A Roman ghost – the formidable Donna Olimpia

With Halloween approaching, it’s time for a Roman ghost story: the legend of one of Rome’s most formidable women.

Donna Olimpia, in black and with a widow's hood
Donna Olimpia, in black and with a widow’s hood

Born in 1591 to a relatively humble family, Olimpia Maidalchini apparently had a fierce determination to rise up the social strata.  When her family decided she would become a nun, to save on the expensive dowry that would be required if she was to wed, Olimpia refused.  She went on to marry into great wealth not once, but twice.  She outlived both husbands.

But wealth was not enough for Olimpia.  She liked power, too.  And as luck would have it, she got that as well, becoming one of the most powerful women of her time.

Her second husband was Pamphilio Pamphili (sometimes spelled Pamphilj), a member of one of the wealthiest families in Italy.  Donna Olimpia lived in various palaces owned by the family, including the magnificent one at Piazza Navona.

Palazzo Pamphili in Piazza Navona
Palazzo Pamphili in Piazza Navona

Moreover, her husband’s older brother was Cardinal Giambattista Pamphili, the future Pope Innocent X.

Pope Innocent X
Pope Innocent X

Pamphilio died in 1639, leaving Olimpia as the (very able) head of the household.  Being a widow, she was no longer under the rule of a man, and was the head of a very wealthy family — a woman of power.  During this time, Olimpia became close to her brother-in-law as she strategized the best possible marriages for her children.  By 1644, her brother-in-law had become Pope Innocent X, and Olimpia’s power grew exponentially.

She was known as a gate-keeper to the pope.  Ambassadors and others wishing to gain access to the pope would therefore give Olimpia expensive gifts.  But her influence with the pope was much resented.  Rumors grew that she was the Pope’s mistress, the Pimpaccia (sinful woman).  Another derisive nickname for her was La Papessa, the female pope.  If she felt her influence on the pope threatened, Donna Olimpia was also said to rely on poison to deal with such competition.

The formidable Donna Olimpia
The formidable Donna Olimpia

It is the events surrounding the pope’s death in late 1684 that lead to the legend of Donna Olimpia’s ghost.  Innocent X died in December 1684 after ailing for several months.  Rumors swirled that Olimpia controlled all access to the pope as he lay dying.  She also resorted to locking him in his room while she stole papal treasure, including two chests of gold.  Fearing reprisal from the mob, and wanting to avoid the high costs of a papal burial, she fled Rome in the dark of night.  A demand was supposedly made that she return the treasure she had looted — a request that she refused.

Olimpia never returned to Rome and died of the plague a few years later.  After her death came the stories of an apparition. Olimpia would be dressed all in black, clutching her stolen gold, fleeing Piazza Navona, and careening across the Ponte Sisto in a ghostly black carriage drawn by black horses, accompanied by shrill shrieks and laughter.  A formidable ghost, of a formidable woman.

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