Cover image for The Vatican's women : female influence at the Holy See
The Vatican's women : female influence at the Holy See
Hofmann, Paul, 1912-2008.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : St. Martin's Press, 2002.
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xv, 207 pages ; 22 cm
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BX2347.8.W6 H64 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Four hundred of the 3,800 people who permanently live or work in the State of Vatican City, the smallest sovereign and independent state on the globe, are women. They are nuns and members of the laity; some are housekeepers of churchmen; others are secretaries, translators, editors, lawyers, and middle-level officials of the papal administration.

Expansive in scope and enlightening in detail, The Vatican's Women recalls women who wielded power in the Vatican, including St. Catherine of Siena, Queen Christina of Sweden, Mother Pascalina (Pope Pius XII's longtime housekeeper and confidante), and Mother Teresa. With an unflinching eye, Paul Hofmann examines the papacy's reaction to Catholic women's (and nuns') liberation, and women's struggles, especially today, to fortify their positions within the Church. The Vatican's Women is a thorough and revealing exploration that will herald a new level of insight and dialogue amongst feminists, theologians, and laypeople alike.

Author Notes

Paul Hofmann was a foreign correspondent for The New York Times for almost thirty-five years and was chief of its Rome Bureau. He is the author of many nonfiction books, including Seasons of Rome and That Fine Italian Hand . He lives in Rome.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

One can see the eyebrows rising. "Female influence in the Holy See?" Hofmann's entertaining survey shows that that isn't a blank-slate topic, though the scope of women's sway in the Vatican has been overwhelmingly practical. The first 60 pages review the record, beginning with the ninth-century legend of Pope Joan, boosted by no lesser a literary lion than Boccaccio. Genuine historical figures include mistresses, relatives (e.g., Lucrezia Borgia, entrusted with running the Vatican in her father Pope Alexander VI's absence); royalty (notably, Sweden's abdicated queen, Christina); saints (Catherine of Siena and, if all goes as seems likely, Mother Teresa of Calcutta); and a housekeeper, Pius XII's devoted "Mother" Pascalina. The rest of the book considers women in the Vatican today--officials, office workers, service employees, and residents of Vatican state territory--and their complaints about such matters as "the purple ceiling" and "curial romances." Hofmann's 35-year resident correspondence for the New York Times stands him in good stead here and accounts, perhaps, for some breezy disingenuousness about Catholic doctrine regarding the males-only priesthood. Ray Olson

Publisher's Weekly Review

How do women influence the inner workings of the male-dominated Roman Catholic Church when the door to priesthood remains closed to them? To find out women's impact on the Vatican, Hoffman, a former Rome bureau chief for the New York Times, conducted interviews with more than 40 representatives of the church's distaff side and did historical research aided by two of the Vatican's women professionals. He learned that although they are barred from many official positions of authority, women have managed to exercise persuasive power at the Vatican into the present day. Indeed, some of Hoffman's strongest examples are of women who wielded great power while assuming traditional and even subservient roles. Chief among these was Mother Pascalina, a Bavarian nun who spent more than 40 years attending to the personal needs of Pope Pius XII, and who had so much influence that she was referred to by some as "the popess." This book is as much about the Vatican as it is about women and is full of interesting, gossipy tidbits drawn from the author's years of working and living in Rome. Although such details make for interesting reading and will certainly attract readers with a taste for scandal and rumor, their inclusion detracts from what otherwise might have been a more serious study of the role of women in the church. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Now over 90 years old, Hofmann, who served as foreign correspondent and Rome bureau chief for the New York Times, offers a glimpse into women's activities and powers within Vatican City, historical and contemporary. A cradle Catholic turned agnostic, the Vienna-born author covers everything from the Pope Joan legends to real-life stories of today's religious and laywomen working at the Vatican while also supplying information on the daily life and bureaucratic structures of the state. Though written in the engaging style of an insider and professional writer, the book is peppered with innuendo, conjecture, and heasay, as interviewed sources chose to remain anonymous. While pointing to women's genuine contributions within the Church's central administration over the years, Hofmann steadily focuses on the Vatican's lacunae regarding women and hardly at all on the spirituality of those the Holy See serves. Libraries owning the author's other publications (e.g., O Vatican! A Slightly Wicked View of the Holy See) may wish to purchase.-Anna M. Donnelly, St. John's Univ. Lib., Jamaica, NY (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



I THE POPESS COMPLEX T hrough the centuries Roman gossip and folklore bestowed the nickname "popess" on various women who were believed to wield undue power or influence at the summit of the church. The prototype of them all--whether a myth or (less likely) a historical figure--was supposed to have actually been pontiff herself for some time and to have performed credibly in the job until she was unmasked by biology. The story of "Popess Joan" was generally accepted as true until the end of the Middle Ages. The New Catholic Encyclopedia 1 recalls that Jan Hus, the Bohemian religious reformer, reproached the assembled prelates and theologians at the Council of Constance (1414--18) "with Popess Joan whose existence no one denied." Bringing up the unwelcome old tale didn't do any good to Hus; the council condemned him as a heretic for doctrinal reasons (not for the Popess Joan story) and had him burned at the stake in 1415. The saga of Popess Joan (in Latin: Papissa Iohanna) comes in different versions, narrated by chroniclers and preachers of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. They all apparently drew their material from an old Roman popular and clerical tradition, which may have had its origins in the notorious role that the influential and manipulative women of the Theophylactus clan (see below) played in the early tenth century. The written sources, including reports by Dominican and Franciscan authors, have as their subject a woman, either German or English, usurping the papal throne for a brief period in the ninth, tenth, or eleventh century. The