Title: Mistress of the Vatican
Author: Eleanor Herman
Release Date: July 31, 2008
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Genre: Non-Fiction, History
Rating: 4 out of 5
From the publisher’s website:
Born without a dowry, nearly forced into a convent, and later married off to a man she didn’t love, 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…This is the unforgettable story of a woman ahead of her time.
Mistress of the Vatican is a non-fiction account of the life of Olimpia Maidalchini, a woman who rose to power in the seventeenth century. Though there are hushed stories of a female Pope Joan in the early days of the Catholic Church, there is little in actual historical accounts about her. It isn’t clear whether there actually was a female pope – many, including Eleanor Herman, dismiss the tale as pure fantasy. However, Olimpia Maidalchini’s place is secure within history – there is no doubt she was real and was the power behind the papacy for over 10 years. This scandalous account is both shocking and thoroughly enjoyable.
While Olimpia is an entertaining person to structure a book around, she isn’t exactly likeable. She is ruthless and conniving; she schemes at every twist and turn in Mistress of the Vatican. No matter how much money and power she has, it is never enough. It’s not even about absolute power, but rather relative power. Olimpia had to have more power than anyone else around her. It’s the only way she felt safe, an insecurity that stemmed from her father trying to force her into a convent at a young age. But honestly, the fact that she was unlikeable doesn’t diminish enjoyment of the account at all. She’s that person you love to hate, incredulous at how greedy she can be.
Mistress of the Vatican is well-written and enjoyable. Eleanor Herman tells Olimpia’s story in a very relatable way. She uses anecdotes and entertaining stories to illustrate her points. However, you have to be very interested in history in order to enjoy this book. It’s definitely long and there is a lot of information contained within its pages. While it is impeccably well-researched and Herman tries to make it as fun as possible, it can be dry at times. Therefore, I wouldn’t recommend picking up this book if you’re only marginally interested in the subject matter.
Eleanor Herman’s book was a wonderful account of an amazing (though in some ways despicable) woman that was really ahead of her time. I really did like this book and recommend it for anyone interested in strong women or the history of the Catholic Church