Negotiating with things
: Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphilj, material culture and authority in Early Modern Rome

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis contributes to the understanding of how women created networks through material culture in the Early Modern period through an examination of the possessions of Donna Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphilj (1591-1657), the sister-in-law of Pope Innocent X (1574-1655). 
During her lifetime, Donna Olimpia benefited financially and socially from her strong papal connections but was also the subject of constant attack because of this relationship, with allegation of inappropriate behaviour and abuses of authority. She was characterized by contemporaries as greedy and avaricious and accused of facilitating political favours for personal compensation. However, an analysis shows that Donna Olimpia’s behaviour was the traditional behaviour of the cardinal nephew. What was unusual was that a woman was holding this role. 
While Donna Olimpia acquired great wealth, as evidenced by her vast holdings, this thesis does not examine her material through the framework of collezionismo. Instead, this study is primarily concerned with providing an assessment of the noblewoman’s possessions, arguing that many of the objects she acquired were the result of attempts to create and benefit from political networks and establish personal and familial influence through the process of gift-exchange. At the core of this thesis is an examination of Donna Olimpia’s inventory and the collections she amassed during her lifetime. It also considers the trajectory of these objects as gifts and political tools of negotiation. The thesis also uses contemporary biographies, and other primary sources such as Olimpia’s correspondence and testament; inventories and other testaments of family members, and ambassadorial reports. These place Olimpia’s acquisitions in context, and allow us to argue the possible provenance of objects such as watches and paintings. 
The material she owned (as seen in her inventory) both confirms Olimpia’s significant political and social connections to influential individuals, and is evidence of the noblewoman’s determination to transmit an image of personal and dynastic status, and authority through her possessions.
Date of Award1 Apr 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorEvelyn Welch (Supervisor) & David Edgerton (Supervisor)

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