Mistress of the Vatican

"We have just elected a female pope." —Cardinal Alessandro Bichi, 1644

A week ago I opened the mailbox for our RWA chapter and found a copy of Eleanor Herman's new biography Mistress of the Vatican. All of a sudden it was Christmas and my birthday all in one. I had read about this book on Herman's website and I couldn't wait to read it. Thanks to the good people of Harper Collins I was able to do just that.

If you have never heard of Olimpia Maidalchini, you are not the only one, and it is a damn shame. For Olimpia managed to achieve something that no woman ever has, for the 11 years of her brother-in-law Innocent X's reign as pope, Olimpia was the real power at the Vatican. Yes, there is the legend of Pope Joan, but Olimpia's story has been fully documented by the historians of the day, and now in Eleanor Herman's masterful biography.

If you have read her previous books, Sex with the King and Sex with Queens, (and if you haven't I suggest you run out and buy copies) than you know what to expect, a well researched book that doesn't stint on the more salacious aspects of her subject, and with Olimpia Maidalchini and the 17th century Catholic Church, there is much to read. Herman plunges you head first into the remarkable world of 17th Century Rome, detailing not only the remarkable life of Olimpia, but also the Inquisition, the plague, the rivalry between France and Spain, and the narrow life of women after the heady early days of the Renaissance when education was actually encouraged for women.

The basic facts of Olimpia's life are these, she was born on May 26, in 1591 (although wikipedia gives her birthdate as 1594) to a tax collector in Viterbo, Italy. Olimpia was the first child of her father Sforza Maidalchini's second marriage and a bitter disappointment, being born a girl. Two more girls followed Olimpia's birth. All her father's focus was on Olimpia's older half-brother Andrea. Like most 17th century girls, she was educated enough for her station life, meaning she learned embroidery and how to run a household. But Olimpia had a brain, she was smart and she wasn't afraid to let people know it. She was particularly gifted at math, able to do complex sums in her head.

Having three daughters that needed doweries, meant less money for his heir Andrea. So Sforza Maidalchini decided that his three daughters would join a convent. While her two younger sisters were dutiful and meekly went off, Olimpia dug in her heels and said hell no. There was no way that she was going to spend her life cloistered, away from the world. Sforza cajoled, threatened and pleaded. He even had his sister, a nun, try to convince Olimpia that her gifts would be appreciated in the convent, that she could easily rise to the position of Abbess, and wheel and deal all she wanted with convent property. Olimpia still said no. When her father had a young priest try to convince her of her duty to her father, Olimpia took matters into her own hands. Feeling betrayed, she would have her revenge on the man that was supposed to protect and care for her. She wrote a letter to the local bishop, that her father was trying to force into the convent (it was no forbidden for father's to force their daughters), and that the priest had tried to sexually molest her.

Her plan worked, the young priest's career was ruined, and her father was made a laughing stock. It worked almost too well, dimming Olimpia's marriage prospects. However, luck and a vivacious personality led Paolo Nini to ask for her hand in marriage. Not only was her groom attractive but he was rich and willing to take the piddling dowery her father scraped together. The young couple were happy, primarily because Nini let Olimpia rule the roost, but within a few years, Nini was dead along with her two children.

This time, Olimpia decided to aim higher in a husband, heading off to Rome. Armed with her deceased husband's fortune, after a suitable period of mourning, Olimpia made her way to the Eternal City. She found a second husband in Pamphilio Pamphili, a bachelor thirty years her senior, but more important she'd found her life project in his younger brother, monsignor Gianbattista Pamphili, who was thirty eight at the time. The Pamphili's were an older, noble family with papal ties (they were descended from Pope Alexander VI according to wikipedia) but broke. It was a marriage made in heaven, Olimpia's youth and money and the Pamphili pedigree.
From the beginning, Olimpia and her brother-in-law were exceedingly close, closer than most brothers and sisters-in-law. They could be seen walking together and talking for hours at a time. The future Innocent X was a dour sort, who trusted few people, and men in particular. He saw them as competition, whereas he was extremely close to his two sisters who had become nuns. Olimpia lively personality and keen mind were greatly appreciated by Gianbattista. Whether her husband felt the same, we have no idea. It wasn't long before rumors flew that the two were closer than in-laws which was not only adulterous but also incestuous. Even though there was no proof, (and there still is no proof that they were lovers), rumors flew around Rome like pigeons.

