Rome has always been a city of men and used by them as a powerbase. From Republican Rome, when the function of women was to breed the next generation of soldiers and statesmen, to Medieval times when Rome was divided between warring family factions and was ruled, well or ill, by the Papacy in the Vatican, Rome has always been the province of powerful men.

However, human nature being what it is, such an unbalanced society becomes counter-productive. Men living in Rome to pursue their careers, whether secular or ecclesiastic, usually left their families behind, creating a vacuum in their lives. Men need women, not just for sex, but as a counterpart to their ways of thought, different but complimentary, to the violence and intrigue of the city. This has always enabled capable and ambitious women to take a place of their own, in this essentially masculine world. Not only to create a softening influence, but to use it for their own advancement.

GIULIA FARNESE (1474–1524). Mistress of Alexander VI and sister of Alessandro Farnese, the future Pope Paul III. The image is taken from a statue of Giulia on the monument to Pope Paul III in St Peter’s Basilica. (Author’s collection)

Whether these women were mothers, such as Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi, in Republican Rome, or mistresses such as Giulia Farnese, whose influence over Pope Alexander VI set her own brother on the road to becoming Pope Paul III, their qualities gave them power. Cornelia has gone into history as the ideal of Roman womanhood, while Giulia was feted as “La Bella Giulia” and famous for her beauty. Some of the women who gained power in Rome had less obvious charms, but their capabilities and determination gave them strength to push themselves forward, either for the sake of family, or for their own ambitions.

One of the women who fought for family was Caterina Sforza. She had been married to a nephew of Pope Sixtus IV but later found herself in opposition to Pope Alexander VI. This was due to his desire for expansion of Papal lands and his excessive devotion to his own family, which he had with his mistress Vanozza dei Catenei. Despite disputes, fights, a siege of Caterina’s castle at Ravaldino, and repeated rapes by Cesare Borgia once she became his captive, Caterina was still described as “furious and strong willed.” She died aged only forty-six but had outlived her enemies. She was to be revered and remembered as one of the most extraordinary women that the Renaissance era ever produced.

CATERINA SFORZA (1463–1509). A woman of determination who fought even the Borgias to keep her lands free.

A woman who followed her, however, worked for her own ambitions. The fact that, in the process, she founded a Princely family, which is still in existence, was almost incidental. Olimpia Pampjilij faced struggles even as a girl, when her father insisted that she and her sisters became nuns, to prevent his son’s inheritance being divided. Olimpia stoutly refused, fought back, and eventually achieved a rich marriage. She was widowed early and moved to Rome looking for a husband from a noble family. She found Pamphilio Pamphilij, who had status but no money, to share her fortune in exchange for nobility. But it was with her brother-in-law, Gianbattista Pamphilij, that her name was to be linked. They were soulmates, and though he was a priest without prospects, she was to carry him, on a wave of her own ambition and determination, into St. Peter’s itself. She worked for his interests, spent her money on creating the right surroundings for him, and constantly pushed him forward. With his naturally indolent nature, he came to rely on her completely. When he became Pope Innocent X, Olimpia’s own power became total. She controlled who saw him and who was denied access. She dealt with all his paperwork, until he merely signed what she put in front of him. She decided the fate of cardinals and became even richer.

OLIMPIA MAIDALCHINI PAMPHILIJ (1591-1657). Sister-in-law, supporter, advisor and probable mistress of Pope Innocent X. Bust by Alessandro Algardi.

However, such power, particularly in the hands of a woman in the all-male enclave of the Vatican, bred resentment. Powerful clerics were opposed to her purely because of her gender and that she had power and influence they considered should belong only to them. The continual opposition finally persuaded Pope Innocent to send her away, and she was exiled. She was away from Rome for over two years. The Pope then realised that he could not do without her, and that, while controlling others, she had kept interference away from him personally. Without her at his side he could no longer cope with the position that had always been beyond him. He ordered her return, but her feelings and her aims had changed. She intended to get back all the money she considered that she had wasted on promoting the career of a man who had proved ungrateful. When he died, she refused to take responsibility for his funeral, which was then her duty, and he remained unburied, until his personal servants found the money to dispose of his body cheaply but decently.

Not all women who gained power in the Vatican were secular. A later scandal was caused by the relationship between Pope Pius XII and his housekeeper, who was a nun. Mother Pascalina Lehnert, in the 20th century, was considered to have gained and used just as much influence as some women had done during the Renaissance. She had met the Pope several years before, when nursing him from an illness, and realised that he always needed to be surrounded by calm and peace. For him she created the ambience he wanted, when she became his housekeeper. Later still, when he was elected Pope, she moved into the position of personal secretary and confidante. She had much the same position as Olimpia Pamphilij had had with Innocent X and was to face the same sort of opposition from men who considered that the power she held should be in their hands. There was a great deal of criticism of the Pope allowing her to have the right to deny them access to the Pope, and she knew that once the Pope died, she would have to leave. She was exiled from the Vatican on the day of Pius XII’s funeral, leaving only with her own belongings and the Pope’s pet birds. She lived on, eventually using her great talent for administration to found a home for women, still known as the Casa Pastor Angelicus.

PASCALINA LEHNERT (1894–1983). Housekeeper, secretary and confidante of Pope Pius XII, who became very powerful at the Vatican.

These few women are merely examples of the enormous power some women have gained and used within the secretive male world of the Vatican. There were many others. Their lives may have been fraught with difficulties, criticisms and detractors, but women are essentially versatile, capable, and enduring, as is the male’s need of them, all the more so in a claustrophobic and misogynistic world where women were not supposed to exist. They also had to contend with the existence of a firmly religious atmosphere in which women, as a gender, were considered to be distinctly second-class.

However, for centuries, the competence, determination, ambition and even courage of the women who lived this life within a life, was an example to the men whose own lives they sometimes enhanced, and often controlled. Without them, perhaps those men would also have been different, and their understanding and tolerance of half of the human race would certainly have been even less.

Lynda Telford's book Women of the Vatican is available for purchase now.