female impostor's real name is variously supposed to have been Agnes, Gilberta, Glaucia, or--in German--Jutta. The most widely accepted account was that of the Polish Dominican friar Martin of Troppau (now Opava in the Czech Republic, near the Polish border). According to Friar Martin, Pope Leo IV (847--55), a Roman, was succeeded by one Iohannes Angelicus ("English John" or "Angelic John"?) who styled herself John VIII; nobody suspected that the new head of the church was a woman. A native of Mainz in Germany, she completed her studies in Athens, Friar Martin reports. When she was to return home, disguised as a man, she stopped in Rome. In the papal city she impressed everybody with her learning, was prevailed upon to stay, and became an ecclesiastical notary. She soon was made a cardinal and, after Leo IV's death, was elected pope. She exercised the pontifical office with competence and dignity until her true sex was discovered. Secretly she had taken a lover and had become pregnant, concealing her condition under her heavy liturgical vestments. During a papal procession on the road leading from the Colosseum to the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the historic see of the bishops of Rome, labor pains set in and she gave birth, prematurely it seems, to a male infant near the Church of St. Clement. This church was erected in the fourth century and dedicated to the third successor of the Apostle Saint Peter; it was rebuilt in the early twelfth century, still exists today, and is the best-preserved medieval basilica in Rome. That Popess Joan's deception was clamorously uncovered near that church, now known as San Clemente, is unanimously affirmed by Martin of Troppau and the other chroniclers, although they disagree on many other details. The impostor's punishment is variously described. The consensus is that she and her child died or were put to death. Popular speculation inevitably surrounded the case with lurid fantasies, alleging among many other things that the father of the popess's baby was Satan. According to the Vatican's official chronology of the pontiffs, Saint Leo IV was succeeded in 855 by Benedict III, a Roman who reigned for less than three years, and was followed by Saint Nicholas the Great, another Roman (858--67). An antipope, Anastasius, known as the Librarian, is listed between brackets as having claimed the papal throne for just a few days in 855 and having died in 880. A Pope John VIII (872--882) is well documented because he prevented the Saracens who had invaded southern Italy from entering Rome by promising them an annual tribute; he was also deeply involved in the politics and wars of Charlemagne's successors and of various nobles in Italy. For the Vatican today, a female John VIII never existed. In the minds of the Romans, however, the story of Popess Joan was reinforced by the discovery during the Renaissance of an ancient statue representing a male or female god or priest--accounts differ--with a serving boy. It was dug up near the traditional route of papal processions. On a stone nearby was a Latin inscription that was interpreted in different ways. Both finds were on display for some time near the Church of San Clemente, but Pope Saint Pius V (1566--72) is said to have ordered the removal of both the statue and the inscription; there is no trace of either anywhere today. A sculpture, believed to represent Popess Joan, was placed, together with statues of other popes, in the Cathedral of Siena, Tuscany, about the year 1500, but it too has disappeared. Popess Joan's supposed moment of truth near the Church of San Clemente is believed to have prompted medieval popes to change the route of their traditional procession from what is today Via di San Giovanni in Laterano to the parallel street, Via dei Santi Quattro, to avoid passing the spot. Whenever the pope today visits the Lateran, he arrives there either by helicopter or by car with an escort of security officers on motorcycles, taking various routes, depending on the traffic situation. No formal papal cortege takes place in the area anymore. The Church of San Clemente has long been in the charge of Irish Dominicans. An early literary adaptation of the Popess Joan tale can be found in De Claris Mulieribus (Concerning Famous Women), which Giovanni Boccaccio wrote in Latin between 1355 and 1359.2 The book by the French-born, Florentine-educated poet and novelist is probably the first collection of women's biographies in world literature. Its tone is much more sober than his famous Decameron , written twenty years earlier in sparkling and often mocking Tuscan idiom. De Claris Mulieribus is evidence of the interest in women and sympathy for them that mark Boccaccio's entire oeuvre. Popess Joan is no. 99 in a gallery of 104 portraits of female protagonists, starting with Eve. Many of them are mythical, like Semiramis, Juno, or Helen of Troy; others are historical, like Julia, the daughter of Julius Caesar, and Ioanna, queen of Sicily, Naples, and Jerusalem (no. 104). Boccaccio did not include early Christian martyrs or medieval saints in his series of notable women. The Joan who was to occupy the papal throne is characterized as "a woman whose unheard-of audacity made her known to the whole world and posterity." Boccaccio gives credit to the theory that she was a native of Mainz on the Rhine and that her original name was Gilberta. Still young, she had an affair with a student and "cast away maidenly fear and shame and fled from her father's house" to study, dressed as a man, with her lover in England. There everyone took her for a brilliant young cleric. When her lover died, she went to Rome, "already mature in years" (which in Boccaccio's time may have meant in her early thirties), and lectured there for a number of years. Boccaccio places the start of Joan's pontifical adventure in the period after the death of Pope Leo V in 903, although most sources date it at 855, following Saint Leo IV's death. The cardinals, the writer reports, unanimously elected her to the papacy with the name of John VIII. "A woman, then, was the Vicar of Christ on earth. God, from on high, was merciful to his people and did not allow a woman to hold so lofty a place, govern so many peoples, and deceive them with such a wicked fraud." Many readers of Boccaccio in his own day would have sensed authorial irony in these lines. He stresses that Joan until then had been "remarkably virtuous" but having arrived at the pinnacle of the church, "fell prey to the ardor of lust." She found "someone who would secretly mount St. Peter's successor and assuage her lecherous itching." She became pregnant and publicly gave birth between the Colosseum and the Church of St. Clement "without the presence of a midwife." The cardinals threw the "wretched woman" into a dungeon, where she died. No mention of her child. Boccaccio notes that "down to our times" [the mid-fourteenth century] the popes during their traditional processions from the Colosseum to the Lateran at the halfway point