Olimpia wanted power, she never again wanted to feel the helplessness she felt when her father was trying to shove her into a convent. Since as a woman, she could hold no offices, her only hope was to latch onto to someone who could bring her that power, and church politics was the way to do it. The Catholic Church at that time was very similar to our own government. The people with the most talent aren't necessarily the ones who get ahead. Bribery, nepotism and out and out stealing were the name of the game. Foreign governments had lobbyists to the Catholic Church to put forward their interests.

Gianbattista was ambitious but he lacked the people skills to get ahead. He was also indecisive to the point of paralysis. Not only did Olimpia point out which choice she should make, she was almost always right. Olimpia had the money and the charm and she used it to push her brother-in-law all the way to the papal throne. But first she needed to get him made a papal nuncio which was like an ambassador from the Pope to foreign governments first in Naples and then in Spain which was the greater posting. Olimpia dragged her growing family to Naples and set herself up as Gianbattista's advisor, counseling him at all hours of the night (he worked best at night). When he was posted abroad, she wrote him a steady stream of letters, propping up his ego and giving him advice. While he was gone, she set about cultivating the right people, greasing the right palms to speed his way to becoming a cardinal under Pope Urban VIII.

Finally, Olimpia achieved her dream, when Gianbattista Pamphili was chosen as Pope in 1644. Now a widow in perpetual mourning, more because black was slimming then out of any great love for her husband, Olimpia was now the power behind the throne. If anyone wanted anything done, or to get through to the Pope they had to go through her. Now Olimpia had the chance to have riches beyond her wildest dreams. It was almost a given that the family of the Pope stole from the Papal treasury and Olimpia did more than her fair share, wheeling and dealing in papal offices. Not that she kept all the money for herself. She dowered many dowerless girls, and allowed gave the prostitutes of Rome her protection. She also found the priest whose career she had ruined and had him made a bishop after apologizing. A patroness of the arts, she expanded her home the Piazza Navona by buying up the houses next door, and hiring the sculptors and architectural rivals Bernini and Borromini.

From the beginning of Innocent X's reign, Donna Olimpia asserted herself, she even tried to move into the papal palace, into the rooms reserved for the Cardinal nephew. If someone broached a subject which the pope had not already discussed her, he would ask, “What will Donna Olimpia say?” Savvy diplomats were prepared to flatter and bribe her if necessary to obtain the pope’s favor. “If you cannot make a breach in the mind of the pope through our authority,” said one powerful prince to his envoy, “try to gain it through the authority of Donna Olimpia with our money.” Several times a week, Donna Olimpia would arrive at the Papal palace laden with petitions for the Pope to sign, spending hours at a time with him, locked away.

But she was also greedy. When the news came out that Innocent had been elected pope, the mob raced to Olimpia palace to steal it blind as was the custom. When they got there, Olimpia greeted them by opening the doors to the palace, but she had taken the precaution of removing all her good furniture, and replaced it with junk. She also began to make mistakes, insisting on her idiot nephew being made a cardinal, and refusing to accept the marriage of her son Camillo to the Princess of Rossano, also named Olimpia. Perhaps, Olimpia saw the younger woman as a rival to her power as First Lady of Rome. She had her son and daughter-in-law banished from Rome. Instead of being a soothing advisor, Olimpia began to harangue Innocent when she didn't get her way. Lord Powell came up with the saying "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely" which could describe Olimpia. She even forced her little granddaughter into a marriage with the Barberini family to cement an alliance, despite the girl's preference for the convent, an irony that was lost on Olimpia.

Olimpia also kept list of anyone that she had felt slighted her on the way up. She made Richard Nixon and his enemies list look like child play. Despite Jesus saying to turn the other cheek, Olimpia was more likely to slap it. Chief of among them was her son Camillo. He refused an alliance with the Barberinis, the family of the previous pope, to become a cardinal. Then he botched the job of cardinal nephew, and embarked on affair with the widowed Princess of Rossano. Olimpia considered him to be an idiot, and let him know it constantly (ironically he married a woman exactly like his mother). She treated her nephew, who was made a cardinal at the tender age of seventeen, just poorly. After her son Camillo gave up being a cardinal to marry the Princess of Rossano, Olimpia decided that her nephew would make the perfect cardinal nephew, despite his lack of experience. She insisted that he live with her, where he received officials and guests, blurting out the answers that his aunt had coached him into saying. However, during the jubilee year, when he fudged his ceremonial duties, not knowing how to hold the holy hammer. When he tried to grab the jubilee medals, he ended up in a brawl with the church canons who also wanted them. The mob was furious at the cardinal, smashing him against the wal. Dropped by his aunt as a political liability, he developed a raging hatred for her.

