San Martino al Cimino and Olimpia Maidalchini
Only a few kilometers from Viterbo, San Martino al Cimino is a lovely village whose origin is closely intertwined to the figure of one of the most outstanding women in Medieval Lazio: Olimpia Maidalchini.
Known as “Donna Olimpia”, Maidalchini was sister-in-law to Pope Innocent X, who named her Princess of San Martino al Cimino. She deeply cared for the small town, hiring none other than Borromini to restore its 13th-century Cistercian basilica, elevating bell towers and adding buttresses; most importantly, she was behind the very first urban planning experiment in history. She started the construction of the aristocratic residence known today as Palazzo Doria Pamphili, at the center of the city, and entrusted the houses that were gradually built around it to the same workmen, who in time were able to purchase them. To this day, these terraced houses run along the village’s walls, composing a peculiar semi-elliptical shape with two stone doors, facing one north and one south.
Olimpia was a particularly smart woman, and a very powerful figure in Rome: nicknamed “La Papessa” (“the lady pope”) for her huge influence on the Pope, she played a major role in Italy’s 17th-century history. Wanting to be surrounded by an adoring court, she exempted her subjects from taxes and granted a dowry to girls who did not leave San Martino al Cimino. She entrusted Borromini with renovating the architecture of the town, which had taverns, a theater, a washhouse, shops and any kind of entertainment people could ask for. Her Palazzo was built using leftover construction materials from Rome’s Palazzo Pamphili. One of its many rooms had an interesting, almost unique feature: the coffered ceiling in Maidalchini’s bedroom could be lowered with pulleys, in order to reduce the volume of the room and make it easier to warm up in the winter. Only two other palazzos in all of Europe have similar systems. The building was restored in 1652 by Bernini and shines with the beauty of frescoed rooms, friezes, rich wooden ceilings and monumental peperino staircases.
To this day, San Martino al Cimino remains one of the most lovely villages in Lazio, proving that despite being considered a stubborn woman, social climber and money chaser in her time, Donna Olimpia was able to create her own little gem, right outside of Rome.