turn away to take an alternate route because of their hatred of the place." The story of Popess Joan, endorsed by a writer of Boccaccio's stature, became a favorite theme of the pamphleteers of the Protestant Reformation. The Jesuit scholar and cardinal Saint Robert Bellarmine (1542--1621) and other Roman Catholic apologists confuted it as a fable. They received authoritative support from the French Protestant minister and historian David Blondel (1591--1655), who in two treatises, displaying his profound scholarship, declared the tradition of a woman on the papal throne to be a myth. Almost all reputable modern historians likewise reject the Popess Joan story. A raunchy byproduct is the Roman folk tale of a secret rite performed after each papal election: before proclaiming the new head of the church, the cardinals have him sit on a chair with an opening in the seat and a young cleric crouches underneath to make sure by hand that the newly chosen personage possesses male genitals. Some collectors of historical anecdotes assert that the bodily examination was performed until the end of the sixteenth century or even later. Today quite a few Romans earnestly insist that the test of papal manhood is still a part of secret conclave procedures. This hardy perennial of local folklore may have originated from popular reinterpretation of the function of perforated marble or porphyry chairs ( sellae pertuseae ) dug up in the ruins of ancient thermae , or public baths, during excavations in the Renaissance era. How deeply the story or legend of Popess Joan is rooted in popular culture in Italy, France, and other Roman Catholic countries may be seen from her appearance in card games. Popess, complete with triple crown on her head and baby in her arms, is included in old decks of cards along with such characters as Hermit and Justice. Scheming Females Undoubtedly historical, on the other hand, were Theodora and Marozia, whose memory may have given rise to the popess story. Edward Gibbon in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire calls them "two sister prostitutes" whose wealth, beauty, and scheming produced their enormous influence on ecclesiastical politics in the early tenth century. "The most strenuous of their lovers," Gibbon indignantly proceeds, "were rewarded with the Roman miter ... . The bastard son, the grandson and the great-grandson of Marozia, a rare genealogy, were seated in the chair of St. Peter." The English historian--who early in life had converted to Roman Catholicism, only to return soon to the Protestant faith--was never indulgent of the Church of Rome (or Christianity in general), yet he discounted "the fable of a female pope." Marozia and Theodora domineered in Rome in a turbulent epoch, the nadir of the papacy. The city was haphazardly run by a clique of nobles to which the sisters' family belonged. The lords of Tusculum, ensconced in their fortress in the hillside twenty-five miles southeast of Rome, as well as the Frankish marquesses of Tuscany to the north and the German emperors of the Saxon dynasty, who with their troops periodically invaded Italy, continually interfered in the affairs of church government. Popes were created, controlled, humiliated, insulted, mistreated, deposed, imprisoned, and murdered at the whims of powerful outsiders. One of the pontiffs of that dark era, Sergius III (904--11), had as his mistress Marozia, a daughter of Theophylactus, a papal dignitary, and of Theodora the Elder who claimed the title of senatrix (woman senator). The pope's licentious affair is reported by the Liber Pontificalis (Pontifical Book), a collection of medieval chronicles and biographical information concerning early popes that is an important source of church history, repeatedly quoted by the official Vatican yearbook ( Annuario Pontificio ) of our age. In 931 Marozia had one of her sons, supposedly by Pope Sergius III, elected pontiff with the name of John XI. He nominally reigned for five years, a virtual prisoner in the Vatican, while his mother was in effect wielding pontifical powers for some time--a "popess" in all but name. Marozia was thrice married: to Alberic I, duke of Spoleto, in 905; to Guido, marquess of Tuscany, in 925; and to Hugh, a Burgundian who styled himself "king of Italy," in 932. The elevation of her and (presumably) Pope Sergius III's son to the papacy as John XI signaled the peak of her power. Her downfall came quickly. Another son (by her first husband), Alberic II, fomented an uprising of the Roman nobility and had her captured. Marozia was imprisoned in the Castel Sant'Angelo near the Vatican, and nothing was heard of her after the rebellion. She may have died of natural causes or violently in the papal fortress. Marozia's son Alberic II governed Rome and the church sternly, though not as a pope, and on his deathbed in 954 had the cowed nobles and prelates swear to make his son Octavian the next pope as soon as the pontifical throne was vacant. After the death of the powerless Pope Agapitus II in 955, Octavian was indeed elected pontiff, assuming the name John XII; he was not yet twenty years old. A respected Lombard chronicler, Liutprand, reports that Marozia's grandson John XII turned the Lateran Palace--then the papal residence--into a "school of prostitution" and that his outrageous conduct prevented female would-be pilgrims from visiting the tombs of the Apostles Peter and Paul, meaning Rome, for fear of rape. It took more than another hundred years filled with scandal, violence, confusion, and schisms--with nearly thirty popes and antipopes--before the forceful Benedictine monk Hildebrand of Tuscany, as Pope Gregory VII, managed to reform the church. Among other things, he enforced the rule of celibacy for all clerics under his obedience. He humbled the German emperor Henry IV at Canossa in 1077, only to be driven by him into exile a few years later. Rome proclaimed Gregory VII a saint in 1728. When he was at the height of his political power at the Castle of Canossa, north of Bologna, in 1077, Gregory VII was the guest of Matilda, duchess or margravine of Tuscia (Tuscany). During three decades the well-educated, rich, and influential Matilda, known in her time as the "great countess," lent her support to four consecutive pontiffs against the German (Holy Roman) emperors. In a rare gesture of Vatican gratitude for a woman, Pope Urban VIII, a Florentine, had her remains transferred to Rome and reburied in St. Peter's in 1635. The "great countess" bequeathed her vast estates to the church, but the papacy was able to take possession of only some of them, while others were won by different claimants. Catherine's Letters Another exceptional woman, the visionary and mystic Saint Catherine of Siena (1347--80), could offer the head of the church only advice and prayers, yet her impact on the papacy was of historic importance. Only twenty-nine years old but already considered a living saint, she went to Avignon, France, to urge Pope Gregory XI to end the nearly seventy-year "Babylonian