29 August 2009


Mistress of the Vatican
The True Story of Olimpia Maidalchini:
The Secret Female Pope
Eleanor Herman

This nonfiction account of Olimpia Maidalchini (1591-1657) who was the skirt behind Pope Innocent X (reigned 1644-1655) ---well, I guess he wore a skirt, too (scroll down to view Velazquez's portrait of him) ---is both a fascinating biography of an intelligent and independent woman ahead of her time, but also an absolutely eye-opening account of the Catholic church of the 17th century.
Olimpia’s father, a merchant who was unable to afford dowries for his daughters, decided to place his girls in nunneries. The problem was, that the availability of young women to reproduce new Catholics was dwindling, so the church declared that no girl could be placed in a convent without her consent.
Convents at the time were dismal places. Nuns lived in tiny cells with no comforts. All windows faced inward, so the women could see only the convent’s courtyard and never the outside world. They were not allowed to chitchat with other nuns. Some were so love-starved that they adopted convent chickens which resulted in floors being covered in poultry droppings. (For a lengthy description of 17th -century convent life, find a link at the end of this review.)
Olimpia’s father would not accept Olimpia’s refusal to become a nun, so sent an aunt who was a Mother Superior and, later, the local priest to convince her. Only 15 years old, Olimpia went directly to the bishop, accusing the priest of sexual abuse and her father of trying to force her hand, and thus Olimpia had her first experience in getting what she wanted, or in this case, what she didn’t want. However, for the rest of her life she was shaped by the fear of being controlled by men.
At age 17, she was married into a wealthy family despite her small dowry, but her husband died within a few years. She made a second marriage into a noble family that was down on its luck and thrilled to have Olimpia’s fortune, while Olimpia received the social status of nobility that she desired.
Her second husband’s brother, a priest, was in a position to resolve family disputes and other legal matters for the church, but the man was hopelessly indecisive. He often consulted his sister-in-law, Olimpia, who understood each problem and devised expert solutions. Evidently, he could not make a decision without her. When he was sent to Spain, people respected his sound judgment, but complained that it nearly always took two months for him to make decisions, the time it took for letters to travel to Rome and back with Olimpia’s advice.
Through cunning, bribes, promises, flattery, and deals which diluted the power of her enemies and increased her family’s standing, Olimpia worked for years to position her brother-in-law to become a Cardinal and eventually to be elected Pope Innocent X.

