Roman Legends: A Collection of the Fables and Folk-lore of Rome | Annotated Tale

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Donna Olimpia


THE vices of the rich are never forgotten by the people, and the traditions that still are current in Rome about Donna Olimpia [1] are such that I have had to refuse to listen to them. But I feel bound to mention them here, because it is curious that they should so live on for more than two hundred years (the traditions of Sciarra Colonna, however, are six hundred years old). They have, doubtless, rather gained than lost in transmission. Cardinal Camillo Pamfili, Donna Olimpia's son, presents one of those rare instances of which history has only five or six in all to record, in which, for the sake of keeping up the succession to a noble or royal house, it has been permitted [2] to leave the ecclesiastical state for married life. [3] The singularity of this incident has impressed it in the memory of the people, and her promotion of it has contributed to magnify, not only the fantastic element in their narratives, but also the popular feeling against her; thus she is accused of having had a second object in promoting it, namely, to get the place in the pontifical household thus vacated filled by a very simple [4] nephew, and thus increase her own importance at the papal court. The pasquinades written about her in her own age were such that Cancellieri [5] tells us 'spies were set, dressed in silk attire, to discover the authors of such lampoons (motti vituperosi).'



[1] Donna Olimpia Pamfili, nata Maidalchini, wife of the brother of Innocent X.

[2] Cancellieri Mercato, § ix. note 7.

[3] He had not, however, been originally intended for the Church; had been General of the Pontifical forces before he was Cardinal, and was only in Deacon's orders.

[4] His simplicity was the subject of many contemporary mots and anecdotes; e.g. at the time of his elevation to the purple the Pasquin statue had been temporarily lost to view by a hoarding put up for the erection of a neighbouring palace; 'Marforio' was supposed to express his condolence for the eclipse of his rival in the following distich:

'Non piangere Pasquino         
Chè sarà tuo compagno Maidalchino.'

               His want of capacity seems however to have been compensated by his goodness of heart.

[5] Cancellieri Mercato, § viii. As I have been desirous to put nothing in the text but what has reached myself by verbal tradition, I will add some no less interesting details collected by Cancellieri, in this place.

               It was at her house in Piazza Navona that Bernini was rehabilitated in his character of first sculptor and architect of his time. 'Papa Pamfili,' though only the son of a tailor, (A certain Niccolo Caferri was much ridiculed for the spirit of adulation with which he pretended to trace up Innocent X.'s genealogy to Pamphilus, king of Doris, 300 years before the birth of Rome. But the Pope himself was so little ashamed of his origin that Cancellieri tells us he took a piece of cloth for one of his armorial bearings in memory of it.) was yet a patron of art. Highly famed under Urban VIII. the preceding Pontiff, Bernini had been misrepresented by his rivals to Innocent. In an unpublished Diary of Giacinto Gigli, Cancellieri finds that he was taken so seriously ill on St. Peter's Day, 1641 (This date, however, must be incorrect, as Innocent X. only began to reign in 1644. This grandiose Campanile is described at length, and a plate of it given in Fontana, 'Descrizione del tempio Vaticano,' p. 262, et seq. It was 360 ft. in height.) that his life was for some time despaired of, in consequence of his Campanile--a specimen one of two he had designed for St. Peter's--being disapproved by the Pope and ordered to be taken down. Another cognate tradition he gives from a MS. Diary of Valerio is, that in digging the foundations for this tower a 'canale d'acqua' was discovered deeper than the bed of the Tiber and wide enough to go on it in a boat; Mgr. Costaguti, maggiordomo of his Holiness, told me about it himself, and he had had himself let down to see it. As it had a sandy bottom, it washed away the foundations of the tower, and rendered it impossible to leave it standing. The water came from Anguillara' (on Lake Bracciano, about 28 miles) 'and the Pope had the old conduit reconstructed and used the water for many fountains in imitation of Sixtus V. (He does not specify what pope, and the wording used seems to imply Innocent X., but this aqueduct is always ascribed to Paul V., twenty years earlier, and is called the Acqua Paola.) He goes on to add an extraordinary account of a Dragon quite of the legendary type, that was found in charge of this water, and was killed, not by a hero or a knight, but, by the labourers working at the conduit.

               It was Innocent X.'s ambition to remove the great obelisk (since called 'Obelisco Pamfilio') which lay in three pieces in the Circo di Massenzio, near the Appian Way, and to set it up in Piazza Navona. Bernini being, as I have said, in disfavour, other architects were commissioned to offer designs for the work; but the Pope was not satisfied with any of them, and the matter stood over. Meantime Piombino (Niccolò Ludovisi) who had married a niece of the Pope's, and who was a great friend of Bernini, privately instructed him to send him a model of what he would suggest for the purpose, saying he wanted it for his own satisfaction, lest Bernini should refuse the unauthorised competition. Bernini then produced the elaborate conception which has been so warmly extolled by some and so hastily blamed by others, but which cannot be judged without a prolonged study of all the poetical allegories and conceits it was his intention to embody.

