Interview with Eleanor Herman - author of "Mistress of the Vatican"

Q: Since 2004, you have published three books, the best selling Sex with the King and its follow up, Sex with Queens, and now Mistress of the Vatican. Can you tell the readers a little about your background before you were published?

I was a journalist for a variety of publications, and from 1989-2002 worked for Monch Publishing, based in Bonn, Germany. As their associate publisher of North America, I worked for their defense and political journals, especially with the embassies of Partner for Peace (former Warsaw Pact) nations. I loved the travel. During every business trip, I would take a couple of days to see the castles and museums. But I always wanted to write a book. In 2001 my mom died very suddenly, and I realized I needed to push forward with my dream before Death tapped me on the shoulder, too. I quit my job and used my inheritance to support myself while I wrote Sex with Kings.

Q: I’m a big history geek and one of the reasons I started Scandalous Women was to share the lives of these amazing women that I was reading about. Can you tell us a little bit about how you first learned about Olimpia Maidalchini? And was it a hard sell to your editor and publisher given that very few people knew her story? Or was it easier, given that your first two books were bestsellers?

A fellow at the Italian Cultural Institute clued me into Olimpia when I was working with him on a lecture on Medici mistresses. I had never heard of her before, but looked her up and was fascinated.

You are right that publishers prefer books on well-known historical characters. That’s why we keep reading about Anne Boleyn and Marie Antoinette over and over again, while hundreds of fascinating people who are less known get overlooked. I think the publisher bought Mistress right away because of the success of Sex with Kings and Sex with the Queen, and I think because the book was about the Vatican, which is a hot topic after The Da Vinci Code.

Q. Olimpia took a huge risk in defying her father. It could easily have turned against her, but she seemed to have had no fear. How do you think this stamped her personality?

I worked with a psychologist on Olimpia’s personality. He said that almost getting locked up in a convent stamped her personality for the rest of her life. No amount of money or power could make her feel safe enough. She was always terrified that men would try to lock her up. In acquiring money and power to protect herself, she alienated powerful men, and needed more money and power to feel safe. This became a vicious cycle.

Q. The relationship between Olimpia and her brother-in-law Giambattista Pamphili was unusual for the time. Do you think it was strictly platonic? It seems that people found it impossible to believe that the two were just friends. That the only way Olimpia could have so much influence was if they were lovers.

It’s impossible to say 100 percent. I suppose there are some relationships – either of different genders or even the same gender – where one person is dominant and the other subservient, and this doesn’t necessarily mean that sex is going on between them. Certainly their contemporaries thought Olimpia and the pope had a sexual relationship, though this, too, doesn’t necessarily mean it was true. The psychologist felt there probably was a romantic relationship. But it was Olimpia’s power – not the sex – that bothered the cardinals and ambassadors.

Q. It occurred to me while reading the book that the Catholic Church at this time seems to have much more in common with our political system, with the lobbying, the bribery, the nepotism, the stealing, than with actual faith, particularly when it came to electing the next pope. Both Innocent X and Alexander VII tried to curb some of the worst excesses of the church but with little success.

The papacy was also a monarchy, and the pope was a king of a nation stretching across the center of Italy to the Adriatic. This fact had a great influence on the kind of men who were elected pope – ambitious, corrupt, manipulative, sometimes violent. They had to be that way in order to survive, and ensure the survival of their families and the nation itself in those brutal times. I think the best thing that ever happened to the Church was when it lost its temporal dominion, and the pope could focus on spiritual matters rather than lobbing cannonballs at other Christian nations.

Q. I was struck by how Olimpia seemed to embody that old saying ‘Power corrupts and Absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ She made several missteps including not cultivating her daughter-in-law the Princess of Rossano. Is it possible that in her need for security that, her judgment started to falter?

Olimpia developed a hard outer shell as a defense. She was terribly jealous of the princess, who was much younger, more beautiful, of blue blood, and highly educated. The older Olimpia should have befriended the younger one and worked against her quietly. Sometimes it’s better to have your enemy by your side so you know what they are doing. And exiling her own son and his wife made Olimpia look bad to the pope and the entire nation.

Q. The rift between Olimpia and Innocent X, after so many years of closeness, in a way seemed to be a long time coming, but do you think it could have been avoided?

Again, I think Olimpia made a tactical error by being so vocal about her displeasure. Storming into the Vatican and berating the pope just infuriated him. She should have charmed him, instead, pretending all his ideas were excellent, and then quietly worked to sabotage her enemies. She was just too straightforward with him. She learned her lesson, though. Once he brought her back from exile she smiled sweetly as she prepared her ultimate revenge on him.