captivity" of the pontiffs and take the government of the church back to Rome. Astonishingly, the illiterate quasinun in the long black cape of a penitent persuaded Gregory, an erudite Frenchman, to take just that momentous step, against the opposition of his cardinals and court and despite great odds. Caterina Benincasa, the twenty-fourth of twenty-five children of a moderately well-to-do dyer with a large house on the outskirts of Siena, never went to school. As a late-born girl, she never received any formal education and could speak only her soft Sienese dialect. Yet most of the nearly four hundred letters that she dictated to disciples were addressed to popes, the emperor, military leaders, and other important personages and were taken seriously by them. (She wrote also to a prostitute in Perugia and to the prison inmates of Siena.) Her prose in the vernacular of Tuscany--used also by Dante in the Divine Comedy --has enriched the Italian language and literature. At the age of six Saint Catherine experienced her first seizure, or vision. Soon she began observing a regimen of fasting and self-mortification, committing herself to lifelong poverty, chastity, and obedience. At fifteen she was admitted into the Third Order of the Dominicans. As a mere tertiary (a layperson associated with a religious order), she never took formal vows. She restricted herself to a narrow room, her "cell," in her father's house. Near the end of her life one of her followers gave her a former fortress of the republic of Siena on the Belcaro Hill, three miles northwest of the city walls, and she had it transformed into a convent with a chapel. By her early twenties Saint Catherine must have possessed remarkable charisma; she was credited with miraculous powers and gathered a group of devotees around herself. She also became a kind of one-woman lobby for the papacy and for peace in a tempestuous epoch. The main instrument of her pressure tactics were those famed letters, of which 370 have been conserved (she probably wrote more, which have been lost). Some were translated into Latin, then the language of educated people all over Europe. Saint Catherine repeatedly insisted that it wasn't she who admonished the recipients of her letters but God, who spoke through her. The style is muscular, even authoritarian. The word virile recurs; letter 233 exhorts Pope Gregory XI to act "virilely." Catherine's metaphors are homespun: "Let's not sleep in the bed of negligence," "the demons flee from divine charity the way the housefly escapes ..." The Siena dyer's daughter traveled to Avignon in 1376 as an ambassador from the republic of Florence, which then was in conflict with the pope and had been struck by him with the interdict, the suspension of sacraments and other spiritual benefits. Gregory XI in a formal audience addressed the young woman in Latin; she fearlessly answered in the Sienese dialect, which was rendered into Latin by her father confessor, closest friend, and future biographer, Raimondo of Capua, a Dominican. Saint Catherine stayed in Avignon the entire summer of 1376, continually entreating the pope by speech and letter to move the Holy See permanently back to Rome. The proposed move caused outrage in the papal court, particularly among the "ladies of Avignon," the influential female relatives and mistresses of cardinals and other prelates; they detested the thought of abandoning the good life in the French city and its rambling papal palace. Gregory XI, however, did make the epochal decision. He left his palace on horseback on September 13, 1376, despite the tears and cries of his own mother, and in Marseilles he embarked on a sea voyage that at one point threatened to end in shipwreck. Catherine followed the pontiff in part on land, in part by sea, and met him again in Genoa before returning to Siena. At the end of a rough voyage with various stopovers, Pope Gregory XI arrived in Rome on January 13, 1377. Riding a white mule like Jesus in Jerusalem, the French pontiff was cheered by the Roman populace and took up residence in the Vatican. The Eternal City was then a scruffy place of at most thirty thousand souls, full of the abandoned ruins of past grandeur, with foxes and even wolves roaming in the underbrush. Soon after his arrival Gregory XI sent Saint Catherine, who had remained in Siena, to Florence on a peace mission. There, she lived through local riots and once had to hide in a garden to escape a murderous mob, but she eventually brought about an accord between the Florentines and the Holy See. Pope Gregory XI had meanwhile died and an Italian, Urban VI, was elected as his successor. The French cardinals who had reluctantly followed Gregory XI to Rome declared Urban VI's election null and void and chose an antipope, Robert of Geneva, who styled himself Clement VII and moved back to Avignon. The Great Schism was on, and would last until the Council of Constance (1414--18), when the split in the Western church would be ended by the election of Pope Martin V, a Roman. The pontiff in the Vatican, Urban VI, in the face of the ecclesiastical rebellion, called Saint Catherine to Rome and asked her to address the cardinals who had remained loyal to him. She came and resolutely backed Urban VI against his rival in Avignon. Catherine stayed in Rome, living in a house near the Pantheon with her mother and two dozen male and female disciples. Every day she walked to St. Peter's on the opposite side of the Tiber and spent hours in prayer there. Weakened by arthritis and undernourishment brought on by unceasing fasting, she died on April 29, 1380. Saint Catherine was canonized by Pope Pius II, a native of a town near Siena, in 1461. Her remains rest in the main altar of the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, near the Pantheon in Rome, which is in charge of the Dominican order. The saint's head, enclosed in a reliquary, was transferred to Siena and is revered there in a chapel of the Church of San Domenico, a shrine of the Dominicans. Pope Pius XII in 1939, shortly before the outbreak of World War II, proclaimed Saint Catherine of Siena the heavenly copatron of Italy, together with Saint Francis of Assisi. Pope Paul VI in 1970 solemnly pronounced the illiterate dyer's daughter to be a Doctor of the Church, a posthumous rank she shares with such eminent philosophers and theologians as Saint Thomas Aquinas. Acting Pope Lucrezia Fast-forward to the beginning of the sixteenth century. In that turbulent--though culturally immensely productive--epoch the papacy was deeply embroiled in Italian and European power politics. Rome had become a byword for nepotism, greed, corruption, and immorality. Pope Alexander VI, the former Rodrigo Borja (italianized into Borgia ), was ruling the church in the style of a secular Renaissance prince. He astutely maneuvered among the major Italian powers--the duchy of Milan, the republic of Venice, and the Spanish-governed kingdom of Naples--as well as among the smaller states and lordships. King Charles VIII of