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Mistress of the Vatican Kindle Edition

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. In this engrossing "forgotten story" of the Vatican, Herman (Sex with the Queen) relays not only the life of 17th Cenutry Papal puppet-master Olimpia Maidalchini, but the political and social history of her age, including glimpses of art and architecture, family relations, medical care, religious traditions and daily life. Born into a family of average means, Maidalchini rebelled successfully against her father's plans to place her in a convent. This early triumph gave her a will that she'd eventually use to grab the ultimate seat of power in 17th century Italy, the Papacy, through the likely accomplice of her indecisive brother-in-law, a lawyer with holy orders who was dazzled by Maidalchini's intelligence, planning and accounting capabilities. He submitted to the her plans, and she eventually ushered him into power as Pope Innocent X. As her wealth and strength grow, so does the resentment around her, but her fate would be sealed by the bubonic plague. Exhaustively researched, with historical vignettes interwoven seamlessly, Herman's latest provides a window into an age of empire, nepotism and intrigue that rivals any novel for fascinating reading.
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“...immensely readable and compelling...An expert on—and descendant of—European royal families, she skillfully uses letters, diaries, newssheets of the time, and biographies to tell this personal tale, set during unforgiving times. Highly recommended for public and academic libraries.”

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38 of 41 people found the following review helpful By Timothy Haugh VINE VOICE on November 30, 2008
Format: Hardcover
In her biography of Olimpia Maidalchini, Ms. Herman refers to her as "the secret female pope." This is a line meant to provoke and it does its job. Frankly, however, it is a bit of a stretch considering Ms. Herman's own descriptions of Olimpia's exile and near-catastrophic over-reaching. And let's not forget the fact that Olimpia's power was no secret. Still, given the Catholic Church's history of patriarchy and often sinful misogyny, it is wonderful to have reminders of the fact that, throughout its history, women have played important roles and wielded great power in the Church.

In some ways, Olimpia's story is a great one for any age: a young woman defies the odds and works her way up to the pinnacles of power and wealth in her society. The fact that she does so in the Papal States of the seventeenth century when women were often less than second-class citizens is all the more impressive. Of course, Olimpia is no saint--but few were in Rome at the time--and her path to power is paved with the bodies of those who stood in her way, but it is a fascinating story nonetheless.

Nearly forced into a convent by her father, she ends up marrying above her station in her native Viterbo. Soon after, she marries Pamphilio Pamphili, a nobleman of Rome and begins her quest for power there. She ultimately achieves this through her brother-in-law, Gianbattista Pamphili. Likely his mistress, she guides the shy canon into the intrigues of Vatican politics, to a cardinal's hat, and, ultimately, to elevation as Pope Innocent X. Through her vacillating lover, she controls everything from the purse-strings to cardinal appointments. At times, she truly did wield the power of the papacy and people knew it; at least, when she wasn't in disfavor with the pope.
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful By M.O. on March 2, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I have to disagree with A. Jones' review. He/she claims that Eleanor Herman's work is short on scholarly research. This is preposterous. As someone who has worked in primary source researching - manuscripts at the Library of Congress in Washington - I have to say that the work is absolutely painstaking, and those who are able to do it, and do it successfully, are the true scholars amongst us - they are not simply regurgitating some secondary sources. It is a huge mistake to discard this book as non-scholarly when the exact opposite is true. You can work for days on end combing through Senators' and Presidents' letters in the manuscript division at the Library of Congress and only come up with one or two sentences actually useful for your thesis. The letters are written on horribly deteriorated paper (or paper similar to that of tissue used to keep outgoing letters) in a cursive that is hard to decipher in ink that has run over the years. And I'm only talking about 19th century manuscripts written in American English. Herman did her research in manuscripts from 16th century Italy in medieval Italian (and being someone who speaks Italian, I also assume it was 16th century Romanesco Italian, the Roman dialect of the time) - and she collects a vast fount of these sources. Her research is a wonder. The story that she has been able to uncover from this research is simply astonishing. Yes, Herman does use terminology like "We can imagine/picture..." but it is clear from her writing that she is only extrapolating from the research that she has done and the knowledge of social customs of the time.Read more ›
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60 of 72 people found the following review helpful By A. Jones on September 30, 2008
Format: Hardcover
While entertaining and at times salacious, if you're looking for an in-depth, scholarly biography along the lines of Antonia Fraser, keep looking elsewhere.

All in all, I enjoyed reading about a now-forgotten woman who turned Rome and the Catholic Church on its ear with her ambition and greed. The author points out how this woman essentially ran the Vatican for extended periods of time for her brother-in-law, Pope Innocent X. Having schemed to place him on the papal throne, she continued to scheme and intrigue with cardinals, ambassadors, and royalty. All of this was acceptable at the time (bribery and coercion were the norm), but only if you were a man.

That said, this work is far from intellectual and relies too heavily on phrases such as "we can imagine" and "we can picture". This type of speculation runs rampant through the book, as do lengthy fiction-like tangents where the author asks us to imagine scenes in the Vatican and palaces of Rome.

I enjoyed the read, but took much of it with a grain of salt. If you like your biography heavy on opinion and guesswork, this is one for you. If like me, however, you prefer your biography to be well-researched, factual, and lacking in ridiculous exposition about the subject's motivations and the imaginings of the author, then it would be best to look elsewhere.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Loves the View VINE VOICE on May 13, 2009
Format: Hardcover
This author has a great storytelling ability. To her understanding of the history of this time, she adds a good eye for detail, pacing and depth to her characters. Highlights include the descriptions of the conclaves, Innocent X's death, the rivalry between Olimpia and Olimpia, the role of relics (and Olimpia's relic) and the short lived but pungent rebellion of a favorite granddaughter.

Eleanor Herman compares the fruits of Olimpia's intrigues with peers in her own time, she explains the motives of the popes and the pressures on them, how taxes were collected and something of the food distribution system and more. One example of her interpretive ability is explaining the meaning for the Popes and the Church in general of the conversion of the Swedish queen. There are many mini-history lessons like this throughout the book.

This book joins other recent titles that I'm aware of that profiling Italian women The Pope's Daughter: The Extraordinary Life of Felice della Rovere and Murder of a Medici Princess by Caroline Murphy and Lucia: A Venetian Life in the Age of Napoleon and A Venetian Affair: A True Tale of Forbidden Love in the 18th Century by Andrea di Robelant. I hope this represents a trend in capturing the lesser known historical players.
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