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Mistress of the Vatican: The True Story of Olimpia Maidalchini: The Secret Female Pope (P.S.) Paperback – Sep 2009

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Product details

  • Paperback: 452 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (Sept. 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061245569
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061245565
  • Product Dimensions: 13.5 x 2.8 x 20.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 683,793 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Paperback. Pub Date: 2009 Pages: 496 in Publisher: Harper Perennial the Born without a dowry. Nearly forced into a convent and later married off to a man she did not love. The Olimpia Maidalchini vowed never to be poor. Powerless. or beholden to any man again. Instead. using her wits. Olimpia became the unofficial ruler of the most powerful institution in the world: the Roman Catholic Church.The Church firmly states that women must be excluded from church leadership positions-but for more than a decade in the seventeenth century. Olimpia ran the Vatican. As sister-in-law and reputed mistress of the indecisive Pope Innocent X. she appointed cardinals. negotiated with foreign ambassadors. and helped herself to a heaping portion of the Papal States' treasury . In Mistress of the Vatican. New York Times bestselling author Eleanor Herman ings to life not only an extraordinary wom...

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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By EA Solinas HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on 24 Sept. 2008
Format: Hardcover
Olimpia Maidalchini was one of those rare people who would have stood out no matter what century she was born into. She had guts, ruthlessness and a sharp brain.

So it only made her more striking -- and more reviled -- that she was born in an age when women were rarely in charge of their own destinies. And in "Mistress of the Vatican: The True Story of Olimpia Maidalchini, The Secret Female Pope," Eleanor Herman paints a vivid, rich often funny portrait of Olimpia's rise to prominent in the rapidly changing world of seventeenth-century Europe.

Olimpia's life was thrown into turmoil when her father tried to force her into a nunnery, so he wouldn't have to pay for a dowry. But she quickly lashed back, bringing disgrace both to her dad and to the priest who also tried to convince her.

Not that the resulting scandal kept her from marrying twice, first to the wealthiest boy in her town and then to a stuffy nobleman. But her brother-in-law Gianbattista is who really captured Olimpia's interest, since he appreciated her intellect and abilities. Her advice and influence were used to make him an envoy, a cardinal -- and finally getting him elected to the papal throne.

But Olimpia soon discovered that getting Gianbattista (now called Pope Innocent X) into the papacy was only the beginnings of their troubles. Younger rivals, a wastrel papal nephew, heretics, famine and a war with France's Cardinal Mazarin all came to trouble the woman who practically ran the Vatican -- especially when Innocent X started developing a mind of his own.

Eleanor Herman has explored the lives of a lot of noblemen, noblewomen, kings and queens throughout "Sex With Kings" and "Sex With the Queen.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Lady One on 1 April 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Olimpia Maidalchini was an extraordenary woman and if she had been a man - she would have been a very famous one. But since she's a woman who has been in control of (the womenhating) vatican she's been written off. So for this alone, I very much appreicate this book. But I am not very keen on the way Eleonora presents Olimpia. She does it with very little integrity. When I say little integrity I meant hat she constantly refers to gossip (and NOT facts). She constantly puts Olimpia in a negative spotlight through Eleonoars homemade psychoanalysis and unintelligent intepretations and what seems as a poor attemp to "spice up" the story. Comments like: "one can just imagine seniorsex ...". Come on *Sign* Eleonora is doing what so many have done before her when it comes to powerful women in history; focus on slimy rumours and negativity instead of presenting fact in a neutral and authentic way.

The only reason I give this book three stars is:
1. as a gratitude for bringing Olimpia into the english speaking world. Olimpia is worth knowing! And since this is the only book in English about Olimpia, I recommend that you read it.
2. the writer describes the life of Rome and the vatican of the time extremeley well, and I enjoyed that a lot.
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Amazon.com: 49 reviews
38 of 41 people found the following review helpful
A Woman at the Pinnacle of Power 30 Nov. 2008
By Timothy Haugh - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
In her biography of Olimpia Maidalchini, Ms. Herman refers to her as "the secret female pope." This is a line meant to provoke and it does its job. Frankly, however, it is a bit of a stretch considering Ms. Herman's own descriptions of Olimpia's exile and near-catastrophic over-reaching. And let's not forget the fact that Olimpia's power was no secret. Still, given the Catholic Church's history of patriarchy and often sinful misogyny, it is wonderful to have reminders of the fact that, throughout its history, women have played important roles and wielded great power in the Church.

In some ways, Olimpia's story is a great one for any age: a young woman defies the odds and works her way up to the pinnacles of power and wealth in her society. The fact that she does so in the Papal States of the seventeenth century when women were often less than second-class citizens is all the more impressive. Of course, Olimpia is no saint--but few were in Rome at the time--and her path to power is paved with the bodies of those who stood in her way, but it is a fascinating story nonetheless.

