A Woman to Know: Olimpia Maidalchini

Donna Olimpia Maidalchini is a woman of great spirit, but her sole title to influence is that of a rigid economist. — Cavalier Giustiniani

Donna Olimpia Maidalchini is a woman of great spirit, but her sole title to influence is that of a rigid economist. — Cavalier Giustiniani

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

Sister-in-law to the Pope? Advisor to the Pope? Possible mistress to the Pope? Stand-in female Pope, or “Papessa,” as she was reportedly decreed?

In Olimpia’s life, she inhabited many roles — depending on who you asked, all of the above. Much of the contemporary literature plays up her supposed lust for power, likely stemming from her childhood growing up the child of a tax collector, in an old Italian household desperate to hide its impoverished finances. But throughout the reign of Pope Innocent X, Olimpia became something of a “baroque rock star.”

In 1608, when her father threatened to throw her into a convent, Olimpia secured a marriage proposal instead: this time to the most affluent man in town. But both their children died in infancy and her husband himself died in 1611. At just 21 years old, Olimpia was suddenly a widow, and also an heiress.

Now that she had wealth, Olimpia set her sights on power. Her next marriage, to lauded nobleman Pamphilio Pamphili, connected her to a young cardinal yearning for his own ascension to power — her husband’s brother, Giantbattista Pamphilj. The two forged an unlikely alliance, with Olimpia using her money and connections to advance his career at the Vatican, and Giantbattista using his position to get Olimpia’s son a title as “cardinal-nephew.”

In 1644, their alliance finally paid off: her brother-in-law was named Pope Innocent X, and Olimpia’s projects began in earnest. She set up her own office in the Papal palace, much to the anger of the Vatican old guard. While some people mocked Pope Innocent X’s allegiance to his sister-in-law, others saw her as something akin to a celebrity.

As writer Eleanor Herman wrote:

Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphilj was a baroque rock star to the women of her time who came from all over Catholic Europe to stand outside her palace and cheer as her carriage rolled out. They could not believe that a female from modest beginnings had risen to such heights of power in a man’s world. Olimpia was also known for her kindness to oppressed women, giving generously to nuns and protecting prostitutes.

Olimpia may have shown magnanimity to the destitute, but she demanded bribes and gifts from those in power. Royals and ambassadors brought treasure chests in exchange for meetings with the Pope, and Olimpia often insisted on playing hours-long card games with visiting dignitaries (many of them later confessed they lost enormous sums to her, hoping to curry favor).

But in 1654, Olimpia’s reign of power came to an end — Pope Innocent X fell ill. Olimpia convinced him to transfer the Vatican’s gold coffers to his bedchambers, all for “safekeeping,” she assured him (as he lay dying, she secreted vast amounts out of the palace and into her own accounts).

When the Pope finally died in 1655, Olimpia refused to pay for his burial, insisting “I am only a poor widow.” The cardinals instead set about electing a new pope and simply dumped the body in a closet, where rats ate away at his remains. Finally, a lowly servant procured a wood coffin and laid Pope Innocent X to rest.

Olimpia’s reputation never recovered. In 1657, the bubonic plague swept through Rome. At the age of 66, Olimpia died alone.

Add to your library list: 

Read more:

Watch more:

Send your own recommendations for women to know! Reply to this newsletter with your lady and she could be featured in an upcoming edition.