               The Pope went to the house of Donna Olimpia in Piazza Navona to dine after the Procession to the Minerva on the Annunciation, (Described in Cancellieri, 'Descrizione delle Cappelle Ponteficie,' cap. x.) and she placed the model in a room through which the Pope must pass after dinner. It did not fail to arrest his notice, and he was so much struck with it that he spent half an hour examining it in detail and listening to the explanation of its emblematical devices. At last he exclaimed, 'It can be by no other hand than Bernini's! and he must be employed in spite of all that may be said against him!' From that time Bernini was once more all that he had been before in Rome (Mercato, § ix.). When Innocent saw the great work completed, and the water of the four rivers for the first time gushing from it, he declared to Bernini he had given him pleasure great enough to add ten years to his life; and he sent over to Donna Olimpia for a hundred 'Doppie' (In Melchiorri's table of Roman moneys he gives the value (in 1758, a hundred years later) of a doppio as 4 scudi 40 bajocchi; and of a doppia at 6 scudi, 42 bajocchi. It appears to be the latter the Pope sent for.) to distribute among the workmen. Subsequently he had a medal struck with the inscription Agonalium cruore abluto Aqua Vergine, in allusion to the games of which Piazza Navona is supposed (Dyer says it was the Stadium of Domitian, and Becker, that there is no proof it was ever a circus.) to have been the scene, and the 'Vergine' aqueduct from which the fountains were supplied. 'Papa Pamfili' also restored St. John Lateran, and undertook many other works, but was somewhat hampered by the discontent of the people at the expense, expressed in the following pasquinades:

'Noi volemo altro che guglie e fontane:         
Pane volemo, pane! pane! pane!'


'Ut lapides isti panes fiant!'

               To return to Donna Olimpia. One of the pasquinades on her preserved in Cancellieri from Gigli's diary, refers to an accusation against her, that she had been very liberal both to religious communities and to the people until her brother-in-law (Cancellieri calls Innocent her cognato, and cognato in common conversation now is used for a cousin. Bazzarini explains it as 'any relationship by marriage.') was made Pope, and that when that object was attained she ceased her bounty. Pasquin wrote upon this, 'Donna Olimpia fuerat olim pia, nunc impia.'

               Another declared that the said brother-in-law 'Olympiam potius quam Olympum respicere videbatur,' an accusation he declares to have been invented solely for the sake of punning, and without any truth, on faith of the character given him by his biographers, and of the fact that he was more than seventy-one when raised to the Papacy, and so deformed and ugly that Guido put his portrait under the feet of the archangel in his famous picture of St. Michael. (Mercato, Appendix, n. 4 to N. x.) She was, however, sometimes inexcusable in her haughty caprices, as, for instance, when she invited five and twenty Roman ladies to see a pageant, and then asked only eight of them to sit down to table with her, leaving the remainder 'mortificate alle finestre;' and frequently more free than choice in her mots. Her grandchildren seem to have inherited this freedom of speech; Gigli (quoted by Cancellieri, Mercato § xvi. and xx.) records in his Diary that the eldest of them, Giambattista, being asked one day by the Pope, who took great notice of him, if he had seen St. Agnese in Piazza Navona, which he was then building, replied (though only seven years old), 'I have not seen it yet; but you, if you don't make haste, won't live to see it completed.' It would seem to have been a popular prophecy which the child had caught up, and it so happens that the event bore it out.

               There is nothing, however, which shows the heartless character of Donna Olimpia more glaringly than her refusal to pay a farthing to bury the Pope, alleging she was 'only a poor widow!' and this, though the Pope had not only 'favoured her so much as to endanger his reputation,' (MS. life of his successor Alex. VII. by Card. Pallavicini, quoted by Novaes: Storia de' Sommi Pontefici, x. 61.) but had handed to her all his disposable property on his deathbed. Donna Olimpia so utterly abandoned his body that it was carried down into a lumber-room where workmen kept their tools, and one poor labourer had the charity to buy a tallow candle to burn beside it, and another paid some one to watch it, to keep the mice off which abounded there. Finally, a Mgr. Scotti, his maggiordomo, paid for a coffin of 'albuccio,' (Nothing better than deal, I believe.) and a former maggiordomo, whom he had dispossessed, gave five scudi (returning good for evil) to pay the expenses of burying him. It was not till twelve years later that he had a fitting funeral in S. Maria dell' Anima.

               When a few months after Innocent's death Donna Olimpia endeavoured to put herself on her old footing at the Vatican Court, by sending a valuable present of some gold vases to Alexander VII., that Pope testified his appreciation of her by returning her offering; adding the message that she was not to take the trouble to visit his palace, as it was no place for women. (Mercato, § xxi.) There was subsequently some angry correspondence between her and this Pope concerning the delays occasioned by her parsimony in completing the church in Piazza Navona, and the consequent obstruction of the Piazza, a great inconvenience to the public on account of its use as a market-place. Finally he banished her from Rome, fixing her residence at Orvieto, where she fell a victim to the plague two years after.

               Her palace in Piazza Navona became in 1695 the residence of Lord Castlemaine, ambassador of James II. to the Holy See. He had an ox roasted whole before it, and other bounties distributed to the people on occasion of the birth of 'The Pretender.'

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Donna Olimpia
Tale Author/Editor: Busk, Rachel Harriette
Book Title: Roman Legends: A Collection of the Fables and Folk-lore of Rome
Book Author/Editor: Busk, Rachel Harriette
Publisher: Estes and Lauriat
Publication City: Boston
Year of Publication: 1877
Country of Origin: Italy
Classification: unclassified

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