Old Master Paintings

Mistress of the Vatican: Donna Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphilj

By Eleanor Herman
As Velázquez’s long-lost portrait of ‘Papessa’ Donna Olimpia arrives at auction in the Old Masters Evening Sale , Eleanor Herman tells the fascinating story of her rise to power in 17th-century Rome.

A portrait lost for three hundred years.

Its creator, one of the most famous artists of the 17th century.

Its subject, the most notorious and powerful woman of her time and the reputed mistress of a pope, whose memory Church officials successfully obliterated.

No, this isn’t the first chapter of the latest Dan Brown novel, but the true story behind a painting to be auctioned by Sotheby’s on 3 July in the Old Masters Evening Sale. And the spectacular rise and fall of Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphilj—ambitious, bossy, and centuries ahead of her time—could very well be the subject of a novel.

When Olimpia was fifteen, her father—a tax collector—tried to imprison her in a convent against her will. She publicly defied him and married the richest young man in town. Widowed three years later, she found herself sole heir to his magnificent fortune. In 1612, 21-year-old Olimpia married 51-year-old Pamphilio Pamphilj, scion of a decayed noble house, trading her wealth for his title. Now known as Donna—or Lady—Olimpia, she took in hand the career of her brother-in-law, the indecisive, 38-year-old Monsignor Giantbattista Pamphilj. She advised him, entertained lavishly for him, and bribed the right people to get him promoted up the Vatican ladder to cardinal in 1629. With the 1644 conclave deadlocked for two months, she smuggled in an offer to bribe a powerful cardinal, thereby winning the papal throne for Gianbattista, who became Pope Innocent X.

Not all cardinals were thrilled. Though they admired Gianbattista’s intelligence and love of justice, they also knew he was completely ruled by his sister-in-law. Cardinal Alessandro Bichi angrily declared, “Gentlemen, we have just elected a female pope.”

Early every morning, Olimpia arrived at the papal palace, worked all day with the pope and cardinals, and left late at night, often past midnight. If someone broached a subject to the pope which he had not already discussed with his sister-in-law, Innocent asked, “What will Donna Olimpia say?”

Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, Portrait of Innocent X (1574–1655).

Cardinal Sforza Pallavicino bewailed the “monstrous power of a woman in the Vatican.” He fumed, “The court’s predictions that if Cardinal Pamphilj became pope, Olimpia would rule, came true.” A contemporary chronicler huffed, “There has never before been heard of nor seen that the popes allowed themselves to be so absolutely governed by a woman.” Romans hung banners over the pope’s name on public buildings that read Pope Olimpia I. Medals were minted showing her wearing the papal tiara and sitting on the throne of St. Peter, on the reverse, the pope in long curls, knitting.

Her avarice was legendary. Anyone wanting the pope to look kindly on a petition would first visit Olimpia laden with sacks of gold and diamond necklaces. Kings instructed their ambassadors to lose fortunes playing cards with her at her weekly card parties. They tried their best to lose large sums and were deeply disappointed if, despite their bad playing, they managed to win. Many churchmen were outraged at her, not for being corrupt—almost everyone in that time and place was corrupt—but for being a woman who did a better job of collecting bribes than any of the men ever had.

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.

Some cardinals publicly decried the jowly, heavy woman in widow’s weeds as a whore, who slept with her elderly brother-in-law, the pope. No one can say whether she had ever been Gianbattista’s mistress. But there is no doubt that she was mistress of the Vatican because she ruled it like a monarch. And, like a monarch, Olimpia sponsored artists, musicians, playwrights, and sculptors. She arranged for Gian Lorenzo Bernini to create the astonishing Four Rivers Fountain in Rome’s Piazza Navona, right in front of her palace (which is now the Brazilian Embassy to Italy).

Late in 1654, the 80-year-old pope became ill. Olimpia convinced him to have the entire Vatican gold reserve transferred from the Treasury in Castel Sant’Angelo to his bedroom, where the trunks were shoved beneath his high bed. Over a period of several weeks, she stole all of it.

When a pope died, tradition decreed that his nearest relative should pay for his funeral. But after Innocent’s death on January 7, 1655, Olimpia refused to do so, stating “I am only a poor widow.” The bewildered cardinals dumped his body in a supply closet in St. Peter’s Cathedral, where rats nibbled at it. Finally, one of Innocent’s servants bought the pope a cheap coffin out of pity; it was placed in an unmarked grave in the church basement.

The new pope, Alexander VII, was Fabio Chigi, Innocent’s incorruptible secretary of state, who was certainly no fan of Olimpia’s. He launched an investigation into her corruption, embezzlement, and the perplexing disappearance of the entire Vatican Treasury. Furious at the evidence, he exiled her from Rome and prepared charges against her. But the investigation stalled when bubonic plague broke out, killing half the population in some Italian cities. Olimpia felt safe from the plague in her airy country palace. But all the money she possessed could not prevail against a tiny microbe vomited into her bloodstream by the bite of a flea. Her servants, terrified of contagion, ran off, leaving no one to tend her in her illness. On September 26, 1657, Donna Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphilj died wretched and alone.

Such is Olimpia’s story. She was a woman of fierce ambition, keen intelligence, and great charm, who protected weaker women against the injustices of men. She was also greedy, calculating, and at times chillingly cold. Soon after her death, the Catholic Church moved to eradicate the scandalous memory of this audacious woman who had ruled them all. Which is why Donna Olimpia is the most famous forgotten woman of all time. Even the portrait painted of her in 1650 by the renowned Diego Velázquez was lost and forgotten for centuries.

Until now.

From 25 June until 29 September, the exhibition Velázquez, Rembrandt, Vermeer. Parallel Visions will be showing at the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, which is celebrating its 200th anniversary. Exhibiting late 16th- and early 17th-century Dutch and Spanish painting, the show borrows a significant group of works from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and will offer a reflection on the pictorial traditions represented by Spain and the Low Countries. While the art-historical literature, particularly that generated in Holland, has considered these traditions as essentially different, this exhibition will aim to juxtapose the historical myths and artistic realities of the two countries and to reflect on the numerous traits that they share.

Eleanor Herman is a New York Times best-selling historian whose latest book, published by Duckworth in the UK, is The Royal Art of Poison: Filthy Palaces, Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Medicine, and Murder Most Foul.

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