Innocent was, by 17th-century standards, rather incorrupt, but Olimpia who enjoyed both power and wealth, used every means possible to acquire what she wanted by being the brains behind the pope. She wheeled and dealed with everyone, accepting a fortune in “gifts” to influence the pontiff.
Innocent’s brother, Olimpia’s husband, had died so there were rumors that the pope and Olimpia were lovers, perhaps even before the death of her husband.
Underlying Olimpia’s story is the history of the church at the time. Corruption was so rampant and the populous so angry, that it is a wonder the Catholic church survived. It must have endured only by instilling the fear of hell in the Italian populous.
Some of the stories are truly sad ---accounts of the Vatican wasting vast amounts of money when the populous of Rome was experiencing floods, droughts, locusts, famines, and the plague. There was the banishment of all Jews to a ghetto along the river that flooded frequently leaving them homeless, and also the church’s idiotic, and often cruel, efforts to convert them. There were petty rivalries between countries, parishes, Cardinals, and families (including Olimpia’s own.) Then of course, is the selling of indulgences that required the ill to make a twenty-five mile trip (on foot) to four churches, at least 15 times, to have their sins forgiven.
Some of the actions of the “good” Catholics would be humorous if not so tragic. When Pope Urban VIII, the pope who died leaving the opening for Innocent X, the tradition was for the servants in the Vatican, upon the imminent death of the pontiff, to pillage his personal chambers of all valuables, leaving the naked pope in his stripped bed or on the floor. When Urban VIII died, the Roman citizens, knowing his family had profited from their relative's position, descended on the homes of the pope’s family to ransack them.
Urban’s family crest had had a fly on it, but Urban felt it was not dignified, so he had changed it to a hardworking bee. While he was pope, he had bees carved all over the city. When he died, the Romans were so irate that he had raised their taxes over 60 times, they tore through the city chiseling off every bee they could find. Without a pope, the highest authority of the church, the city was in chaos. What made things worse was that, in a fallback to Pontius Pilot’s releasing of one prisoner, when a pope died it was traditional to swing open all prison doors. Because there was so much crime at such times, those who had been holding long-held grudges, had an opportunity to take revenge on their enemies with little chance of being arrested. Thus, there were countless incidents of beatings, theft, and murder.
Urban died on July 7th of 1644, one of the hottest months of the year. He was not put on public view until July 31st. Expectedly, a chronicler of the time remarked at the horrible stink coming from the cadaver. The pontiff had to be laid out surrounded by an iron-grid enclosure that prevented mourners from stealing the dead pope’s vestments and jewels. Only his feet stuck out, allowing mourners to kiss them. His red slippers often went missing.
When a false rumor flew that a Cardinal had been chosen as the new pope, his family’s home was plundered. When Olimpia’s brother-in-law was revealed as the true new pontiff, another round of ransacking took place. Olimpia, expecting this event, had all of her valuable furnishings removed ahead of time and replaced with cheap, used furniture. When the hoards arrived, she threw open her doors to the crowd, but the disappointed people hated her for cheating them out of her valuable goods.
Every church felt an obligation to have a religious relic, a piece of the true cross or the crown of thorns, or bones of a saint to enhance its status. There were frequent thefts of relics ---including Olimpia’s engineering of the theft of a saint’s shoulder bone ---to advance the number of pilgrims who would visit (and leave donations to) a particular church.
Grave robbers claimed the bones they dug up were those of a particularly-desirable saint, resulting, at times, in several churches claiming skulls of the same saint. One church went so far as to assert it had the skull of John the Baptist as a boy.
Jews in Rome were permitted to engage in only a few professions, one of which was selling used furniture and antiques. They often sold relics to the churches. One can imagine them grinding up old furniture into splinters and selling them as pieces of the true cross at an enormous profit, undoubtedly finding great amusement at the silliness of the people who considered them holy.
There was an amusing story of a Spanish count who had been married in a small church by his local priest. The problem was that he was already married and that his new bride was a teenaged boy dressed in woman’s clothing. The priest claimed he had received a papal bull allowing homosexual marriage, which he was able to produce with the pope’s own signature affixed to it. The truth was that Mascambruno, an enterprising employee of the Vatican, inscribed short innocuous edicts on long pieces of paper. After the pope’s signature and seal were applied to the bottom of the pages below large blank areas, Mascambruno cut off the already-written edicts from the tops and wrote his own in the blank spaces. He had amassed a fortune by creating papal bulls to fit any circumstance a payee would desire ---that is, until his deception was discovered and he was defrocked, then executed.
The people of Rome either loved or hated Olimpia. She had a special affection for the hardships of the city’s prostitutes and allowed them to ride in carriages sporting dove images, the symbol of the pope’s family. To some, this was like supporting immorality. She all but disowned her son when he left his position as Cardinal and the “pope’s nephew” (a traditional position as assistant to the pope) to marry a woman Olimpia despised. Many put on a show of loving Olimpia, but really only wanted her to influence the pope. Some were afraid of her power.
If Olimpia had been, say, the pope’s brother, she would have been admired for her cunning ways, aggressiveness and greed. In fact, many women loved her. Some waited outside of her home to catch a glimpse of the woman who had defied the social norms of the day. However, most men hated her, perhaps because she was much smarter and more savvy than they were.
Most thought it was terrible that a woman was allowed to influence any man and especially the pope. Rivals minted gold medals with Olimpia on one side wearing the pope’s tiara, while Innocent was pictured on the reverse wearing a bonnet and curls. This, of course was more embarrassing to the pope than to his sister-in-law who relished her own power. Innocent was frequently reminded that every scandal made him the laughing stock of the “heretic” Protestants, Jews, and other “infidels.”
As a woman, Olimpia finally went too far in her demands to control everything in the Vatican, to make all the pope’s decisions based on what would be favorable to Olimpia, not to the pope, the church, or the people, to make and accept bribes, and embezzle all the money she could. Eventually, Innocent banished her from the Vatican in 1650. In disgrace, she left Rome.