Olimpia had now become a liability to the Pope, a hindrance instead of a help. The rumors of their having an illicit relationship continued even after his ascension. Olimpia didn't help matters by putting on plays that ridiculed the Pope and stealing the shoulder bone of the Saint Francesca for her church at San Martino. Women flocked to Rome to get a glimpse of her. The final straw came when the pope was presented with a con that had an image of Olimpia dressed like the Pope and the Pope dressed like a woman. Finally Olimpia was banished from Rome, after a particularly nasty argument with the Pope, who let fly forty years of resentment at her behavior and high-handed ways. The Princess of Rossano now took her place as First Lady of Rome. However, Innocent soon began to regret his decision. The Princess of Rossano was now Olimpia. Instead of her soothing presence, he was subjected to an almost daily barrage of greedy relatives and friends who needed taking care of. The pope and his sister-in-law eventually made up but the damage was done. Olimpia would never look at the pope the same way, he had betrayed her the way her father had. She would get her revenge at his death. In order to return, she was forced to change her will, leaving her fortune to her son, instead of her granddaughter Olimpiuccia.

Worried about what would happen after her death, Olimpia made sure to have several men who were favorable to her made cardinals before the Pope's death. At the death of Innocent X, Olimpia refused to pay the money to have him buried, she kept saying she had no money (despite the fact that she had stolen the entire papal treasury). Her son Camillo pled poverty as well. The pope's body was basically dumped into a makeshift coffin, instead of the magnificent funeral that he had deserved.

Olimpia retired to her house in San Martino where she died of the plague in 1657, only two years after the death of the Pope. After her death, her life and her influence faded into obscurity. The Catholic Encyclopedia calls her a "great blemish" on the pontificate of the "blameless" Innocent X. Shewas also referred to her in her lifetime as La Papessa (lady pope). There were rumors during her lifetime and afterward that, like the rumors around Lucrezia Borgia, she poisoned cardinals in order to have vacancies that she could fill up with her own choices. She was even once accused of murdering her elderly husband with arsenic, although it turned out to be nothing more than a huge kidney stone.

While she made mistakes, the truth is that Innocent X, would not have been pope without her, nor would he have ruled as effectively without her influence and advice. Donna Olimpia was smarter than most of the men who served the Pope and she was not afraid to show it, in fact she often rubbed their noses in it, gaining her powerful enemies. She was an upstart, from a small town, not well educated, much to the chagrin of the nobility of Rome. It was one thing for Donna Olimpia to marry into a noble family, it was another that she refused to keep to her place, to be decorative and witty. Instead she meddled in papal affairs, and even worse, she was good at it!


Mistress of the Vatican: The true story of Olimpia Maidalchini the Secret Female Pope.


MamaBlanks said…
Oh, wow! I'm definitely going to check this book out, thanks so much for the review. I loved "Sex with Kings" but haven't read Queens yet. Looks like my TBR pile just grew. :)
It is excellent. Not just the story or Olimpia but also the way that Herman gives such a vivid picture of 17th Century Italy, Church politics, the plague, and the rivalry between Spain and France.
Zenobia said…
I just bought this book at Borders! Elizabeth, you have the exact taste in books I do! This looks like it will be a good read.

I have read Herman's Sex with Kings and Sex with Queens. Both were quite good.

I am fascinated by Renaissance Italy.
I hope you enjoy it! I couldn't put it down. I learned so much about the rivalry between Borromini and Bernini, and the fountain that features in Angels and Demons by Bernini was commissioned by Olimpia and Innocent X.
C.W. Gortner said…
I just bought this book today! I can't wait to read it. Between this and Hibbert's THE BORGIAS AND THEIR ENEMIES I'm reveling in Renaissance Italy. Great blog, too, Keri. I'll add it to my blog roll.
Thanks C.W. And I just bought your book on Juana which I can't wait to read. Ever since I saw the movie 'Mad Love' I have been fascinated by her story.

Renaissance Italy is one of my favorite time periods as well, so many Scandalous Women!

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