Prince Felipe Prospero: A Sad Infante

Diego Velazquez,

Diego Velazquez, “Prince Philip Prospero,” circa 1660, Public Domain, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

This painting is one of my very favorite works of the great Spanish court painter Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez.  It’s a loving depiction of Infante Felipe (Philip) Prospero around 1660. (Infante and Infanta were the titles of boy and girl royal children, respectively). Felipe Prospero was born in 1657. He was a long-awaited heir to the Spanish throne. His father was Philip IV of Spain;  his mother was Philip’s second wife, Mariana of Austria.  A son was essential; otherwise the husbands of Philip’s daughters would fight over the throne when he was gone.

Diego Velazquez,

Diego Velazquez, “Equestrian Portrait of Prince Balthasar Charles,” 1634-35, Public Domain, Prado Museum

The previous male heir, Prince Balthasar Charles, had died as a teenager, eleven years earlier. His death dashed the hopes of Philip IV for a stirring military career for his son.  As a devout Catholic, Philip believed that his sins had somehow caused the death of Balthasar. (Actually, the cause was most likely the collective sins of his family, who for many generations intermarried with their Habsburg cousins in order to keep their hold on power).

Felipe Prospero was greeted with ecstatic celebrations and baptized at the earliest possible moment, to the great joy of his parents and their subjects.  Water was brought from the River Jordan for the baptism.  The Spanish people celebrated with masquerades, bullfights, processions and also getting drunk and breaking up furniture. But the child was sickly, a fact that Velazquez did not try to hide.

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Felipe Prospero is pale. His eyes have a hollow look. Years of inbreeding between the Spanish and Austrian royal families had left him with a damaged immune system.

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The amulets tied around his waist and across his chest were meant to ward off disease.

Nothing could help his worst medical problem, though.  Inbreeding had left Felipe severely epileptic. The child lived for only a short time after Velazquez painted this portrait. He died of a violent epileptic seizure in 1661, at age 3.

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The painting captures the little boy’s wistful beauty, his fragility, and the sadness that surrounded him.  His little dog seems already to be mourning the child’s early death.

Velazquez was honored with a special exhibition last winter in Vienna.  The museum already has the largest collection of Velazquez paintings outside of Spain, and more were brought in for the spectacular exhibition. Because the Habsburgs enthusiastically intermarried with their Spanish cousins, Velazquez was kept busy painting portraits of prospective brides and grooms at various ages. The portraits are enchanting–and haunting.

Diego Velazquez,

Diego Velazquez, “Self Portrait,” 1640, Public Domain

Velazquez painted this self 
portrait the year before his own death in 1660.  I imagine the artist had a special feeling for this delicate child, so near to death at such an early age. To me, this painting is a profound reflection of the frailty and brevity of human life.My previous post told the story of Felipe’s older brother, Prince Balthasar Charles.  It’s at https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2015/07/27/velazquez-in-vienna/

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

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