Sex and a 17th century pope? More innuendo than facts, but lots of interesting facts, too

September 15, 2008

Bobz Book Reviews

“MISTRESS OF THE VATICAN,”
by Eleanor Herman

When I’m at the bookstore or library I tend to pick up anything that has “Vatican” in the title, so I couldn’t pass up something as titillating as “Mistress of the Vatican” when publisher William Morrow offered a review copy.

The jacket cover suggested hanky-panky with the bare-shouldered portrait of a beautiful woman with a painting of St. Peter’s Basilica and Square covering her, uh, feminine charms, and a subtitle, “The True Story of Olimpia Maidalchini: The Secret Female Pope.”

The adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover still applies.

Author Eleanor Herman offers no real evidence that 17th century Pope Innocent X had a sexual relationship with Olimpia, his sister-in-law, as the term “mistress” would suggest.

She offers no facts that Olimpia was pope, although she apparently was extremely influential in papal decisions.

Even the cover artwork is misleading: You’d think that the beautiful woman depicted is Olimpia, but no; the jacket painting is of “Venus at the Mirror,” by Tiziano.

Despite that, this book was hard to put down.

She’s done the research

Herman has culled the diaries and papers of Vatican officials of the period and the works of commentators during the mid 1600s, and what she’s come up with are some things about our church at the time that today we’d consider unthinkable. The nepotism, the bribery, the selling of church offices, the misuse of church funds — they saturate these 419 pages, and that’s without the bibliography and index.

Even those of us who love our church ought to know that at times in the past some pretty ridiculous things have been done in the name of our faith. Herman points out the silliness of some of the practices surrounding relics, for one thing. An Italian church claimed to have preserved the umbilical cord of Jesus, another drops of the Virgin Mary’s breast milk.

What gets tiresome, though, is the author’s tendency to slip into extended “filler” — background information that seemingly has little or nothing to do with the story of Donna Olimpia and her brother-in-law the pope.

Early on she extrapolates the cultural mores of the era and presumes much. While there is no factual evidence that Olimpia did this or that, women of the times did things this way, so Olimpia must have as well, she posits. It’s a bit too much innudendo for my taste.

Evidence shows Olimpia’s influence

There seems to be little doubt, though, that the widow of Pope Innocent X’s brother was extremely influential in day-to-day decisions concerning the Papal States. The evidence author Herman brings to light shows that Olimpia’s fingerprints are on the appointments of cardinals, on the finances of the church, on the church’s relationship with the governments and royalty of nations such as France and Spain, among others, and much, much more.

Be ready to read a boatload of language pointing out how anti-woman the Catholic Church is and has been through the ages. And the author uses some misleading descriptions that makes you wonder if she made this stuff up or is actually quoting some 17th century theologian or document.

Take Holy Orders: She writes that priestly ordination was “a sacrament that was thought to tattoo the human soul with an invisible but ineradicable seal that prevented marriage.”

Tattoo the soul?

I hadn’t heard that one before. But then, I really hadn’t been up on some of the less-flattering history of our church, like the regular elevation of papal nephews to rank of cardinal although they might still be in their teens, the regular practice of popes to appoint their relatives to jobs in the Vatican, the fawning of European royalty to curry the pope’s favor with expensive gifts, etc.

The saving grace is that at some point Innocent did have a crisis of conscience and put the dignity and integrity of the church first, and that many of the laughable practices of those times are long gone.

So read this. It’s not sexy. It promises one thing and delivers another, but it’s still a good read. — bz

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About Bob Zyskowski

Bob is the Client Products Manager for the Communications Office of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. A 42-year veteran of the Catholic Press, he is the former Associate Publisher of The Catholic Spirit. You can follow him on twitter or email him at zyskowskir@archspm.org.

View all posts by Bob Zyskowski