By Sienna Vittoria Asselin
It was the seventeenth century in Rome. A group of women stood crowded around a palace. They had camped there all night—some of them, for days. Suddenly, they began to cheer as a proud and elegant woman rolled out in her carriage. They hollered in appreciation for this legendary woman who commanded political power against all odds, and who championed all women—prostitutes and nuns alike.
She was famous in her time. She was nicknamed the Papaessa, the female Pope. Resentful cardinals called her a whore, and eager to erase her, the Church successfully buried her story in the centuries that followed. Now, who was this fascinating figure who ruled the Vatican from behind the scenes?
Without further ado, read on for a look at the life and legacy of the Pope’s sister-in-law and reputed mistress, Donna Olimpia Maidalchini.
On May 26, 1591, a tax collector in Viterbo, Italy, named Sforza Maidalchini, and his wife, welcomed another child. He was disappointed to discover that it was a girl. She was christened Olimpia.
Historian Eleanor Herman writes in Mistress of the Vatican: The True Story of Olimpia Maidalchini, that Olimpia was seen as a nuisance. Her father, not having a clue that it was this small, unwanted girl that would launch their family’s name into greatness, was simply concerned with what he would do with her when she grew up.
When she was 15 years old, he had made his decision: she would become a nun. This was the cheaper option, in contrast to paying the hefty dowry that she would need to marry well.
At the time, some women genuinely wanted to become a nun, either for spiritual reasons or because it was the only viable alternative to marriage and motherhood and could even be a path to a life of intellectual fulfilment, creativity, or leadership.
But for others, joining a convent was a nightmare, and a fate foisted upon them against their will.
For Olimpia, it was the latter.
When her father tried to imprison her in a convent, Olimpia strongly resisted. She won—but, according to her biographer, this formative experience had a lasting effect on her, and she spent the rest of her life fortifying herself with as much wealth and power as she could, perpetually “terrified of being locked up by men.”
In defiance of her father, she married the wealthiest young man in town. Three years later, he died, and she inherited his entire fortune. As a 21-year-old wealthy widow, she made a marriage alliance with a 51-year-old nobleman named Pamphilio Pamphilj. He gained her fortune, and she gained a title of nobility; it was a win-win situation.
The newly minted “Donna” (“Lady”) Olimpia settled into married life and found her next project: to help her brother-in-law, 38-year-old Monsignor Giantbattista Pamphilj, rise in his career.
She was ambitious and used her political savvy and determination to help him move up the ecclesiastical ladder all the way to the top—she offered advice, she acted as a hostess for him, and she skillfully bribed the right people to get him increasingly better positions. It was a world of deceit, treachery, and manipulation, and she was exceptionally skilled at navigating it.
She secured him a cardinal’s hat in 1629, and after a spectacular turn of events (aka another massive bribe) she got him elected as the next Pope in 1644. Thanks to his sister-in-law and key advisor, he had secured what was arguably the most powerful position in all of Europe at the time.
When Pamphilj became Pope Innocent X, he was 70 years old and Olimpia was 53.
From the start, it was clear that she was the one in charge, even if the public-facing figure was the Pope. And the men at the Vatican were less than thrilled. “We have just elected a female pope,” Cardinal Alessandro Bichi angrily declared on the day that Cardinal Pamphili was declared Pope Innocent X.
The public knew it too. Banners were hung in churches around town that cheekily read: Pope Olimpia I.
She worked tirelessly as his (unofficial) second-in-command. The position of Pope was a religious one, with spiritual duties, but it was also a political one and the responsibilities were endless. Every day, Olimpia arrived at the papal palace early in the morning. She stayed there all day, not leaving till past midnight. She made decisions on important appointments and promotions, she influenced policies, she negotiated with foreign powers, she fielded petitions, etc.
And as a monarch in everything but name, she ruled her domains like a queen, sponsoring artists and musicians. For example, she was behind Bernini’s Four Rivers Fountain in Rome’s Piazza Navona. Furthermore, she supported women in various capacities and is seen by many as an early feminist. She gave funds to support nuns, she sponsored marriage dowries for young girls who were being forced into convents against their wills, and she protected prostitutes.
Her importance was undeniable. When someone asked the Pope his opinion on a matter, his first response was: “What will Donna Olimpa say?”
Ultimately, diplomats knew that the best way to gain the Pope’s favour was to bribe Donna Olimpia with cash. She was seen as greedy and corrupt. But some diplomats also praised her intellect—for example, the French ambassador informed King Louis XIV that she was a “great lady.”
The long hours she spent at the papal palace, often with the Pope, behind closed doors, and the seemingly absurd degree of influence over him that she held, led to a widely spread assumption that she was his mistress. This was never proven at the time, despite everyone’s curiosity and the incessant rumours, and the truth is lost to history. We’ll never know.
Later Years and Legacy
Unfortunately Donna Olimpia made many enemies during her time in power. After her brother-in-law died, the new Pope that succeeded him launched an investigation into her conduct during his predecessors’s reign, looking into her “corruption, embezzlement, and the perplexing disappearance of the entire Vatican Treasury.” The investigation didn’t go anywhere, but she was exiled from Rome and in 1657, Olimpia died alone from the bubonic plague.
According to Herman, Olimpia’s enemies in the Church instantly “moved to eradicate the scandalous memory of this audacious woman who had ruled them all.” Biased accounts further besmirched her reputation or removed her from the picture entirely. She became all but forgotten.
Now, centuries later, her name has come to light again.
Her 2008 biography, the first account of her life written in English, brought her story to new readers, and in 2019, an important, long-lost portrait of Olimpia by the Spanish master Diego Velázquez was discovered, causing quite the stir in the art world, and was set to be auctioned off by Sotheby’s for an estimated £2,000,000–3,000,000.
As Olimpia’s biographer writes, “Regardless of whether she was the mistress of the pope, she certainly was mistress of the Vatican, appointing cardinals, negotiating with foreign powers, and raking in immense sums from the papal treasury.”
All in all, she was “a baroque rock star,” and should be remembered as such.