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Maidalchini Pamphilj, Olimpia
Donna olimpia maidalchini.jpg
Contemporary portrait by an unknown artist
Born (1591-05-26)26 May 1591
Viterbo, Papal States
Died 27 September 1657(1657-09-27) (aged 66)
San Martino al Cimino, Papal States

Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphilj (26 May 1591[1] – 27 September 1657), (also spelled Pamphili and known as Donna Olimpia or Olimpia Pamphili), was the sister-in-law of Pope Innocent X (Pamphili). She rose to prominence as one of the most powerful women in Rome of her era and influenced foreign and domestic papal policy as well as several papal conclaves.[citation needed]

Early life[edit]

Maidalchini was born in Viterbo, the daughter of Sforza Maidalchini, a condottiere, and Vittoria Gualterio, patrician of Orvieto and Rome, noble of Viterbo (daughter of Giulio Gualterio, son of Sebastiano Gualterio, Bishop of Viterbo, Papal Nuncio to France and the Council of Trent). Her family was only moderately wealthy, but she married two wealthy men. Her first marriage to Paolo Nini lasted only a year or two. One of the wealthiest men in Viterbo, Nini died prematurely. Her second marriage was with Pamphilio Pamphili, brother of Cardinal Giambattista, the future Pope Innocent X.


After Pamphili's death, she became Innocent X's effective advisor. The pope elevated to the office of Cardinal Nephew the son, nephew and cousin of Olimpia Maidalchini: Camillo Francesco Maria Pamphili, Francesco Maidalchini, and Camillo Astalli, respectively.[2][3] On 14 November 1644, Innocent X made Camillo Pamphili cardinal-nephew, general of the church, legate to Avignon, secretary of briefs, and prefect of the judicial tribunal known as the Segnatura di Giustizia; Camillo Pamphili de facto shared the role of Cardinal Secretary of State with Giovanni Giacomo Panciroli.[3] However, on 21 January 1647, Camillo renounced the cardinalate to marry Olimpia Aldobrandini, the grand-niece of Pope Clement VIII and widow of Paolo Borghese, on 10 February.[3]

Donna Olimpia Maidalchini is a woman of great spirit, but her sole title to influence is that of a rigid economist. When offices fell vacant at court, nothing was decided without her good pleasure; when church livings were to be distributed, the ministers of the dataria had orders to defer all appointments until, notice having been given to her of the nature of those benefices, she might then select such as best pleased her for her own disposal; if episcopal sees were to be conferred, it was to her that the candidates applied; and that which most effectually revolted every upright mind was to see that those were preferred who were most liberal in giving.
Cavalier Giustiniani, 1652[4]

Afterwards, Innocent X promoted Francesco Maidalchini, the cousin of Olimpia Maidalchini, to replace Camillo Pamphili, but Francesco was viewed as incompetent and his appointment as disgraceful.[3] Thereafter, Innocent X adopted Camillo Astalli, and gave him the prerogatives of the cardinal-nephew on 19 September 1650,[3] including the Palazzo Pamphili.[4] However, Olimpia had Astalli deposed and sent away from Rome, making herself the "absolute mistress in the house".[4]


Like other Popes of the same era, Pope Innocent X, as Monarch of the Papal States, bestowed royal titles on some of his closest confidants and family. On 7 October 1645, Maidalchini received the honorific title, Princess of San Martino, effectively turning the small enclave of San Martino al Cimino into her personal principality. The title came with no more power or responsibility than that which she already held as Pamphili matriarch.


Maidalchini's influence waned after Innocent X recalled Fabio Chigi from Germany, made him secretary of state and subsequently a cardinal on 10 February 1652; Chigi succeeded Innocent X as Pope Alexander VII.[3]

According to papal historian Ludwig von Pastor, "the misfortune of Pope Pamphili was that the only person in his family who would have had the qualities necessary to fill such a position was a woman."[3]


Algardi's bust of Maidalchini

Maidalchini's reputation can be seen in her unflattering bust by Alessandro Algardi (circa 1650), currently in the Doria Pamphili Gallery. Maidalchini was notorious for guarding access to Innocent X, and utilizing it to her own financial benefit. Her wired widow's hood in the bust was interpreted by Ann Sutherland[5] as a jab at the fact that neither Maidalchini nor her family provided for the burial of Innocent X after his death in 1655, which was paid for by Innocent X's former butler.[who?]

Eleanor Herman says that Olimpia locked the Pope alone in his chamber on the night from 26 to 27 December and she went to her palace in fear that the Pope died that night and that her palace was sacked and burned.[6]:361 The morning of the 27th, she was barred access to Innocent X's chamber, much to her chagrin since she was expecting to steal the two chests full of gold that were hidden under Innocent's bed.[6]:362 Right after Innocent's body was removed on 29 December, she entered the chamber, removed the chests, and then ran to her palace to lock herself in fear of what angry mobs could do to her.[6]:364 Olimpia, and many other people, removed papal treasures from the papal palace during the convalescence of Innocent,[7] to the point where he died in absolute poverty since everything had already been stolen from him by his last days of life.[6]:362–364 Olimpia allowed the pontiff's body to stay unburied for three days, and to be buried in "the simplest of forms imaginable".[7] claiming that she was a poor widow that couldn't arrange a proper burial.[8]

