Anyone who has ever read some of the more scandalous stories of the papacy has surely come across the name of Pope Joan, the likely legendary female figure, who, in the Middle Ages briefly occupied the throne of St. Peter. What fewer people are aware of is the extraordinary life of Donna Olimpia Maidalchini, the real and historical woman, who, in the early 17th century, became the closest advisor of Pope Innocent X, known as “La Papessa”, the female pope, or, more derogatorily, “La Pimpaccia”, woman of sin.
Olimpia’s life began ordinarily enough in 1591, in the town of Viterbo, just outside of Rome. She was one of three daughters and a son, born to a relatively modest family. Her father was a “condottieri” - essentially a mercenary military captain, and her mother was from a modest but respectable local family.
Olimpia’s father decided that she and her sisters would be destined for a life in the local convent, as it would save him from having to pay an enormous dowry for the girls, which would be better spent on the inheritance of the only son of the family. Olimpia though was rebellious and independent-minded from an early age: whilst undergoing instruction for taking holy orders, she accused the local priest of sexually harassing her. The incident led to such shame for the local prelate, that he had to resign, although, in reality, it was probably a story fabricated by the young Olimpia. At the time, women had few options to ensure their own emancipation and so, in this sense, Olimpia was simply taking control of her own destiny (and to be fair, the priest was later reinstated).
Once she had freedom from the convent, Olimpia had the freedom to pursue marriage and secured one with one of the wealthiest, elderly, landowners of the area in 1608. She was 16 years old.
Her first marriage lasted just three years, before her husband died, leaving her a free and wealthy widow.
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Portrait of Donna Olimpia Maidalchini
Olimpia undoubtedly had ambition and political savvy, so it was no surprise when she cropped up again 1612 by marrying Pamphilio Pamphilj, a man from one of Rome’s most prominent and prestigious families. As was typical at the time, Olimpia’s youth, fertility and wealth, with Pamphilio’s aristocratic breeding, made for the perfect match. She wanted prestige and standing in society and, whilst his family was well respected, they desperately needed funds to line the family coffers. By 17th century standards, it was a match made in heaven.
This marriage lasted until 1639 when Olimpia was widowed again. Her connections to the Pamphilj family were not severed at this point though: by this time Olimpia was already 48 years old and beyond the point of remarriage by the norms of the day. But more importantly, her brother-in-law, Giambattista Pamphilj, was already a powerful cardinal, and on-track to even more.
By 1644, her brother-in-law was elected to the papacy and became Pope Innocent X. The pair already had a long and close family relationship and it seemed that Innocent X had already come to rely on her for advice by the time that he became pope. So, shortly after he was elected to the papacy Olimpia was bestowed with certain honors: including be being designated as his heir in his will in 1644, and being named the “Princess of San Martino”. These were certainly roles of prestige and she was definitely in a privileged position as a confidant to the pope, which she profited from.
Contemporary writers complained that all decisions, business, legal and political, were decided in her living room. According to one account, she convinced the pope that it was immoral for the Vatican to collect taxes from brothels, and instead, he sold her the right to collect the taxes. She even hung the Pamphilj family crest above the doors of her brothels so that local law enforcement would leave her establishments alone.
Another piece of Roman gossip suggested that Bernini won the commission for the “Fountain of the Four Rivers” by appealing not to the pope, but to Olimpia, by presenting her with a silver model of the fountain. She then left the elaborate model in a place where she was sure that the pope would see it. Of course, once Innocent saw Bernini’s design he had no choice but choose him for the commission over his rival Borromini. Olimpia was also known to accompany the pope during official ceremonies and was even present when he opened the Jubilee year of 1650.
Bernini's founatian of the four rivers
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Needless to say such a brazen display of power from a woman at this time was branded as scandalous, and earned her the title of “la Papaessa”, or, more unflatteringly, “la Pimpaccia”. She was seen as the reigns behind the papacy, and some even suggested that in having such influence that she was, in fact, the pope’s mistress.
When Innocent X died on January 7th, in 1655, Olimpia’s power and position in Rome immediately soured. She was already an unpopular figure in Rome for the power that she wielded, and without the protection of her brother-in-law, her time in Rome had come to end. It is said that before she made her escape, she took two great chests full of silver and gold from under the pope’s bed and loaded them into her carriage. She then bid the city of Rome farewell. Olimpia returned to her estate at San Martino al Cimino, never to return to Rome again. She died two years later from the plague.
Olimpia was certainly fierce, and at times an unlikable woman, but her legacy was to be enduring. One of Rome’s most famous ghost stories even today tells the story of “la Pimpaccia”, the mistress of the Vatican. They say on the night of the death of the pope, on the 7th of January each year, Olimpia can be seen loading the crates of gold into her black carriage at the palace on Piazza Navona. She climbs aboard and the chariot tears away, pulled by four black steeds. The carriage races through the streets of Rome, leaving a trail of fire in its wake, Olimpia’s shrill laugh, ringing through the air. She makes her way towards Ponte Sisto and over the bridge towards the Gianicolo Hill, where the carriage is said to disappear through the gates of Hell. There are few men who have stories like that told about them more than 350 years after their death.
The supposed gates of hell, Rome
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