Nearly forced into a convent by her father, she ends up marrying above her station in her native Viterbo. Soon after, she marries Pamphilio Pamphili, a nobleman of Rome and begins her quest for power there. She ultimately achieves this through her brother-in-law, Gianbattista Pamphili. Likely his mistress, she guides the shy canon into the intrigues of Vatican politics, to a cardinal's hat, and, ultimately, to elevation as Pope Innocent X. Through her vacillating lover, she controls everything from the purse-strings to cardinal appointments. At times, she truly did wield the power of the papacy and people knew it; at least, when she wasn't in disfavor with the pope. Like anyone, she wasn't perfect holding the reins of power and ran into some problems.

Most of her problems came from her own mistakes and Ms. Herman is fair in describing Olimpia's weaknesses. Her greed and vengefulness are on display, though Ms. Herman sometimes seems tolerant of these short-comings. True, these were common failing in Rome at the time and, in some cases, would have been winked at in men. But that doesn't make them right. But it is fair to say that Olimpia generally knew how to play the game well and she couldn't have achieved what she did without being ruthless.

All in all, this is a very well-written book about an amazing woman. Ms. Herman takes us right into the world of Rome in the seventeenth century. My brief description here does not do justice to the intricacy with which Ms. Herman brings things to life. And, in giving us Olimpia's story, she does more: she shows us how the Church of the time actually functioned. Great things were achieved, but these things were often achieved through less than holy methods. Olimpia turns out to be a reflection of her time. She did great and not-so-great things but she stands out because of her gender. Fortunately for us, since it allowed Ms. Herman to write this great book.
23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
Great Scholarly Research 3 Mar. 2011
By M.O. - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I have to disagree with A. Jones' review. He/she claims that Eleanor Herman's work is short on scholarly research. This is preposterous. As someone who has worked in primary source researching - manuscripts at the Library of Congress in Washington - I have to say that the work is absolutely painstaking, and those who are able to do it, and do it successfully, are the true scholars amongst us - they are not simply regurgitating some secondary sources. It is a huge mistake to discard this book as non-scholarly when the exact opposite is true. You can work for days on end combing through Senators' and Presidents' letters in the manuscript division at the Library of Congress and only come up with one or two sentences actually useful for your thesis. The letters are written on horribly deteriorated paper (or paper similar to that of tissue used to keep outgoing letters) in a cursive that is hard to decipher in ink that has run over the years. And I'm only talking about 19th century manuscripts written in American English. Herman did her research in manuscripts from 16th century Italy in medieval Italian (and being someone who speaks Italian, I also assume it was 16th century Romanesco Italian, the Roman dialect of the time) - and she collects a vast fount of these sources. Her research is a wonder. The story that she has been able to uncover from this research is simply astonishing. Yes, Herman does use terminology like "We can imagine/picture..." but it is clear from her writing that she is only extrapolating from the research that she has done and the knowledge of social customs of the time. Herman not only uncovers the gossip and rumors of the day, which is a marvel in itself, but in doing so she paints a picture of 16th century Rome and how life was lived - she is able to tell us not only what the famous Roman statue in the Piazza Navona, Pasquino, had to say about the infamous Olimpia Maidalchini, but she is able to tell us about how Olimpia was able to rid the Piazza of the farmers and peasants who created foul odors in the Piazza, which disturbed Olimpia. How she was able to pilfer the Vatican coffers. How Anna Colonna, a famous member of the Roman Colonna family felt about Olimpia's rise to prominence. How Olimpia's granddaughter refused to consummate her marriage, and how it was well known throughout the city, bringing disgrace upon the Pamphilj family. How it was reported and well known throughout the city that a cardinal, passing through the city streets, called Olimpia a whore.

All of this research paints a fantastic picture of the age, presenting us cutting edge historical research. The fact that Herman asks us to imagine Olimpia doing certain things, which she infers from the voluminous research she went through should not discredit that. Primary source research requires inferences and imagination - as does history in general. If we are unable to imagine, to picture things in the past happening, then we might as well not study history at all. It's the only way we can bring it back to life. And that's exactly what Herman does through, what I must repeat, is some of the best research I have ever seen in a book of its kind. If you are interested in medieval Italy, it is a MUST read. As someone who lived in Italy, studied Italy, and speaks Italian, trust me. It's excellent.
60 of 72 people found the following review helpful
3 stars for entertainment value, 0 stars for actual scholarly research 1 Oct. 2008
By A. Jones - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
While entertaining and at times salacious, if you're looking for an in-depth, scholarly biography along the lines of Antonia Fraser, keep looking elsewhere.