This version of events is entirely contrary to the Ceremonial Diary of one of the Masters of Ceremonies, Fulvio Servantio, who was in constant attendance during the last days of Pope Innocent, and whose duty it was to record the events of the death, funeral, and burial of the pope.[9] In fact the death and burial of Pope Innocent X was in every respect similar to that of any other seventeenth century pope. The pope lay ill in the Quirinal Palace, where eventually he died.[10] On December 27, Cardinal Chigi, his Secretary of State and eventual successor, was in the papal Antechamber, and spoke with the attending physicians, with Cardinal Azzolino and with the Duchess of S. Martino. The Papal Preacher, Giovanni Paolo Oliva, SJ, was summoned to assist the pope in his extremity. Cardinal Chigi was in attendance during the last twelve days.[11] The deathbed was attended by numerous persons, including thirty-nine cardinals, his Sacristan and his Confessor. Immediately after the Pope's death, Cardinal Antonio Barberini, the Cardinal Camerlengo, was summoned and he performed the certification of the death of the Pontiff. There was an autopsy and an enbalming shortly after his death on January 7. In the evening the body was then transferred in procession to the Vatican Palace. It was not left abandoned at all, let alone for three days. On January 8, the Cardinals met in Congregation at 15:00 hours in the Aula Paramenti of the Vatican Palace, with the Cardinal Dean presiding. Innocent X was buried on January 9 in St. Peter's Basilica, with the same thirty-nine cardinals in attendance. The sealing of the coffin was witnessed by Cardinals Ludovisi, Chigi, Omodeo, Ottoboni, Santacroce, Aldobrandini, Vidman, Raggi, Pio and Gualtieri, Princes Pamphili, Ludovisi and Giustiniani, and the Master of Ceremonies Fulvio Servantio.

Some historians describe Innocent X as "entirely under the control" of Maidalchini.[12] This legacy is tied up in the accounts of the Roman Pasquinade as well as French (Innocent X had shunned France in favor of Spain[13] and Protestant sources.[3] The Catholic Encyclopedia refers to Maidalchini as the "great blemish" on the pontificate of the "blameless" Innocent X, whom it styles a "lover of justice."[14] Maidalchini is sometimes referred to as "the papessa" ("lady pope"), a variant of a title also applied to Pasqualina Lehnert (confidant of Pope Pius XII), and (the legendary) Pope Joan.[15] Some sources even allege that Maidalchini was Innocent X's lover, an accusation which goes back to Gregorio Leti's Vita di Donna Olimpia Maidalchini (1666), written under the pseudonym Gualdus,[14] and that she poisoned cardinals (with the help of her pharmacist, Exili) to open up additional vacancies for simony.[15] German historian Leopold von Ranke concluded that she was not Innocent X's lover.[4]


  1. ^ Ludwig von Pastor: History of the Popes vol. 30, London 1940, p. 32, says that she was born in 1594 and this date is followed by many other authors. However, Eleanor Herman, a recent biographer of Olimpia, indicates that she was born on 26 May 1591 and that she died at the age of 66. She adds that this date is confirmed by the baptismal registers in the episcopal archive of Viterbo. An account on the website of the Galleria Doria-Pamphilj also says that she was born in 1591.
  2. ^ Chadwick, Owen (1981). The Popes and European Revolution. Oxford University Press. p. 303. ISBN 0198269196. .
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Boutry, Philippe; Levillain, Philippe (2002). "Innocent X". The Papacy: an encyclopedia. Routledge. pp. 801–802. ISBN 0415922283. .
  4. ^ a b c d Williams, 2004, p. 110.
  5. ^ Harris, Ann Sutherland (2005). Seventeenth-century art & architecture. Laurence King Publishing. p. 93. ISBN 1856694151. .
  6. ^ a b c d Herman, Eleanor (July 2008). Mistress of the Vatican. HarperCollins e-books. ISBN 978-0-06-169869-9. 
  7. ^ a b Williams, George L. (2004). Papal Genealogy: The Families and Descendants of the Popes. McFarland & Company. pp. 4,110,footnote in page 246. ISBN 0-7864-2071-5. His corpse stayed for three days "in a damp corner of a sacristy and [was] buried in the simplest form imaginable" (citing Ludwig von Pastor's The History of the Popes, volume XXX, page 46) 
  8. ^ George L. Williams, Papal Genealogy: The Families and Descendants of the Popes, "'Donna Olimpia declared that she was a poor widow, and it was 'beyond her power' to have the body properly interred." This is taken from Leopold von Ranke's The History of the Popes, volume III, p. 36. It was not the responsibility of a 'poor widow', however, to pay for a papal burial. The expense was always borne by the Roman Church through the Apostolic Camera. That is one of the reasons why the Cardinal Camerlengo retained his office at the head of the financial administration during the Sede Vacante.
  9. ^ Joannes Baptista Gattico, Acta Selecta Caeremonialia Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae ex variis mss. codicibus et diariis saeculi xv. xvi. xvii. Tomus I (Romae 1753), pp. 459-468.
  10. ^ V. Forcella, Inscrizioni delle chiese di Roma IX (Roma: Ludovico Cecchini 1877), p. 275, no. 559
  11. ^ Francesco Sforza Pallavicini, Della vita di Alessandro VII, Lib.II capo xiii (Prato Giachetti 1839), pp. 209-212.
  12. ^ Stearns, Peter N.; Langer, William Leonard (2001). The Encyclopedia of World History: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern, Chronologically Arranged. Houghton Mifflin Books. p. 333. ISBN 0395652375. .
  13. ^ Williams, 2004, p. 109.
  14. ^ a b Wikisource-logo.svg Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Pope Innocent X". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 
  15. ^ a b León, Vicki (1999). Uppity Women of the Renaissance. Conari. p. 55. ISBN 157324127X. .

External links[edit]

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