere, and some of these people are forced to sell now.


It is difficult, but it’s my reality, my home, nothing extraordinary. But you’ve got to have a passion for it, because it’s so complicated, and a lot of hard work. Thank God I really enjoy it, because if I didn’t it would be a nightmare.


I read History of Art at the University of East Anglia, and it’s a great passion of mine. Art gives me enormous joy, and I must say that some of the paintings we have are absolutely stunning: they give me constant pleasure when I see them.


This collection is a legacy from 400 years. For the past 200 years, only Englishwomen married into the family, and, as a result, taste changed, and habit changed. Some of the last works purchased in the 19th century were the primitive gold-ground paintings such as Filippo Lippi’s Annunciation. This is a painting you’d never have seen in an Italian collection: it’s very Anglo-Saxon in taste.


It’s also a very Anglo-Saxon habit to open your house to the public. We’re the only princely collection in Italy that’s open every day to the public. Not only that, but we also open our palace in Genoa where Andrea Doria lived. There are other palaces open in Italy, but not every day.


I think people have a pleasant experience visiting the gallery. We have a lot of positive comments, particularly about the audio-guide I made, and everyone seems to remember the comment I make about being chased by the butler when I was a kid going around on roller skates and ruining a priceless floor. We’re very lucky to be the owners of the property, and share our experiences of this through the audio-guide.


We inherited the Anglican Centre as tenants in the palazzo from my parents. It does a great job running conferences, teaching, and being an Anglican presence in Rome. My father was a Royal Navy commander, Frank Pogson, and an Anglican, who converted to Catholicism during the war. He met my mother after the Liberation, and, together, they always tried to promote inter-Christian dialogue and Christian unity. I very profoundly believe in this, too. It’s really important to find this unity. It’s far too easy in life to find what we don’t have in common.


The Centre’s influence has been positive: you can see this when Archbishops of Canterbury meet the Pope, and it’s always a very cordial meeting. If the Anglican Centre wasn’t there, maybe there wouldn’t be this situation.


In Italy, I really feel quite English, because we’re still discussing issues that have long been settled in other countries, particularly to do with civil rights and civil partnerships. These are basic matters of civil rights, and it has really brought out the worst in some Italian politicians — the very conservative ones — so these really shock me. The English are so pragmatic, embracing of difficult cultures, religions, and customs into their own world.


That’s probably the most dramatic example. But they are two different worlds. In England, I feel rather Italian when I see people over-react in really small matters, like when Braga and I see someone jump the queue in an English supermarket.


I’m happiest with my family. My husband is from Brazil, and our two children are Brazilian, American, and English, and I’m happiest with them wherever we are, whether it’s in Brazil or England, or in Rome — where we spend most of our time, because our children go to school in Rome, and that’s where my work is.


I speak a lot of languages. I’m very lucky. Our children are tri-lingual, and, importantly, tri-cultural. I speak to them in English, Braga speaks to them in Portuguese, and, of course, we speak Italian; so that’s a great start in life. I have one or two other languages up my sleeve. I think it’s because of travelling about with our parents. We’d drive through France to England every summer, so French was a language that came easily into my life.


Becoming a parent is a huge jump in life; a great sense of achievement. I have two wonderful children, and a wonderful husband. But there is still a lot more that I want to experience in life, which I suppose might come under the headings of study and travel. But my family is my greatest achievement, one I’m very, very proud of.


I think some lovely Bach is the most reassuring sound to me. In the most difficult moments of life, Bach centres my soul and gives a sense of order to what may seem temporary chaos.


The senators debating on civil partnerships in parliament last made me angry. It makes me furious that people are still talking about this and debating it. It shouldn’t even be an issue. The constitutions should be changed, and we shall all be treated equally. It’s the same arguments that were made in the 1960s against mixed marriages in America during the civil-rights movement, which now we look back on and say how shameful all this was.


So many things make me happy, particularly when I see our friends. Recently, my son had to have a small operation — he’s fine now — but to see the smile on his face after the operation makes me very happy, and for ever thankful to our Lord.


I don’t pray very often, although I regularly give thanks to our Lord in the morning and evening for all our blessings. When I do pray, I suppose I I try and visualise a world at peace, with an end to suffering.


If I was locked in a church, I think I’d like to be with someone who could tell me all about the architecture. My professor at Downside, and now good friend, Austin Bennett, has a passion and impressive knowledge of many things, and, in particular, knows, for example, Wells Cathedral like the back of his hand. I could spend long, enjoyable hours with him learning about the church while someone tries to unlock the door.


Jonathan Doria Pamphilj was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. The Palazzo Doria Pamphilj is open every day from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. http://www.doriapamphilj.it/roma/en/

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