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When Diego de Velázquez dies in August of 1660, the Córdoba painter Juan de Alfaro is nothing but a teenager, a young man of 17 that had managed to become Velázquez apprentice. However this odd Córdoba character, perhaps dazzled by the greatness of his master, in a short period of time, ended up being something more than just a disciple.

Juan de Alfaro (Córdoba, 1643 – 1680) belonged to a family of noble ancestry and surname; the Alfaros were at top of the cultural elite during the peculiar Córdoba baroque. His older brother was a writer, himself was considered a poet; his father run a pharmacy and wrote, and his grandfather was the celebrated doctor that wrote the first head surgery academic paper in Spain. The fine education he received along with the inherited talent for writing made Juan de Alfaro the perfect candidate to work under Velázquez as his personal secretary and apprentice.

We find the first proof of the existence of this special relationship between Velázquez and his young secretary in the publication of a small inventory of 41 paintings that Philip IV moved to the Escorial. Descriptions of each painting were wrote by Velázquez, however Juan de Alfaro appeared as editor of the published inventory. The document itself is quite controversial, specialists are still discussing it; but the document is there happily signed by Juan de Alfaro, no one can deny that.

As I said before, the relationship between the painter and his apprentice-secretary went far beyond professional. For instance, Juan assisted every single act of Velázquez’s wake; he even drew a brief sketch of his lifeless face while the master’s body rested in the coffin and he held the vigil. The intimate last portrait of Velázquez that opened this article is, as of today, part of the Frits Lugt Collection in Paris.

But not only would Juan de Alfaro drew Velázquez in his death, he was also the one who wrote the words carved in the master’s gravestone at Saint John parish in Madrid. Unfortunately, the church and the tomb was utterly destroyed by the French Napoleonic troops, thus this artist’s remains are long lost, as it happened to Cervantes’ bones.

But then, how could his epitaph had reached our time? Well that is the third and oddest event in which Juan de Alfaro took part. So, desperately willing to preserve the memory of his admired Velázquez he started to gather data and making notes to write his biography. However, despite his efforts, it would not be Juan the one to publish it but instead his disciple, another Córdoba painter: Antonio Palomino; who beside being a painter would eventually be known for the compilation he made, in an Italian fashion, of all Spanish artist to his date.

This encyclopedic venture of Antonio Palomino de Castro (Bujalance, 1655 – Madrid, 1726) would result in three volumes published under the title “El Museo Pictórico y Escala Óptica”( The Pictorial Museum and the Optical Scale). This Spanish Parnassus is one of the main references to study the Baroque Spanish painting. All the published Velázquez biographies as of today consulted this first manuscript, published by Palomino and written by Juan de Alfaro.

The band of Baroque painters born in Córdoba would not be complete unless we include a third one: Antonio del Castillo y Saavedra (1616-1668). He was the first master that young Juan de Alfaro had before Velázquez. In his compilation, Palomino tells a fun story that happened between them that reflects their good competitive nature.

 

The Story

Alfaro moves back to Córdoba after a prestigious stay at the King’s Court in Madrid, he is still a young man of 20. As a first job there he is offered to paint for the Convent of San Francisco. At the time the choice was between Saravia and Antonio del Castillo (Alfaro’s first painting professor). However it is Juan de Alfaro, in the end, who takes on the job, and the young and modest artist signed them “Pinxit Alfarus” (painted by Alfaro). Antonio del Castillo, on the other hand, signed his only painting in the Convent “Non fecix Alfarus” (not done by Alfaro) mocking his former pupil.

Juan de Alfaro did not take it so bad, and when asked by Palomino about it he happily replied that “it had been an honor competing with such a vigorous male in life as well as in Art“.

The painting itself depicts the Baptism of San Francisco de Asis and is exhibited in the Fine Arts Museum of Córdoba.

At the bottom of the painting the famous sentence by Castillo can be appreciated.

And last but not least, I leave you with the epitaph of Velázquez written by Juan de Alfaro, although you will have to read it in Latin.

 

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POSTERITATI SACRATUM 

D. Didacus Velazquius de Silva Hispalensis pictor eximius natus anno MDLXXXXIV Picturae nobilissimae arti sese dicavit (praeceptore accuratissimo Francisco Pocieco qui de pictura pereleganter scripsit) Jacet hie : proh dolor ! D. D. Philippi IV Hispaniarum Regis Augustissimi a cubiculo Pictor primus, a camara excelsa adjutor vigilantissimus, in Regio Palatio et extra ad hospitium cubicularius maximus, a quo studiorum ergo missus, ut Romae et aliarum Italiae urbium Picturae tabulas admirandas, vel quid aliud hujus suppelectilis, veluti statuas marmoreas, aereas conquireret, perscrutaret, ac secum adduceret, nummis largiter sibi traditis : sicque cum ipse pro tunc etiam Innocentii X Pont. Max. faciem coloribus mire expresserit, aurea catena pretii supra ordinarii eum remuneratus est, numismate, gemmis, caelato cum ipsius Pontificis effigie insculpta, ex ipsa ex annulo, appenso : tandem D. Jacobi stemmate fuit condecoratus et post redditum ex fonte rapido Galliae confini Urbe Matritum versus cum rege suo Potentissimo e nuptiis serenissimse D. Mariae Theresiae Bibianae de Austria et Borbon, e connubio scilicet cum Rege Galliarum Christianissimo D.D. Ludovico XIV labore itineris febri praehensus, obiit Mantuae Carpetanae, postridie nonas Augusti, aetatis LXVI anno MDCLX sepultusque est honorifice in D. Joannis Parrochiali Ecclesia, nocte septimo Idus mensis, sumptu maximo immodicisque expensis, sed non immodicis tanto viro. Haeroum concomitatu, in hoc Domini Gasparis Fuensalida Grafierii Regii amicissimi subterraneo sarcophago : suoque magistro praeclaroque viro saeculis omnibus  venerando, Pictura collacrimante, hoc breve epicedium 

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Joannes de Alfaro Cordubensis maestus posuit et Henricus frater Medicus.

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