Herman (Sex with the Queen, 2006, etc.) does her royal best with the fantastic story of a tax collector’s daughter from Viterbo who finagled her way into a position of power at the Vatican.
The author constantly hammers home her central point: that the driving force of Olimpia Maidalchini’s life (1591–1657) was her stingy father’s attempt to put her in a convent rather than provide a dowry for a suitable marriage. Her two younger sisters submitted to this fate, but 15-year-old Olimpia refused and wrote a damning letter to the Bishop of Viterbo (fathers were not supposed to coerce daughters into taking the veil). Despite the ensuing scandal, she managed to marry into a poor but well-connected noble family, the Pamphilis of Rome. Her keen memory and knowledge of financial matters soon ingratiated her with sober, learned brother-in-law Gianbattista, a monsignor who increasingly came to rely on Olimpia’s decisiveness and guidance in his work at the Vatican courts. Her behind-the-scenes machinations bore fruit when Urban VIII made Gianbattista a cardinal in 1627. Twelve years later, the death of her husband left 48-year-old Olimpia a widow who didn’t have to answer to anyone. Upon Urban’s demise in 1644, her skillful manipulation of power achieved her life’s goal: the election of Gianbattista as Pope Innocent X. His devotion to his sister-in-law allowed her carte blanche in his apartments and free rein in filling her coffers, until her overweening ambition and some powerful enemies caught up with her. Herman nimbly navigates centuries of foggy papal history, providing plenty of gossip and slander about flagrant nepotism and other pontifical sins. She casts Olimpia’s story appropriately enough in soap-opera terms, making her feisty protagonist resemble (a bit improbably) a 17th-century Scarlett O’Hara.
The incredible life of a formidable woman, fetchingly told.