Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Oh That Olympia!

My friend Dicken liked to regale us with stories of his youthful days in the Navy.  He told us about the whores at Cadiz who would greet the enthsiastic debaerquaderos with cries of "Olympia! Olympia!" which, Dicken said, sounded far too athletic to him.  

Dicken said it meant "naked."  Putting "naked" together with "athletic," I figured the word he heard must have been "gynmasia," but no, Dicken insisted: "Olympia" was the ticket, if you had a ticket.

Dicken, my apologies for ever doubting you.  Now I'm reading Anthony Majanlahti's The Families Who Made Rome, and I come across Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphilj (1592-1657), the grasping, ambitious country girl who made herself into the Majorette-Domo of the Pamphilij clan.   Majanlahti calls her "a tough, rich, bossy woman with a reputation for avidity."  Her brother-in-law occupied the papal chair as Innocent X; satirists branded her la dominante or  la papessa; sometimes, more bluntly, la pimpaccia. They saw her as "the only gatekeeper to the pope's favour and a corrupt one at that."   Effectively exiled by Innocent's successor, she spent her sunset years giving away an impressive amount of money, but still died with a jaw-dropping two million gold scudi in cash.  But Majanlahti adds:
Donna Olimpias's memory remained, blurrily, as that of a famous harlot, sand 'Olimpia' became a popular prostitute's psuedonym for centuries, visible even in Manet's famous nineteenth-century portrait of a female nude.
So apologies, Dicken,and a retrospective salute to the girls of Cadiz who were merely taking their place in the narrative of western culture.  There's a copy of Manet's "Olympia" here (gymnasia), along with a background essay which, however, offer no hint of her sacerdotal provenance.

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