When Olimpia Maidalchini was coming of age in 17th century Italy (well, what would become Italy, but I’m going to call it Italy for the sake of this review), there was a huge problem with dowry inflation. Some or all of the women in many families were sent to convents instead of being married off. Olimpia’s father planned to send her and her sisters to convents, but Olimpia was not about to allow herself to be locked away from society. A very good first marriage to a husband who died young gave Olimpia the financial resources she needed to marry into a noble Roman family in an attempt to gain power for herself in an age when women did not have much power.
Upon marrying Pamphilio Pamphili, Olimpia hoped she could catapult her husband into temporal power. When this failed, she turned her machinations to her brother in law, Giambattista whose vocation was the church. Olimpia helped Giambattista become a papal nuncio, a Cardinal, and eventually Pope Innocent X. Rumored to be her brother-in-law’s mistress, Olimpia basically ran Giambattista’s career and, once he became Pope, she basically ran the Vatican, creating many enemies along the way.
Herman has really found an interesting story to tell in Olimpia Maidalchini. Olimpia was a strong woman and an abrasive personality in a time when owmen were supposed to be subservient and most certainly were not supposed to hold positions (even unofficial) of power within the church. The sheer amount of information about 17th century Italy was a bit overwhelming at times, but most or all of it did add to my understanding of Olimpia’s story.
I was somewhat frustrated by the use of endnotes over footnotes, but that seems to be pretty common in the more popular treatments of history lately. I don’t think I’ve seen footnotes since college. Of course, Herman doesn’t seem like the typical historian. Don’t get me wrong, she seems to really know her facts and is really pretty objective, but she is the sassiest, snarkiest history writer I’ve ever read. I know there are snarkier moments than this, but this is what I can put my finger on:
The clearest sign of demonic possession was a gyrating pelvis. Anyone caught dong a seventeenth-century version of Elvis Presley – no matter how many cripples he healed – would have been drenched with holy water immediately and would, most likely, have responded with hisses and howls.
I know they study different periods, but I can’t imagine Jon Meacham referring to anyone as a “seventeenth-century version of Elvis.” This could be a plus or a minus, depending on your preferences, but I enjoyed it, it kept things interesting.
I liked “Mistress Of The Vatican” because it was informative and sort of fun. It definitely made me want to read more of Herman’s work. In fact, I’m pretty sure that I have her “Sex With Kings” around here somewhere, I may have to go and dig that out.
Thank you to Stephanie from HarperCollins for sending me this book to review.