Get to Know Palazzo Doria Pamphilj & Its Fascinating History

Popes, princes, and priests; these are the people who once walked the glittering halls of the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, which today stands as a museum honoring Italy’s most storied families.

Feb 3, 2024By Laurie Ann Melchionne, BA Literature & Journalism

palazzo doria pamphilj history


The Palazzo Doria Pamphilj is a Baroque-style art gallery that traces its architectural roots to the early 15th century. Towering on Via del Corso in the heart of Rome, the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj is a gallery that flaunts the best art history from the Pamphilj family’s private collection. But the palazzo’s history runs deeper than hosting art displays. Within the walls of what we see as an art museum breathes the memory of the private lives of Italy’s most powerful families, who once called it home.


The Gallery’s History: The Pamphilj Family

Portrait of Camillo Pamphilj. Source: Galleria Dora Pamphilj


Today, the palazzo is still owned by the Doria Pamphilj family, which, through marriage, unified the Doria, Pamphilj, Landi, and Aldobrandini families. The Pamphilj family’s claim to the palazzo dates back to 1654 when Prince Camillo Pamphilj and his bride Olimpia Borghese moved in. Olimpia’s maiden name was Aldobrandini; by the time she and Prince Camillo came to the palazzo, it was known as Palazzo Aldobrandini.


Brother of Cardinal Giovanni Battista Pamphilj, the future Pope Innocent X whose Velázquez-painted portrait hangs in the palazzo’s Velázquez Cabinet, Prince Camillo Pamphilj was a Papal Army general and thoroughly integrated his identity with Roman politics. Not only did Camillo’s marriage give him the great palazzo in Via del Corso, but it also gave him the Aldobrandini dowry, which included the beginnings of a painting collection that tourists can see in its gilded halls today.


Home to Papal Families

Portrait of Pope Innocent X Pamphilj by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1650. Source: Galleria Doria Pamphilj


Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

The 18th-century renovations that comprise today’s building were done in 1763, decades after the original Pamphilj couple called the palazzo home. These renovations happened after the Doria family returned to Rome once they officially recognized their dynasty’s fusion with that of the Pamphilj family.


But the Doria Pamphilj were not the only ones who once lived here. Italy’s most important families used to walk these halls, including the Borghese, Colonna, Savoia, Facchinetti, Aldobrandini, and Della Rovere families.


All of these families, including the Pamphilj, claimed a pope in their lineage (Pope Innocent X (r. 1644-1655) was born Giovanni Battista Pamphilj). This list of pontiffs who had claims to Palazzo Pamphilj was the Colonna family. Pope Martin V, born Otto Colonna, served as pope from 1417 to 1437. The Delle Rovere had two popes in their family tree: Pope Sixtus IV and his nephew, Pope Julius II, who became pope 19 years after his uncle’s death. On the Aldobrandini side, Ippolito Aldobrandini was known as Pope Clement VIII in the Vatican from 1592 to 1605 and was the last pope to sit on Saint Peter’s throne during the Counter-Reformation.


Pope Paul V was related to the Borghese family and served on Saint Peter’s throne from 1605 to 1621. Facchinetti produced Pope Innocent IX, born Giovanni Antonio Faccinetti, and served as pontiff for only two months in 1591 (October 29 until his death on December 30). While the Savoia never had a pope in their lineage, Carlo Pio di Savoia became a cardinal in 1655.


Interestingly, many of these papal figures could have passed each other in the halls of the Vatican; they were all contemporaries of each other. From the second half of the 15th century and throughout the 16th century, these families had active roles in pulling papal authority strings.


The Palazzo was Renovated by Iconic Roman Architects

The interior courtyard in Borromini’s style. Source: Milestone Rome


The renovation of the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj as we know it today began in 1647 with the concepts of Baroque architect Francesco Borromini. While Pope Innocent X gave the palazzo its modern scenic layout in 1644, it was Borromini’s proposals that turned the place into the Baroque masterpiece tourists recognize today.


Borromini had learned stone cutting in Milan during his early years. This eventually led him to study draftsmanship and stonemasonry under Carlo Maderno, who recognized his young ward’s talents and took him to St. Peter’s to work on the many architectural problems faced in the Holy City’s piazza. When Maderno died, Borromini’s architectural expertise only skyrocketed under another master, Gian Lorenzo Bernini. During his lifetime, Bernini was known as one of the greatest sculptors of the Baroque period.


Known for basing his concepts on geometric proportions, Borromini was responsible for much of iconic Roman architecture and had already secured for himself a highly-regarded reputation. St. Peter’s Basilica’s balanced towers, the domes and vaults of Sant’Ivo della Sapienza, San Carlo Alle Quattro Fontane, Palazzo Barberini, and Sant’Agnese in Agone are just some regal examples that can thank Borromini for their towering dimensions and Baroque-style facades.