Q. You mention the myth or legend of Pope Joan several times in the book. Why do you think Olimpia's riveting story has been forgotten by history while the story of Pope Joan continues to fascinate? Do you believe that the Church is still uncomfortable with the idea that a woman was that close to actually governing as Pope?

The pope after Innocent already started suppressing Olimpia’s story. He didn’t even want to bring his own sister-in-law to Rome, afraid this might awaken memories of the woman who ran the Vatican. It seems to me the Church is extremely uncomfortable about any mention of women having power, though I am not sure why. They duly quote the new Catechism that says women are honored because of the Virgin Mary, but excuse me, if you really want to honor us give us equal opportunity in the Church. They talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. Female priests would give so much compassion, dedication, and warmth to the Church. Plus women rarely sexually abuse children. I am not sure why women would want to belong to a faith where they have to sit in the back of the bus, even though the theology is beautiful and the history goes straight back to Jesus.

The most devout Catholics are beside themselves that I wrote that in the first centuries of Christianity, there is evidence of female priests in various parts of the Roman Empire. But as paganism slowly became Catholicism, it makes sense that far-flung regions would have turned their pagan priestesses into Christian ones, for a while at least. Perhaps the Pope Joan legend is well-known because it is so fabulously ridiculous. Olimpia’s story is completely true, which must make the Church more uncomfortable than a blatant fable.

Q. It’s hard not to wonder what Olimpia could have become if she been born in this century instead of the 17th. What do you think she would have thought of women like Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton? Would she have been envious of their advantages?

I have often thought of what Olimpia would have been if she had been born in the mid to late twentieth century. Perhaps a Hillary Clinton or Nancy Pelosi, or the head of a Fortune 500 company. She would not have had to fight so hard, or be so afraid. It would have been a kinder era for her, as it is for all women. I sometimes wonder if modern women understand all of our advantages, or if we take them for granted. I hope, when women read my books, they will see how far we have come.

Q. Another biographer, Amanda Foreman, wrote once that biographers are notorious for falling in love with the subjects. Did that happen with you?

Absolutely. I fell in love with Olimpia, even though she did some awful things. She was so alone in the world – her parents were eager to lock her up just because they were cheap and didn’t want to give her a decent dowry. She fought so hard, and was inwardly very fragile and afraid. She also had a tremendous earthy sense of humor, which, I think, was another way of dealing with her fear and pain. I wish I could go back in time and visit her, and put my arms around her.

Q. Where did you start in terms of research for the book? How long did it take you to write Mistress of the Vatican from research to first draft?

Research for this third book took two years, a full year longer than the first two. Much of the reading was in Italian, and seventeenth-century Italian at that. I made three research trips to Italy to dig through archives and visit her palaces. I wanted to tell her story on the vibrant stage of seventeenth-century Rome – a place of magnificent pageantry and utter wretchedness. I hoped to craft a time machine, so that the reader actually goes back there and understands what life was like, so that she can hear the horses’ hooves outside Olimpia’s door. I found a book published in 1657 by a retired butler on how to run a noble family’s Roman household – what wines to buy each month, when to order hogs’ carcasses, how to reupholster the carriage and deal with drunken servants. I also read about a hundred books on Catholic history and theology to fully understand the organization over which Olimpia wielded so much power.

Q: You have been known to wear period dress to promote your books. Was that your own idea and what do you think is the most effective way for a writer to promote his/her books?

Period dress gets attention, but each author has to be fully comfortable with how they are promoting their books. I loved it, though I have become a bit tired of corsets and now choose my costume events carefully. And yes, it was my own idea. The publisher thought people might view me as a nut, but USA Today said I was a marketing genius. I don’t know that it made a whole lot of difference, but it was fun.

Q. Having tackled the sex lives of the Kings and Queens of Europe and now the Vatican, what are you planning to work on next?

I am finishing up Murder in the Garden of God, which could be subtitled “Hamlet in the Vatican” with all the murders and intricacies of plot. It is about the family of Pope Sixtus V in the 1580s. I have never seen a plot like this, and it is all true! I found a 400-year-old Italian manuscript with all kinds of gossipy stories about Sixtus and the murder. I fell in love with Sixtus, too.

Visit Eleanor at Mistress of the Vatican

Purchase the book at Barnes and Noble or Amazon


Bearded Lady said…
I just downloaded Sex with the Queen and Sex with the King into my kindle. I can't put it down. They both are hilarious! I love Herman's writing style. Thanks for posting this interview. I am going to read Mistress of the Vatican next. so much reading so little time.
I know what you mean. I had coveted this book but didn't know when I would have the chance to read it until the nice people at Harper Collins sent it to me. She's one smart cookie, and a great writer. I can't wait to read her next book.

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