This put many powerful people in a quandary. If they rejoiced that she was gone and cozied up to her rivals, they would be in Olimpia’s disfavor if the pope relented. If however, they remained rivals of Olimpia’s rivals, they may have ended up in their own disgrace if Olimpia did not reconcile with her brother-in-law.
After two and a half years and numerous scandals and other problems in the Vatican which he was unable to resolve, the pope decided to forgive Olimpia’s excesses and allow her to return to assist him. She was reinstated in 1653 and again took over most of the duties she had previously performed. However, Olimpia, the one person who had been devoted to her brother-in-law for nearly 40 years, had been humiliated and would not forget that.
Olimpia knew that the pope could not live much longer, so she began to prepare for the next pope. She created alliances that might ensure that the Cardinal who succeeded Innocent would be sympathetic to her and not strip her of the wealth she had plundered from Vatican funds.
When the pope died in 1655, Innocent X left the Vatican with a debt of 8 million scudi. Olimpia got her revenge for his humiliating her by refusing to pay for his funeral. She sent the church officials to her son who sent them back to his mother. Eventually a cardinal paid for the funeral out of his own pocket, by purchasing a makeshift coffin and burying the man unceremoniously. In 1677 the family reburied him in a more appropriate coffin. His funerary monument was not completed until 1729.
When Alexander VII --a very principled man ---succeeded Innocent X, he started an investigation into the large sums Olimpia had apparently pilfered from the papal treasury. In her defense, all funds given to her with Innocent’s consent were legal. Innocent had been an honest and thrifty man, but nepotism was expected. Just how much Innocent knew of what Olimpia acquired is unknown.
Before the matter could be settled, Olimpia succumbed to the bubonic plague in 1657. Eventually the new pope succumbed to the nepotism that was rampant in ecclesiastical circles at the time and finally decided that Olimpia and her family had raked in much less than previous papal families, and let the matter drop.
Olimpia died as many of the popes had. Her servants had left her naked on the floor. Because the plague had hit hard in the region where Olimpia died, there were no available coffins. Her son had to create a makeshift one from boards left in the basement of her home, and thus she was buried under similar circumstances as Innocent X.

Knowing women’s lowly status at the time, I admired Olimpia for her courage, stubbornness, determination, independence, intelligence, expertise in foreign affairs, and ability to influence others, but as I read on, and Olimpia became aggressive, corrupt, and greedy for power and wealth, I lost respect for her, as did the people of 17th-century Rome, and eventually Innocent X.
I loved this book. I learned much that I hadn’t known about Rome and the Catholic church during the 17th century. And, as background, the author often tells of how things got that way with stories of earlier Roman or church history. I also learned much about the relations the Vatican had with France and Spain (who hated each other) and how this caused rivalries that were resolved by bribes and inappropriate appointments to appease one side or the other. And although I was aware of church corruption throughout history, this book was filled, page after page, with the moral corruption of nearly everyone involved. Every day, I told my husband one outrageous story after another from my reading. As a recovering Catholic, he may have enjoyed the anecdotes more than I.
I have only touched on the wealth of information in this book, every page filled with intrigue and a quest for power. It is well-documented with excerpts from letters, news sheets, diplomatic papers, church records, legal documents, wills, diaries and other writings of the day.
I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in history, especially Roman/Italian history and/or church history. As a woman, I especially liked the story of this independent, although flawed woman, but I am sure men would enjoy it just as well.

copyright 2009, C Woods

Lengthy excerpts from Mistress of the Vatican can be found HERE.
At that site one can click on Table of Contents, The House Olimpia Built, Olympia’s World, and other topics. A particularly interesting account of 17th-century convent life can be found HERE ---scroll down a little beyond the half-way point for that section.

1 comment:

libhom said...

"Underlying Olimpia’s story is the history of the church at the time. Corruption was so rampant and the populous so angry, that it is a wonder the Catholic church survived. It must have endured only by instilling the fear of hell in the Italian populous."

The corruption of the Vatican is still staggering today.

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