Friday, June 10, 2011

About a Mistress

In my latest post I mentioned about digging into this interesting work by Eleanor Herman about Olimpia Maidalchini. I found this book while poring over the shelves at FullyBooked at Bonifacio High Street about a month or so ago. Actually I first read some pages of it in a friend's ipad but it didn't catch my fancy then. It did when, with nothing particularly interesting in my hands and with a lot of time to kill, I finally came upon it in the history section.

 It would be imprecise to call it a novel, because it's not. I think it could comfortable called a resource, except that its written in such a way that it's different from the typically heavy and bearing history tomes about obscure figure that history has conveniently swallowed up. It's substantial but not heavy, entertaining and juicy but not frivolous. Yep, just the right mix. I enjoyed reading it I had finished by the time I arrived back in Tacloban.
The book cover discloses very little about the author, Eleanor Herman, who had also written other books on historical matters. She had hosted episodes for the National Geographic Channel and the History Channel (which has a revisionist tendency most times).
The title of the book says it all: Mistress of the Vatican, though I thought the next line pushed the envelope a little too far: The true story of Olimpia Maidalchini: the secret female pope. For all her machinations and power wielding she may have truly been the mistress of Rome, but its quite absurd to call her pope.
Anybody can learn about her here, so I'll go straight to some of the things which make this an interesting read.
It was interesting to note that in those times, women didn't really have much of a choice on how to manage their lives, if they were really able to manage them. It seemed that only two options were open for them: to be wed or to be locked up in the convent. I would imagine that convents during that time would have to be full, but that didn't exactly mean that the convents were filled to capacity due to genuine vocations. 
A nun slept alone in a narrow cell, on a hard bed, with an unlocked door through which the abbess could enter anytime to see what she was doing. fraternization was frowned upon as nuns, having devoted themselves to God, were not supposed to have any friends, even among their fellow nuns. Nuns who laughed and gossiped when cooking together or sewing in small groups could be subject to severe punishment. Forbidden to have pets, many nuns adopted chickens they raised for eggs. Some nuns sent letters to their bishops complaining bitterly that the upstairs corridors were ankle deep in chicken turds because other nuns, looking for love where they could find it, kept so many pet chickens...
...Nuns were allowed to meet relatives in the convent parlor, a gathering place where laypeople waited for a religious relative to come to the grille that separated the nuns' world from the real world. male visitors were limited to a short list of fathers, brothers and uncles, but female visitors could be more distant relatives, former neighbors, and friends. An older nun past the age of indiscretion--forty--was instructed to stand nearby and listen to younger nuns' conversations in he parlors to make sure nothing inappropriate was being said.
Usually the relatives would bring food and drink and make merry in the parlor, slipping wine and food through the grille to the nun while she, in return, slipped them delectable convent cakes. Bishops routinely tried to clamp down on such excesses but just as routinely failed. It was, after all, the only fun a nun could have. And the rowdy relatives were not nearly as troubling as another problem in the parlor, which was becoming the favorite pastime of Italian youths. Boisterous young men--drunk, bored or on a dare--pretended to be nuns' brothers, snuck in, and exposed themselves, waving their members and grinning at the shocked virgins behind the grille. The Neapolitans were the worst, some of them making the grand tour of Italy with the express purpose o flashing all the nuns.
Well, I'm glad such things and such reclusion don't happen in convents nowadays, and I haven't heard of any nun who was forced to enter the convent.

Here's something that reminds me of some local--and I mean local--politicians whenever they careen down the roads with their convoys and flashing lights:
The dignity of a Roman nobleman was measured in the number of his retainers, most of whom rode noisily down the streets following his carriage no matter where he went--to church, to a friend's house, to his tailor, even to his mistress. When the maestro di casa rang a particular bell, within fifteen minutes all male members of the famiglia were required to be mounted on a horse, ready to fly through the streets of Rome behind their master. Those who were not ready would forfeit a week's meals. Even the cooks, gardeners, and servant boys would fling on the family livery and raise madly through the streets, creating as much din as possible.

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