Updated: Jan 27, 2019
A life-long friend of mine, family really, helped me out with a special Christmas gift for my Mom in 2015. She wanted a new cover for the tire on the back of her Jeep. My friend, Greg, owns an off-roading business in Maine and his love of Jeeps far exceeds my own (and I love my Jeep) so he is my go-to guy for anything Jeep related. I wasn’t sure if it was easy to order online or would be difficult to buy where my Mom lives. He asked me to find out the specifics on her make and model so that he could order the correct size and I swear this was her answer: “It’s a Mossy Oak Liberty.”
I stared at my screen for a moment and wasn’t quite sure how to reply. I had never heard of this model. And then it dawned on me she was reading the color type from her paperwork and I couldn’t stop laughing.
Always the comedian, Greg addressed the package as “Mistress Heather” to my home and this little nugget of humor is what prompted the writing of that week's recommendation because that word in particular, mistress, reminds me of an excellent book I read titled Mistress of the Vatican: The True Story of Olimpia Maidalchini: The Secret Female Pope by Eleanor Herman.
The author of this true story is known for going behind the curtain of some of our greatest monarchies and churches to find the real stories, the juicy bits if you will, of what was happening during the time in which she’s researching.
I mean, this author really researches. She spends years traveling, reading documents and papers some of us could only dream of seeing with our own eyes, hunting down private diaries, and even finding preserved news sheets that were basically a form of 17th century gossip. What’s beautiful about this biography is that it’s not the first time a woman has ‘controlled’ the Vatican, but it is the most well-documented and that gives us details we would otherwise never know unless we were there.
Olimpia Maidalchini was born to a common family and was supposed to end up in a convent like many young women of her time after a failed marriage; however she had bigger plans for herself and fought her father every step of the way. She was incredibly intelligent, cunning, ruthless, greedy, and manipulative. I liked her immediately. I like bad-ass women who take control and make no apologies for being who they are – especially in that time. But does she cross too many lines and make too many enemies?
Olimpia actually convinced the Pope it was immoral for the church to collect taxes from brothels, and then convinced him to sell her the rights to collect those same taxes.
Olimpia eventually become what many label as the puppet-master of Pope Innocent X, her brother-in-law, who we see early on is indecisive, weak, and a bit too kind to be a Pope at that time in history. We sometimes forget how powerful the Vatican and its members were back then so for a woman to control the most powerful seat in the world was an exceptionally big deal. How she got there created nothing less than chaos, hatred, and streets full of gossip that would rival the rag mags and TV shows we see today. The word mistress implies secret, but the fact that Olimpia was running the show wasn’t much of a secret to anyone. This is one of my favorite things about this woman... She actually convinced the Pope it was immoral for the church to collect taxes from brothels, and then convinced him to sell HER the rights to collect those same taxes. I mean, c'mon. That's pretty impressive (bad-ass) even by today's standards.
I have to admit I do love historical non-fiction about interesting people so this book may not exactly fall onto all of your must read lists, but if you enjoy intrigue (and yes, this non-fiction book is highly intriguing) then I suggest you take a peek. I felt Olimpia’s stress. I felt her determination. I felt her motivation. I hated her at times, but then loved how the author made me feel as if I were walking down the streets of Rome right alongside her, and so I also felt her humiliation and shame.
Have you ever been asked the question: "If you could have dinner with anyone alive or dead, who would it be?" For me, it's Olimpia Maidalchini. I rarely answer truthfully because I hate being greeted by a blank stare. It is a beautifully written book that will take you back to the 17th century and make you realize that today’s politics have nothing on the scandalous business of what was happening in Rome and Vatican City back then.
Give it a read. I promise you won't be disappointed!