Writer and Travel + Leisure India & South Asia’s A-List member Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi’s decade-long friendship with Rome’s Prince Jonathan Doria Pamphilj has served as a revelation in art, humanity, and charm. By Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi
One of Caravaggio’s most important works, Penitent Magdalene, is held in the Doria Pamphilj Gallery in Rome on Via del Corso. The painting is significant, and singular, for its depiction of Magdalene. Previously painted in sensual light, with voluptuous turn, here she is in a repose of terrific plainness. Without erotic charge, she appears either remorseful
or reflective: a woman on the brink of transformation. This is markedly different from her
other interpretations as a ‘fallen’ woman (there was some talk about her role as a prostitute who is reformed by Jesus although some historical accounts dispute that story). The magnificent painting has Caravaggio’s assurance of power concentrated in a single stroke, and is remarkable–as the rogue Italian painter is feted–for its use of light. Joining this landmark work at the Doria Pamphilj Gallery are hundreds of classic works such as Titan’s Judith, Velázquez’s Portrait of Innocent X, and Raphael’s Double Portrait.
I first saw the Caravaggio painting 10 years ago, when I lived in Rome. The painting moved me; the power of transformation through reflection, and prayer, was a private unassailable truth. As I had turned a corner in this exquisite hallway, I heard music—a concert in one of the rooms. But I did not track the source of the music, the exact chamber from which violin notes echoed. As I stood beside a white marble bust, I was caught in the enchantment of the evening: all these great works in a raiment of music, form, and vibration holding hands at dusk. By then I had spent a few months in Rome, and bored of its indolent pace, the tedious parties in Parioli, egoistic outbursts among Monti’s rich, the leftleaning intellectuals whose mainstay was arguing at bars in Trastevere. Proust, at the end of his life, excited
himself in Parisian bordellos, where he watched bandicoots fi ght and bleed to death. I understood his impulse when I had lived on Via Giulia; unremitting boredom overcomes you when everything around you is flawless.
But I also believed that more profound than the jolt of perversion is the solace of beauty, its scholarship, its motives, how it comes into being and why it endures. Over the next few years, I moved in and out of Rome, where the Doria Pamphilj Gallery became one of my refuges.
Social acquaintance with Prince Jonathan Doria Pamphilj, whose palazzo neighbours the gallery and its art, graduated to friendship over the years. In his palace of over 1,000 rooms, you are met in a honey-hued salon; a butler arrives with a silver salver bearing prosecco and aperitif. A reception with Jonathan is memorable for its grace: driven by a sympathy for great ideas, his wit is sparring but always kind, bordering the fabulous; his
manner is correct, yet he warmly welcomes you into a private fold of beauty, as if you had always belonged there. You imagine other guests in this august, rarefi ed salon, including Madonna. More recently, the palace hosted a much-discussed fashion show from Giambattista Valli for H&M (front row: Kendall Jenner, Chris Lee).
Jonathan can talk high art or a new restaurant on Via Catalana, where fried artichoke leaves are on point. He is passionate about restoration, and was one of the first members of Italian nobility to open his palace, and a part of its formidable collection housed in the Doria Pamphilj Gallery, to public. Dinner is always with his family, his partner Elson Braga, who radiates kindness, intelligence, equanimity; and their children, Emily and Filippo, raised with fiery wonder for the world, humility for providence in it, a love for travel,
a peripatetic, dusty life that prized experience over symbol. The family’s motto is optima pades, which translates to ‘show your best’. Taking this advisory to heart, Jonathan has invested his entire life in the pursuit of rare ideas and difficult truths, including a political
conviction in our fundamental equality. He publicly supports many causes, including equal rights for all, irrespective of gender, race, or sexual orientation.
I met Jonathan at the end of a month-long stay in Italy last year. A bleak April in Rome, it had rained every day; at a trattoria, my favourite sunglasses got nicked. I arrived at his
palace in a strop. But the surfeit of fine things on the piano nobile—frescos, marble busts, paintings —quietened that tetchy hum in my head. I could do the only reasonable thing: submit to collective splendour. Much later, as I was leaving, I stood alone in his courtyard. I imagined Handel, who had performed pieces here, entering the palace in the days of yore. I also imagined Velázquez at work, when he had been commissioned to document one of Jonathan’s forebears, a Pope whose unflattering portrayal prompted a scandal. But an exultation in greatness can only be measured by how one feels leaving it behind. As the wet cobbled streets of Rome led me back to my flat, I recognised that I had been profoundly comforted; and April, which thus far had felt misspent, now had its crown.