All in all, I enjoyed reading about a now-forgotten woman who turned Rome and the Catholic Church on its ear with her ambition and greed. The author points out how this woman essentially ran the Vatican for extended periods of time for her brother-in-law, Pope Innocent X. Having schemed to place him on the papal throne, she continued to scheme and intrigue with cardinals, ambassadors, and royalty. All of this was acceptable at the time (bribery and coercion were the norm), but only if you were a man.

That said, this work is far from intellectual and relies too heavily on phrases such as "we can imagine" and "we can picture". This type of speculation runs rampant through the book, as do lengthy fiction-like tangents where the author asks us to imagine scenes in the Vatican and palaces of Rome.

I enjoyed the read, but took much of it with a grain of salt. If you like your biography heavy on opinion and guesswork, this is one for you. If like me, however, you prefer your biography to be well-researched, factual, and lacking in ridiculous exposition about the subject's motivations and the imaginings of the author, then it would be best to look elsewhere.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Great Writing, Fascinating Story 13 May 2009
By Loves the View - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This author has a great storytelling ability. To her understanding of the history of this time, she adds a good eye for detail, pacing and depth to her characters. Highlights include the descriptions of the conclaves, Innocent X's death, the rivalry between Olimpia and Olimpia, the role of relics (and Olimpia's relic) and the short lived but pungent rebellion of a favorite granddaughter.

Eleanor Herman compares the fruits of Olimpia's intrigues with peers in her own time, she explains the motives of the popes and the pressures on them, how taxes were collected and something of the food distribution system and more. One example of her interpretive ability is explaining the meaning for the Popes and the Church in general of the conversion of the Swedish queen. There are many mini-history lessons like this throughout the book.

This book joins other recent titles that I'm aware of that profiling Italian women The Pope's Daughter: The Extraordinary Life of Felice della Rovere and Murder of a Medici Princess by Caroline Murphy and Lucia: A Venetian Life in the Age of Napoleon and A Venetian Affair: A True Tale of Forbidden Love in the 18th Century by Andrea di Robelant. I hope this represents a trend in capturing the lesser known historical players.

In popular history an intriguing character or an exciting time can cover for a dull writer. In this book, you get not only an intriguing character and exciting time, you get a very well composed story. There are many histories that I really liked, but I would not recommend to my friends who "don't get" the genre. I would unequivocally recommend this book to just about anyone.
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
Fascinating Read if even Only 1/2 the Book is True 28 Nov. 2008
By David M. Dougherty - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Author Herman has written a compelling book about a period that the Vatican would like to forget. Her prose is excellent and the color and her depiction of the times is fascinating. Unfortunately Vatican history is not my specialty, and I am unable to vouch for the accuracy of the author's many statements of fact or supposition.

Even if only one-half of this is true, the graft, corruption, immorality and pettiness of the Pope and cardinals of that age are astounding. One must remember that this was a century after Luther had nailed his ninety-five theses on the door at Wittenburg, and apparently the Vatican had learned little from the protestant reformers. The depiction of Innocent X's election is priceless, with cardinals rushing to vote so they could escape the unhealthy environment. The veneration of relics is almost shocking with various Italian churches boasting of sacred relics like drops of the Virgin Mary's breast milk, the foreskin of Jesus' penis, and his umbilical cord. Yep, this was an age of faith coupled with pedestrian greed and venality, so please excuse me if I voice some skepticism.

The story centers around Olimpia Maidalchini, a brilliant lady who manipulated her brother-in-law into the papacy, then took over and ran the Pope's business for him. This was not the first time a female or females controlled the Papacy, but it was the first time it was so well documented. The author also clearly depicts the Italian and especially Roman dominance of the Papacy in spite of important financial support from the Catholic states of France and Spain. For several of the families in Italy, the Papacy was essentially their family business.

There is much papal history here, including that the Pope was first decreed to be elected only by the cardinals in 1059. Since 1389 all popes have come from the College of Cardinals amid much political maneuvering, and generally elderly men often have been chosen for the potential of short reigns so the position could be passed around to other worthy aspirants. Sounds like a large bureaucratic organization rather than a religious hierarchy, but can an organization of ambitious humans be otherwise?

For seven years Olimpia ruled the Vatican like a queen regent for an indisposed monarch, but she finally overstepped her bounds and lost her power swiftly. She was repudiated from all sides, and six years later went to her grave. Nevertheless, she was a fascinating "grand dame", who's story had to be suppressed later to maintain the dignity of the Church. One wonders how many more Olimpias there have been or are behind the scenes, not only in the Roman Catholic Church, but for any men in powerful positions. One could do worse than to learn from Olimpia's story.

This is not an important book, but one worth reading for those interested in the Middle Ages and the Age of Expansion.
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