Hidden Rome gems · Piazza Navona and Donna Olimpia`s ghost

Donna Olimpia`s ghost. Mysterious ghosts seem to be wandering around Piazza Navona and along the surrounding streets. Let’s find out the story of an important female character of Rome, Donna Olimpia Maidalchini, and one of her most beautiful squares.

Piazza Navona: a square always linked to water and games

Stadium of the Domitian Rome SpiritsSince ancient times this space in Rome has been dedicated to sporting and aquatic events. It all began in 85 when the emperor Domitian had a stadium decorated with statues built there which could hold 30,000 spectators. Athletics competitions were held there and, precisely for this original use ( in agonis called in Latin), the square was called for a long time “in agone”, a toponym that still maintains the Baroque church that overlooks it: Sant’Agnese in Agone.

Stadium of the Domitian during the imperial periodIn addition, the square was flooded to carry out real naval battles (the naumachie ) and this playful use continued until the Renaissance, when the area became the scene of carnival games and later of horse racing. In the summer months, until 1866 (the year in which they were abolished), spectacular aquatic games continued with the flooding of the square.

Piazza Navona changes to its current appearance

Palazzo Pamphili Piazza NavonaLittle by little, monumental fountains (the Fountain of the Four Rivers in the center and the Fountains of the Moro and Neptune at the two ends) began to be built on the area of the Domitian Stadium in disuse, which still characterize the square today. But on the ruins of the stadium, used as real foundations, imposing palaces were built linked to the names of important families: Palazzo Tuccimei (ex De Cupis) in the mid-sixteenth century, Palazzo Pamphilj in the seventeenth century and Palazzo Braschi in the eighteenth century.

Piazza Navona Google maps Satellite view
Piazza Navona satellite view, on the right the Pantheon

The square became the seat of a market and, in more recent times, turns into an open-air theater for painters and street artists as well as hosting the most important Christmas market in Rome between December and January.

The life of Donna Olimpia Maidalchini, called “la pimpaccia”

Papst Innozenz X
Diego Velázquez / Public domain

Palazzo Pamphilj (now the headquarters of the Brazilian Consulate) was the Roman residence of an opportunistic and ambitious woman who, despite her humble origins and a first marriage in which she became a widow
still very young, thanks to her second wedding with Pamphilio Pamphilj she managed to make an incredible social climbing. Her brother-in-law, brother of Pamphilio, became Pope Innocent X and she came to take his trust to the point of obtaining enormous influence and power over the city.

As I wrote in the book “Fantasmi a Roma” published by MMC Edizioni “… its power affects all fields: politics, economics and culture. She has a network of infiltrated agents everywhere and is highly feared. She is who decides to entrust the design of a Baroque Piazza Navona to Bernini … “. However, such power makes her hateful in the eyes of the Romans: “… she lives like a queen dominating people who does not love her at all because they do not consider it appropriate to be managed by a woman, moreover despotic, of popular origins and accused of being the pope’s lover … “. The hatred of the people leads to give her a derogatory nickname, “the Pimpaccia”, and to consider her a diabolical being.

The last years of Donna Olimpia

Donna Olimpia
Credits: Unidentified painter / Public domain

This situation, strengthened by the death of her second husband, lasts throughout the pontificate of Innocent X which ends his earthly life in 1655. Donna Olimpia realizes that her fortune has come to an end and quickly leaves Palazzo Pamphilj running away with two cases of coins of gold. It seems that she also abandoned the remains of Innocent X, completely disinterested in his funeral.

The next pope, Alexander VII “… proclaims the woman’s exile in a location north of Rome and orders her to return the two gold boxes but she refuses until the end of her life, which comes just two years later because of a epidemic of pestilence … “.

The ghost of Donna Olimpia

Fantasmi a RomaThe greed and hard character of this woman have created popular stories about the existence of her ghost who would wander between Piazza Navona, Ponte Sisto, Piazza San Pietro and Trastevere. Donna Olimpia would dart on a carriage “… at great speed with a devil as a coachman driving four horses that emit hot flashes …”. It seems that this happens on full moon nights or on some particular evenings and that the ghost of Olympia leans out of the carriage imparting “… a demonic blessing to the unfortunate who meet her …”.

But, always according to tradition, a way to protect yourself exists. You must avoid looking at her, close your eyes and throw yourself on the ground invoking the Madonna!

Text: Maria Cristina Martini

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