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Women of the Vatican: Female power in a male world by Lynda Telford

14 January 2022

Sages or playthings? Suzanne Fagence Cooper investigates

SHOULD we feel sorry for Lucrezia Borgia? This is one of the questions raised by Telford’s history of women and the papacy. Throughout her study, Telford implies that the link between corruption and Rome is inevitable. Like the Emperor Augustus before him, the Pope wields secular as well as sacred authority, and this leads to nepotism and double-dealing. In her opening chapter, Telford leaps from the lascivious life of Messalina to early Christian in-fighting, scarcely drawing breath. And then she sets off to describe the vast narrative of the papacy, from St Peter to the 20th century (with a notable gap between 1700 and 1900).

In each section, she outlines how influential women — the daughters, mistresses, housekeepers, and sisters of the Pope — were treated, in the words of St Thomas Aquinas, as “misbegotten men”. Occasionally, like Olimpia Pamphilj, they were praised for bringing “a discreet slenderness” to the bloated papal household. Or, in the case of Felice delle Rovere, they acted as diplomats, opening up negotiations with the Queen of France, as “two sage women” together. However, if a woman tried to exert too much authority, she was denounced as “La Popessa”. Her position was always precarious. As Telford puts in, too often women were merely “brood mares or playthings”.

The history is unwieldy and full of action: there is a great deal of galloping between hill-towns, sieges, ransoms, and skirmishes. It is also very bloody, with numerous assassinations, rapes, and botched executions. “Cesare’s sinister henchman” lurks in the background of the chapter on the Borgias. Sometimes it would be good to take a step back from the details: to analyse and compare, for example, the strategies employed by three Renaissance women at the centre of the study — Isabella d’Este, Felice delle Rovere, and Lucrezia Borgia — whose lives and experiences overlapped.

There are other intriguing areas, glimpsed but never interrogated. Dante, Botticelli, and Bernini all appear briefly. We hear of diamonds and dowries, tapestries and fountains, but the use of artistic patronage as “soft power” to develop an aura of magnificence is never brought to the fore.

More seriously, the impact of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation on women’s roles is passed over, even in the chapter on Christina, Queen of Sweden, who goes over to Rome from Lutheranism. And only one of the women discussed at length is a nun. The figure of Mother Pascalina, and her close relationship with the papacy during the Second World War, opens up intriguing questions about the alternative authority of women in religious orders. They could not be treated, to use Aristotle’s phrase, as “a kind of soil, dirt actually, in which the man planted his seed”. Their influence was more easily disregarded — like Mother Pascalina, who supported Pius XII through the dark days of Mussolini, but “he never actually thanked her.”

Dr Suzanne Fagence Cooper is a cultural historian with an interest in Victorian and 20th-century Britain.


Women of the Vatican: Female power in a male world
Lynda Telford
Amberley Publishing £20
Church Times Bookshop £18

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