Dedicated to all the women who refuse to be locked up.
I wrote about Olimpia Pamphili in a previous post and she so fascinated me that I recently read a 2008 biography of her, Mistress of the Vatican…The Secret Female Pope, by Eleanor Herman. The book begins with this irresistible (to me) dedication.
It’s a perfect opening for this engaging and entertaining book since Herman returns again and again to the theme that ran through Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphili’s life, and which was a complicated reality for many women in Renaissance and Baroque Rome: the threat of being shut away in a convent, often because the women’s families couldn’t—or wouldn’t—pay for a dowry that would allow them to marry and perhaps gain some semblance of independence, or at least be allowed to leave the house. Once a woman (or girl) entered a convent, fuhgeddaboudit! She spent her life locked up.
But the dedication would hold special significance for Olimpia, who not only refused to be put away in a convent, but also defied those who would lock her into behaving in ways expected of the respectable daughter of a tax assessor in Viterbo, Italy, or, later, as a phenomenally rich widow and then a wife of a nobleman. In fact, Olimpia became the power behind Pope Innocent X, a man she may have loved but definitely fought for, and nearly single-handedly got elected to the papacy.
Herman describes Olimpia as “a baroque rock star,” and if we compare her to some women today, she might easily line up with our (perhaps) future president, Hillary Clinton.
In fact, to use a technique Herman relies on often to bring Olimpia to life in her book, we might imagine Olimpia, staring with awe, pride, and not a little envy at Hilary, as she recently vanquished her male opponents on stage in the first Democratic debate. Had she lived today, there’s no question that Olimpia herself would have run for Prime Minister of Italy, and Matteo Renzi wouldn’t have stood a chance against her.
But in 17th-century Rome, such ambitions were beyond the scope. Herman describes the age in all its gritty debauchery as “a time when dead pontiffs were left naked on the Vatican floor because their servants had pilfered the bed and swiped the clothes off the corpse.” It was Dickensian long before Charles Dickens was born.