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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Mistress of the Vatican - author talk

On Tuesday night I attended a talk by author Eleanor Herman at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. Ms. Herman was there to discuss her new book, Mistress of the Vatican.
I took copious notes (7 pages worth!) so I could tell you all about it. I also took pictures and even two videos! I'm posting all here for you to enjoy ... I'd love to hear what you think about it.

Here's what the Pratt's website says about the book:
For a decade in the 17th century, Olimpia Maidalchini, a woman born to a humble family, ran the Catholic church through her brother-in-law are reputed lover, Pope Innocent X. She made international policy, waged war, patronized Rome's greatest Baroque artists, and made herself rich with Vatican Gold.

Eleanor Herman is also the author of Sex with Kings and Sex with the Queen.

My notes on the talk are rough so please bear with me.

A bit about the time period:
  • the Papal States were a kingdom with the Pope as monarch, and they dealt with the same issues that other monarchies of the time faced

  • the 1600 were a time of plague, corruption, great wealth, and great poverty

  • She explained the origins of the "conclave" of Cardinals who decide on the next Pope. The Cardinals often dragged out the decision over many months, and in this case the other rulers got fed up. They decided to lock the Cardinals in, with very little food, until they finally decided. After 5 weeks there was still no decision, so the roof of the building was removed to allow the weather in. Needless to say, a decision was reached shortly thereafter.*
Just before this first video begins, Ms. Herman explained that Olimpia Maidalchini (pronounced Ma-dal-kini) was the eldest of three daughters in her family. There was an older half brother as well. The son was favored by the father, and the girls were seen as a drain on the inheritance that would eventually go to the son.

Just after the video ends Ms. Herman went on to say that Olimpia became, at age 20, multi-millionaire widow (by today's monetary standards). Olimpia learned a valuable lesson from this; she learned how to get what she wanted despite being a woman.

Olimpia entered her second marriage as a wealthy woman, and chose to marry into a pedigreed family. Her new brother-in-law was a socially inept and indecisive judge. Through her influence and assistance, he became well-respected as was eventually made a Cardinal. (There's a LOT more to the story but I'm trying to be brief here.)

Eventually the brother-in-law became a candidate for the next pope. During the conclave it was common to pass messages to and from the Cardinals (unlike today, when it is completely secret). The second video discusses some of the correspondence between Olimpia and the Cardinals.

Sorry it cuts off abruptly at the end ... my camera battery was dying. The result of her efforts is that her brother-in-law was elected, and he became Pope Innocent X.

Olimpia did many good things during her life (and many not so good things too). Her good works included: money for undowried girls, official protection for Rome's prostitutes, and food, sheets, firewood, and other necessities for many convents. She also commissioned some wonderful art and architecture using the money she gained through her relationship (familial or sexual is up for debate) with Pope Innocent X.

This is just a small taste of what you'll find in this book. I have lots of other tidbits of info to share about Ms. Herman's research and more, but I'm going to save them for another post (hopefully sometime next week) as there is something else I want to mention here.

I brought my mom to this talk with me. We don't usually share the same opinions about what makes a great book but we do agree that historical books are usually good picks. In the car on the way home we got into a bit of a tiff about Ms. Herman's talk. Mom is a staunch Catholic and she felt that much of the talk was insulting and meant to demean or poke fun at the Church. I disagreed strongly with her. I felt that the history Ms. Herman spoke about is an unfortunate but true*** part of the Church's past, and that she wasn't poking fun in any way. Yes there was humor in her talk, but it was more to make the talk entertaining (rather than dry and boring). Mom agreed that Ms. Herman was a very good public speaker so at least we found THAT to agree on. At the very beginning of her talk, Ms. Herman stated emphatically that her book is not anti-Catholic or meant to attach the Church.**** Based on her talk, I agree with that statement. We'll see if that opinion changes once I read the book. Needless to say, Mom won't be reading this one.

* I can't say for sure the this is the truth, but my mom (a strong Catholic) was with me and she says that she remembers hearing this story before.

** I was raised Catholic but I attend a Protestant church now. I still know far more about Catholic history than I do about the development of the Protestant churches though.

*** Most of what she presented as fact is backed up by historical documents, and she was careful to point out when there were stories that couldn't be proven either way. So I'm not saying everything she presented was the truth, but much of it was well-documented.

**** She mentioned this in response to this act of vandalism at the library earlier this month.

Has anyone read this book yet? I'd love to check out your review if you have one. If you haven't read it, what do you think about it? Do events like the vandalism make you more or less likely to read a book?


Amanda said...

Another book to add to my to-read list! It does sound very interesting. I think that vandalism may make me more likely to read a book. Not to take a stand or anything, but because it's more likely for the title to stick in my head.

Anonymous said...

Hey, who's the fellow in the funny suit? Love his garb :)!

Anonymous said...

I'd like to read this book. As a fairly new Catholic, I think it sounds very interesting. It's great that you were able to hear the author speak about the book. I find those talks fascinating.

Btw, I'm not too far from Baltimore. How do you find out about these events??

Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours said...

Jennifer - I'm not sure! He came in 1/2 way through the talk. I found out later that the author knew him, but it wasn't clear how.


I responded to Anna by email, but I'm going to answer her question here as well.

My resources for author talks are Read Street (the blog of the Baltimore Sun newspaper), the Pratt Library's website, my local library's calendar of events, and events like the Baltimore Book Festival and the National Book Festival.

Do any of you out there have other sources you'd recommend?

Anonymous said...

That seems like a great book. I've seen "Sex with Kings" around at bookstores, but haven't read it. I'm going to be watching to see if and when you give "Mistress of the Vatican" away. You were smart to bring your camera and record the talk. I meant to do that last night (or at least take pictures), but I TOTALLY forgot my camera yesterday morning.

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