France had just invaded the Italian peninsula with thirty thousand soldiers and marched almost unopposed across Tuscany and the papal territories, as far south as Naples. On his way back with an army that the "Neapolitan disease" (syphilis) and other mishaps had reduced to ten thousand men, Charles VIII was still strong enough to inflict a humbling defeat at Fornovo, near Bologna, in 1495 on the numerous troops of an Italian "Holy League" alliance backed by Pope Alexander VI. The commanding general of the Italian coalition, Duke Francesco Gonzaga of Mantua, all the same claimed that he had actually won at Fornovo, but Europe wasn't duped, and King Charles VIII with the remainder of his army reached France as a victor in the Italian wars. In the late summer of 1501 Alexander VI left Rome in high spirits to inspect the towns and fortresses south and east of the city that his son, Cesare Borgia, with his mercenaries had just wrested from Roman nobles. The conquests were to be incorporated into the papal state. For the duration of his absence from Rome the Spanish pontiff left his daughter Lucrezia Borgia in charge of the Vatican. She was given full authority to run the papal administration, to open all letters addressed to the head of the church, except those dealing with strictly ecclesiastical matters (how could she know their contents unless she broke the seals?), and to take appropriate action. Thus, at the age of twenty-one, Lucrezia for a few weeks was in effect a deputy pontiff. The old sobriquet popess was again heard in Rome. Some people in the Vatican, both in the city and abroad, were shocked, but many Romans didn't consider it very odd that the head of the church--in open violation of the law of priestly celibacy--had children by his mistresses and employed them in ecclesiastical governance. In Renaissance Rome, children of popes, cardinals, and lesser prelates (sometimes declared to be their "nephews" and "nieces") abounded and enjoyed various privileges. Rather, the scandalous reputation that Lucrezia had already acquired caused some outrage. Lucrezia was beautiful: slim, of medium height, with long blond hair and gray-blue eyes. Pinturicchio, Alexander VI's favorite painter, is believed to have used the pope's adolescent daughter as his model for Saint Catherine of Alexandria in one of the frescoes of his Lives of the Saints cycle (1492--95) in a room of the Vatican's Borgia Apartment. This presumed likeness and the few other, less controversial portraits of an older Lucrezia that have survived show her with an oval face, a slightly receding chin, and full lips. When Lucrezia became virtually an acting pope, she already had an equivocal history--since late infancy she had been a passive or willing tool in the political machinations of her father and her brother Cesare. She was one of the children whom the future pope, then an influential cardinal, had by an attractive Roman woman of northern Italian descent, Vannozza Cattanei (or de Cataneis in the latinizing fashion of the epoch), the daughter of a humble painter. Lucrezia received a good education under the tutelage of a niece of her father (this one a real niece, not a clandestine daughter). Contemporary sources describe Alexander and Vannozza's girl as bright and fun-loving; she liked to dance and spoke good Latin in addition to Spanish, Italian, and French. Among themselves the Borgias conversed in the dialect of Alexander's native Valencia region. Lucrezia was said to have been able to read a little Greek, which at the time was as exceptional as it would be for a society woman today. At eleven years of age--not too early, according to the standards of noble families in that era--Lucrezia was already in the marriage market. Her father first promoted two consecutive engagements, each broken off when a seemingly more promising candidate turned up. Eventually she wed Count Giovanni Sforza, lord of Pesaro and a relative of the powerful duke of Milan. At thirteen, Lucrezia was countess of Pesaro, and briefly she lived with her husband in that fishing port on the Adriatic Sea but was evidently bored there and soon returned to Rome. Three years later Alexander VI and his son Cesare--who at eighteen had become a cardinal--decided that Lucrezia's husband had lost his political-military usefulness. A Vatican commission dissolved the marriage on the ground of nonconsummation. The count of Pesaro was thus given what amounted to a church certificate of impotence; he angrily reacted by spreading charges of incest in the Borgia family. Libelists gleefully took up the allegation and scoffed in Latin verses that Lucrezia had been bedded by her father, her brother, or both. The lubricious accusations, which were never proved, stuck to Lucrezia and the Borgia court through the centuries. Much more likely were insistent rumors that while waiting for her marriage annulment in Rome, Lucrezia had had an affair with a young Spanish chamberlain in her father's retinue, Pedro Calderón (whom everybody called Perotto). She may even have secretly given birth to a child by him in 1498. The fact is that the bodies of Calderón and of one of Lucrezia's personal maids, Pentesilea (who may have had a part in the amorous intrigue), were fished out of the Tiber. There is no record of Lucrezia's baby, if there was one. The river flowing past the papal fortress of Castel Sant'-Angelo, close to the Vatican, yielded any number of corpses during those somber years. In 1497 the body of Lucrezia's older brother Juan had been spotted in the Tiber; whispers all over Rome were that Cesare had commissioned the murder of his brother, a general, to get rid of a rival standing in the way of his limitless ambition. The following year Cesare Borgia shed his cardinal's purple to become an unencumbered player in Italian power politics. Alexander VI and Cesare now proceeded to the task of selecting one among several eager candidates for the hand of the pope's daughter. They picked a bastard member of the royal family of Naples, Alfonso of Aragon, duke of Bisceglie in Italy's Apulia region. The idea was to establish a new tie between the Vatican and the kingdom of Naples, theoretically a fiefdom of the papacy. Lucrezia continued living in the Vatican or in a nearby building, usually in the company of her second husband; she appeared to like him better than she did the first. Between parties and dances at the papal court, Lucrezia bore Alfonso a son, Rodrigo, who for most of his short life would live in southern Italy. Political alignments in those years were as unstable as mercury, and the Borgias found it advisable to seek a rapprochement with France, which was about to conquer the duchy of Milan. Eventually Alfonso, too, became an embarrassment because his family were enemies of the French. For some time Lucrezia's husband was sent back to Naples while Alexander asked her to serve as papal governor of Spoleto in Umbria, a church possession; she resided there in the huge fortress glowering on the city from a hilltop. In July 