Borromini’s Style

Galleria Aldobrandini in the first wing. Source: Milestone Rome


Because of Borromini’s reputation, he caught Pope Innocent X’s attention and was chosen as the architect to spearhead his family palazzo’s renovations. Thus, it was from Borromini’s concept proposals that the main room and Gallery’s stucco decoration was constructed. Alongside Borromini, Pietro da Cortona decorated the Gallery vault and added to the side of the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj that not only pays homage to God but also to Roman culture. Cortona painted a fresco about the Roman figure Aeneas, of whom the Pamphilj claimed to be descendants.


Cortona and Borromini helped construct the palazzo so that the Gallery’s ceiling frescoes were on full display, unlike the palazzo’s old layout that had a long, low vault and kept the frescoes from being seen in all their glory. Under Borromini, the palazzo’s three courtyards were constructed and allowed for plenty of outdoor space in addition to space for admiring other frescoes by Gaspard Dughet, Pier Francesco Mola, Giacinto Gimignani, and many other art history icons.


A Palace of Roman Catholic Heritage

Hall of Mirrors. Source: Milestone Rome


Pope Sixtus was known for being a war-monger; his reputation was blackened by his involvement in the Pazzi Conspiracy to murder Lorenzo de Medici and his brother, Giuliano. Later, Sixtus’ violent war on Florence would further immortalize him in the minds of both Florentines and Italians at large as the man who desecrated St. Peter’s sacred throne for evil, secular gains.


“Sixtus, at last you’re dead, unjust, untrue, you rest now,” wrote an anonymous poet at the time of Sixtus’ death in 1484. “Sixtus, at last you’re dead, eternal engine of discord, even against God Himself, now go to dark Hell.”


Decadence and the Catholic Church are synonymous, at least in the Vatican’s history. Sixtus set the stage for popes who used their spiritual authority to intimidate (which, if one knows anything about the Borgia popes, was commonplace during the Renaissance). The Pamphilj family seemed to intend to counteract the Vatican’s stained reputation by paying homage to the glory of God in their palazzo.


The original art collection that began in the 1600s expanded. Over the years, it featured iconic works of art that depict biblical scenes. Some works include Filippo Lippi’s The Annunciation, 1434/1440; Caravaggio’s Penitent Magdalene, 1594-95; Giovanni Bellini’s Virgin and the Child, 1480-1500; and Pier Francesco Mola’s Landscape with Rest During the Flight into Egypt, 1630.


However, while the gallery glorifies Catholicism, it is the palazzo’s works of art, the glittering Hall of Mirrors, and the sprawling stucco architecture that demonstrate Renaissance decadence despised by reformists like Father Girolamo Savonarola.


The 21st Century & Legacy of Palazzo Doria Pamphilj

Prince Jonathan Doria Pamphilj. Source: The Church Times


The Palazzo Doria Pamphilj is still associated with Roman nobility, only now it belongs to the 21st century. While aristocratic titles no longer exist in Italy, its heritage does. Prince Jonathan Doria Pamphilj holds the palazzo in a trust under his name. Once, Prince Jonathan shared a claim to the palazzo with his sister, Princess Gesine Doria Pamphilj.


Unrelated by blood, the prince and princess are the adopted heirs of the late Orietta Doria Pamphilj. Orietta died in 2000, which resulted in a legal battle between the brother and sister over the palazzo and their deceased mother’s billion-dollar-worth inheritance. The legal battle lasted for ten years until December 2010, when a Roman court ruled in Prince Jonathan’s favor and claimed that not only did Jonathan have a right to claim the inheritance, but his sister didn’t even have a right to bring her claim dispute to court.


Today, the palazzo is so much more than an art-filled monument dedicated to the glory of Roman families of old. While it boasts a staggering 1,000 rooms and halls of historic artwork, Prince Jonathan, his family, and the rest of the Pamphilj descendants leave a modern footprint within the rooms.


For example, the Private Apartments are still owned by the family. While these glittering Baroque rooms are a far cry from the apartment of the typical 21st-century Italian, the fact that the Pamphilj descendants can still trace their claim to the palazzo is noteworthy. It speaks volumes of the power that the Doria Pamphilj wielded over Italy. Vatican authority breathed within the mirrored halls and ensured that the world would remember a historic age of Italian papal glory for centuries to come.

Author Image

By Laurie Ann MelchionneBA Literature & Journalism Laurie has a BA in Literature with a concentration in Creative Writing, and a minor in Journalism and Communication Studies from Stockton University in New Jersey. Currently, she is finishing her MA in Digital Communications and Marketing at LUMSA Universita in Rome, Italy, where she spends much of her time studying, writing about hotels, and visiting art museums and old estates around the peninsula. She has been a content creator for a variety of companies and publications, and her most recent editorial work has been featured in fashion journalism. However, her true passions lie in telling stories rooted in history, and if they’re set in Italy, the better.