Here is an assignment that would send deep panic through my writerly self: Please write, in 500 pages or less, a history of Popes from the beginning to the present day.
Roger Collins has risen to the task magnificently! Written with clarity and verve, Keeps of the Keys of Heaven: A History of the Papacy is an approachable and deeply satisfying read on the big History (big H) of Popes that is interwoven with lots of intriguing behind-the-scenes history (little h).
For example, who knew that a woman named Donna Olimpia was the first and only woman ever permitted to address the secret-shrouded conclave following the death of Pope Innocent X, in 1655?
Donna Olimpia was the pope’s sister-in-law and had been rumored to be his mistress. She was a formidable business woman who shepherded the family fortune, while also making time to take over the licensing of brothels in Rome. Brothels, it seems, were regulated by the papal administration until Olimpia made the case that this was an activity completely unbecoming of God’s church. Makes sense.
My guess is that there was also a little bit of financial incentive for her work. In fact, as Collins explains, the licenses that appeared over the doorways of houses of ill-repute soon bore her family arms. Thus giving her then nickname of La Pimpessa.
Ever curious, I have an email out to my colleagues who teach Italian for the full 17th century vocabularies of Italian Madams. I’m so curious about the play on words between Pimpessa and Papessa–which were, it seems, Olimpia’s nicknames.
Professor Collins will also be here on Thursday to talk about Popes and booze. Amen.
And for those of you who can’t get enough of Church trivia, you might take a peek at this gem about the Virgin’s fertility belt.
Sacred Relic or Heavenly Accessory