1500 Lucrezia's second husband, who had drifted back to Rome, was ambushed by unidentified thugs on the steps of St. Peter's at night and was grievously wounded. Bleeding, he was carried into the Apostolic Palace. Under the care of Lucrezia and his own sister, Sancha of Aragon, he slowly seemed to recover, but less than five weeks after the first aggression, a detachment of Cesare Borgia's troops burst into the papal apartment in the Vatican's Borgia Tower, arrested Alfonso's doctors, and strangled Lucrezia's husband in his sickroom. Lucrezia took her husband's murder badly, which appears to have surprised her father and brother. The twenty-year-old widow's screams filled the papal apartment, and she wept openly in the pope's presence, much to his annoyance. There was also open estrangement between Lucrezia and her brother Cesare, who until then had always been very close. Eventually she retired to a papal fortress in the ancient town of Nepi, north of Rome, to the pope's relief, it may be assumed. While Cesare Borgia with the support of French forces attempted to carve out a state of his own in the Romagna in the northeastern corner of central Italy, special envoys from various parts of Italy and from France arrived at the papal court--some just a few weeks after the assassination of Lucrezia's second husband--to ask for her hand on behalf of divers noblemen. Borgia power was then peaking, and association with the papal family seemed highly desirable to many ambitious and influential people. Alexander VI pondered how his recently bereaved daughter could be advantageously remarried. Lucrezia was back in Rome after a few months of mourning and solitude in Nepi, and was told of the negotiations for a third marriage. The Venetian ambassador reported home that once, when Alexander VI in front of courtiers admonished her in a fatherly tone to think of her future and mentioned one of her suitors, a southern Italian duke, Lucrezia's face hardened and she declined to discuss any matrimonial projects because "my husbands end up evilly." In the beginning of 1501 Lucrezia's mood appeared to have softened. Diplomatic contacts between the Vatican and Duke Ercole Id'Este of Ferrara were envisaging a marriage between his eldest son, Alfonso, and the pope's daughter. It looked like a brilliant match for the young widow: the Estes were one of Italy's oldest aristocratic families, and their duchy, Ferrara, was a solid little state, theoretically a papal vicariate but in reality sovereign. Alexander VI and Cesare Borgia favored the marital project because it would further the family's territorial aspirations. Lucrezia herself began to consider Alfonso d'Este as a possible third husband, and secret talks between the Vatican and Ferrara regarding such weighty matters as the young widow's dowry started. It was in part to emphasize Lucrezia's political importance in the eyes of the no-nonsense Ferrarese, and thus enhance her value in the bargaining process, that Alexander VI later in 1501 appointed her as his lieutenant with full powers to run the Vatican while he was absent from Rome. The pope recommended that whenever his daughter needed advice, she should turn to the dean of the Sacred College, Cardinal Jorge Costa, a Portuguese. Maria Bellonci in her well-researched biography of Lucrezia 3 relates that one day when the pope's young daughter and the aged cardinal were working together on a document, she assured Costa that she knew how to write. The Portuguese, as if to put her in her place as a mere woman, facetiously asked, "Ubi est penna vostra?" (Where is your pen?) and both broke into laughter, which echoed through the Apostolic Palace. (The double entendre sounds more ribald in spoken Latin than in English because of the assonance of penna and penis. ) On the whole, Lucrezia appears to have done a competent job as vice pope. Her father returned to Rome; the marriage pacts with the house of Este were perfected, signed, and sealed; and the Vatican became the setting for lavish festivities to celebrate Cesare Borgia's recent military successes and augur well for Lucrezia's matrimonial-dynastic fortunes. Scandals and a Wedding Two shocking episodes stand out, both involving Lucrezia as well as Cesare and the pope. Both are attested by Johannes Burchard, or Burkhard (italianized in Rome as Burcardo), from Strasbourg. The staid, well-off Alsatian had, as was usual in the Renaissance era, bought the office of master of ceremonies at the papal court; four hundred gold ducats had been the price. Burchard kept a diary, which survives, recording in detail what he did and saw in papal service, most of the time without commenting or expressing outrage. Several of his reports have been corroborated by other sources. Historians tend to believe that Burchard was accurate in his observations, although pro-Borgia apologists allege that he was secretly hostile to Alexander VI and his relatives, and invented things that never happened. Burchard's diary and, independently, a Florentine at the Vatican recorded that on Sunday, October 31, 1501, Pope Alexander VI, Cesare Borgia, and Lucrezia with their intimates dined in the Apostolic Palace. At the end of the banquet the doors were thrown open and fifty Roman courtesans, apparently rounded up in the streets by Cesare's soldiers, were brought into the hall. They were asked to dance, first clothed and then naked, with the men present. As the night proceeded, the prostitutes, now on all fours, had to compete for candied chestnuts that the revelers threw to the floor. The bacchanal ended with a contest among the men for the captive women, who seem to have been rewarded with money and other gifts before being dismissed. Eleven days later, if Burchard is to be believed, papal servants near the Vatican spotted a team of mares carrying loads of timber. The animals were freed from their burdens and taken into a courtyard of the Apostolic Palace. Four stallions from the papal stables were released into the courtyard, where they fought over the mares. Alexander VI and Lucrezia watched the bestial scene from a window and laughed heartily. The period of Vatican gaity before Lucrezia's third wedding also featured more refined entertainments--classical plays, including Plauto's Maenechmi (which bored Alexander VI), concerts, and dances. Lucrezia's solemn proxy wedding to Alfonso d'Este, who had not moved from Ferrara, on December 30, 1501, was surrounded by pageants and merrymaking all over Rome. Three days later Cesare Borgia starred in a bullfight in St. Peter's Square in a gold-embroidered costume, first on horseback as toreador, then on foot as matador. The square in front of the then badly dilapidated old Basilica of St. Peter must be imagined without the colonnades that Bernini would build sixty years later. Work on the grandiose new Church of St. Peter was to start in earnest only under Pope Julius II (1503--13), Michelangelo's patron. The Borgia apartment, brilliantly frescoed by Pinturicchio, is today a part of the sight-seeing circuit of the Vatican Museums. It now looks rather dark, but it was bright at the time of the Borgias because the buildings in front of it had not yet gone up. Julius II refused to use the rooms where "the accursed Borgias" had dwelled, and established his living quarters on the floor above them. On January 6, 1502, Lucrezia at last set out for Ferrara. Her retinue was made up of nearly a thousand persons--Roman and Ferrarese nobles, high prelates, Vatican lay officials, maids of honor, personal assistants, court jesters, servants, and a strong contingent of soldiers. A troop of pack mules carried chests with Lucrezia's dowry of seventy thousand gold ducats, which the papal treasury had somehow managed to scrape together, and the bride's rich personal jewelry. The 275-mile journey by way of Spoleto, Urbino, Rimini, and Bologna, interrupted by several stops to allow local authorities to pay homage to the pontiff's daughter, took more than three weeks. Lucrezia saw her new husband for the first time on the outskirts of Bologna, where he had ridden out to meet her without the restraints of ceremonial. In Ferrara the celebrations in which the entire city took part lasted a week. Duke Ercole I's court cooks came up with a new pasta variety in honor of Lucrezia: golden ribbons of dough meant to allude to her blond hair. Thus fettuccine was invented to become one of the glories of the rich Emilia-Romagna cuisine. Lucrezia's life in Ferrara is outside the scope of this book. She frequently corresponded with her father but would never see him again, and received several visits by her brother Cesare. Yet she gradually slipped out of the Borgia thrall, surviving the quick collapse of Borgia power after Pope Alexander VI's unexpected death in 1503, soon followed by Cesare Borgia's departure on a safe-conduct for Spain. In 1505 Duke Ercole I d'Este died, and Lucrezia, as wife of his eldest son, Alfonso, became duchess of Ferrara. In 1508 she bore her husband an heir (who would become Duke Ercole II), and later three other children. Always vying with her sisterin-law and perpetual rival, the brilliant Isabella d'Este, in displays of fashion and intellectual endeavors, Lucrezia gathered a coterie of poets (like Ariosto), artists (like Titian), and humanists around her. She received adulatory letters from such great Renaissance figures as Pietro Bembo, who was later to become a cardinal, and carried on a well-documented affair--mostly in writing--with Duke Francesco Gonzaga, Isabella's husband and the self-proclaimed victor in the Battle of Fornovo. Lucrezia's own husband, Duke Alfonso, was often absent from Ferrara to inspect gun foundries and fortresses, his consuming interest, and she increasingly occupied herself with Ferrarese public affairs. She looked after the dukedom's nunneries and monasteries, founded a convent, and through personal help in needy cases earned a measure of affection among the population. Lucrezia died in 1519. Vatican Queen Baroque Rome, as always brimming with gossip, was first thrilled, then amused, soon scandalized, and eventually bored by a royal eccentric from the north. As an exile in Rome, the former Queen Christina of Sweden (1626--89) was the guest of five consecutive popes and a fixture of the pontifical court. Her sensational abdication from the throne and her conversion from Lutheranism--the state church in her country--to the Roman Catholic faith in 1654 was hailed by champions of the Counter-Reformation as a triumph of the papacy. Ex-Queen Christina wasn't the first highborn Swedish woman who for religious reasons relocated to Rome. Three centuries earlier Saint Birgitta (or Bridget) of Sweden had moved there to be near the tombs of the Apostles Peter and Paul. Birgitta, then about fifty years old, was the widow of a Swedish nobleman and mother of eight children (including Saint Catherine of Sweden, an abbess). Her husband, Ulf Gudmarrson, had died during a pilgrimage with her to the famous Spanish shrine of St. James of Compostela. Saint Birgitta was a contemporary of Saint Catherine of Siena, but the two apparently never met. She reached literary fame in the late Middle Ages through her mystical Revelations , which was edited and translated into Latin by churchmen and was widely read all over Europe. She founded an order of nuns later known as the Brigittines, and sought to obtain papal recognition for it through the ecclesiastical bureaucracy in Rome, which was in permanent contact with Avignon, but it would take her twenty years to receive approval from Pope Urban V. Her charitable work made her very popular in Rome, where she died in 1373. Pope Boniface IX canonized her in 1391. The Church of Santa Brigida (Italian for Saint Birgitta) in the Piazza Farnese marks the house where the saint lived. But with all her holiness, piety, and good works, she never made a splash in Roman life as did ex-Queen Christina. Sweden in the seventeenth century was a major European power, which under King Gustavus II Adolphus had decisively intervened in the Thirty Years' War, deeply penetrating with its armies into the European continent. Gustavus Adolphus's daughter, Christina, was only six years old when she succeeded to the throne upon his death in the Battle of Lützen, Prussia (which the Swedes won), against the Catholic imperial forces in 1632. Until her eighteenth year Christina was under the tutelage of her father's chancellor, Count Axel Oxenstierna, and received a careful academic and diplomatic education while the able and loyal Oxenstierna was running the country very much like a king. She was a good student. When she assumed full royal powers, she became to her subjects the "king" of Sweden, not the queen; as in Hungary, the male style was used even when the ruler was a woman, which was just fine with her. Of rather short stature, Christina was convinced (probably with reason) that she was unattractive; she dressed carelessly and liked to wear heavy men's shoes or boots, yet from childhood always conducted herself with remarkable dignity. Something of an intellectual, she called the French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes to her splendid court (he caught a cold and died soon after arriving in Stockholm in 1650) and also patronized other foreign scholars, such as the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius. During her ten-year reign she behaved erratically, inexpertly and unsuccessfully dabbling in diplomatic negotiations to end the Thirty Years' War; showed no gratitude at all to her former mentor, Oxenstierna; and displayed a preference for distinguished foreigners such as the Spanish ambassador. She stubbornly resisted entreaties from the dignitaries of the realm that she should marry and produce an heir to the throne; eventually, in 1650, she designated her cousin, Charles X Gustavus, and his male descendants as the future rulers of Sweden. Christina's closest friend was a beautiful, young Swedish noblewoman, Ebba Sparre, to whom she would send passionate letters for many years before and after her abdication. Christina also became increasingly estranged from the Lutheran Church. On June 6, 1654, Christina renounced the throne in favor of her cousin Charles X Gustavus in a gloomy function in the presence of the estates of the realm in the castle of Uppsala, ordered her valet afterward to cut her hair, and at once left the country in male clothes under the name of Count Dohna. Christina made a confession of the Roman Catholic faith in Brussels and was publicly received into the church in the Hofkirche of Innsbruck in the Tyrol; from there she set out straight for the city of the popes. Her progress from the Alps to Rome was a triumph. A splendid white horse, a gift from Pope Innocent X, awaited her at the approaches to the Eternal City. She made an impressive entry, escorted by cardinals and pontifical noblemen, and was cheered by large crowds. The pope ceremonially received her in St. Peter's and administered Communion to her, after which he was her host at a banquet. The ex-queen was put up in the Vatican's Belvedere Pavillion--now a part of the pontifical museums--during her first three days in Rome. Later she resided with her little court in the Farnese Palace across the Tiber, erected more than a hundred years earlier by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese (later Pope Paul III) according to designs by famous architects, including Michelangelo. (The Palazzo Farnese today houses the French embassy to Italy.) Eventually Christina bought a palace off the right Tiber embankment, built by Cardinal Domenico Riario, which came with a pretty garden climbing the Janiculum Hill. (It is now the seat of an important national art collection.) For more than three decades the former queen resided in Rome with only brief interruptions--in 1656 and 1657 she visited Paris and in 1660 and 1667 she returned briefly to Sweden, getting a cool reception on both occasions. It is not evident whether she managed to see her friend Ebba, who meanwhile had gotten married. During Christina's second sojourn in Paris, she ordered or engineered the assassination of her majordomo, Monaldischi, because she was convinced of his disloyalty. The murder and its motivation didn't ruffle the French authorities of the day, nor did contemporary sources seem greatly disconcerted. When she renounced the throne, Christina had stipulated that she was entitled to a yearly appanage that would enable her to lead a dignified existence abroad. Over the years, however, the remittances from Stockholm dried up, and Christina failed to raise new money during her two trips to Sweden. Pope Alexander VII, who had succeeded Innocent X, granted the royal exile an annual allowance of twelve thousand scudi for life. Many archbishops had to live on less, but Christina would be plagued by financial worries for the rest of her days, also because her Roman household staff kept robbing her systematically and shamelessly. Pope Innocent XI, who didn't care for Christina, canceled her pension, deepening her money troubles. Alexander VII had appointed an influential cardinal, Decio Azzolini, as the former queen's counselor, clearly expecting him to check Christina's bizarre behavior. Over the years the ex-queen and her cardinal-guardian became close friends, and Azzolini eventually lived in her palace. The Romans, of course, were convinced they were lovers, and perhaps they were. During the first years of Christina's life in Rome, other prelates were said to be smitten by her; one Cardinal Colonna made a fool of himself by his reckless courtship and by putting on makeup to look younger. Roman gossip attributed to the former queen many lovers of either sex, especially during her first years in the city. Christina, who appeared awkward in female clothes, loved crossdressing and was rumored to be attracted above all by pretty young nuns. Despite her scandalous reputation, she stayed in close touch with the Vatican and saw cardinals and other high churchmen almost daily. At pontifical ceremonies in St. Peter's she occupied a privileged stall near the papal altar, but might lessen the solemnity with a sotto voce remark to a neighbor and a giggle. Christina's sardonic wit and sharp tongue were both celebrated and resented. In her old age she would say she had known four pontiffs well (Innocent X had died weeks after her arrival in Rome) but hadn't detected any common sense in any of them. She played a behind-the-scenes role in the election of four popes--Alexander VII (1655--67), Clement IX (1667-- 69), Clement X (1670--76), and Innocent XI (1676--89). She lobbied for one or the other of the candidates for the papacy and managed to communicate with her friend Cardinal Azzolini even though he was supposed to be sealed off from the outside world, together with the other cardinals-electors in secret conclave. The ex-queen must have felt she had become something like an unofficial member of the Sacred College of Cardinals. As she had done in Stockholm, Christina also befriended scholars, founding a royal academy (which after her death became the prestigious Arcadian Academy). Although chronically broke, whenever some money came Christina's way, she spent it extravagantly on her favorite of the moment. The papal court and Roman nobility had over the years grown tired of her antics and started neglecting her. In her sixties the former eminent ruler of Sweden was a short, fat, very shortsighted and bizarrely attired old lady with a double chin and a little beard, a friendly manner, and a pungent wit. Once again she nourished Roman gossip by starting to live with an attractive, young Italian singer, Angelina Giorgini. Christina jealously guarded her latest protégée in her palace, preventing her from seeing her two lovers, a sculptor and a priest. Early in 1689 the ex-queen suddenly decided she had to see southern Italy and took her houseguest with her on the trip. Shortly after their return to Rome, Christina died of pneumonia. When her companion decamped, helped by her mother and her priestly lover, she took away from the palace what they could carry. Pope Innocent XI, although he had detested Christina, assigned the royal convert a tomb beneath St. Peter's. She is one of the very few women whose remains rest among the sarcophagi of popes and princes in the grottoes under the pontifical altar. Christina's tomb is opposite that of Carola of Lusignano, the fifteenth-century queen of Cyprus and Jerusalem (the latter title fictitious). THE VATICAN'S WOMEN. Copyright (c) 2002 by Paul Hofmann. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010. Excerpted from The Vatican's Women: Female Influence at the Holy See by Paul Hofmann All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. IX
Prefacep. XI
I. The Popess Complexp. 1
II. Powerful Virginp. 29
III. Scholarship and Sanctityp. 51
IV. The Purple Ceilingp. 63
V. Computers and Cappuccinop. 81
VI. Curial Romancesp. 113
VII. Holy See Home Lifep. 139
VIII. Voices from the Vaticanp. 161
IX. What the Women Wantp. 183
Indexp. 201