Cloud of Witnesses: Orietta Doria-Pamphilj

From the time I began studies in Rome in 1979, a matronly lady unknown to me often attended Mass in our college chapel near the Trevi Fountain. She would arrive gingerly in a housedress on a bicycle, with loaves of bread in the basket. One day after preaching I was invited to tea at her house down the street. I thought I had the wrong address. Her palazzo had 900 rooms, five courtyards, five monumental staircases, and a baroque chapel whose foundations tradition claimed had been the prison of St. Paul. In 1992 she donated to the Church the family church designed by Borromini, St. Agnes on the Piazza Navona. There was also a Norman castle in Apulia, a 13th-century abbey near Portofino, and land in Genoa. Admiral Andrea Doria was a champion of Lepanto, and more luster was added by Pope Innocent X. My bicycle lady was the Princess Doria-Pamphilj, four times a princess, twice a duchess, and eight times a marchesa. The family inherited much in 1790 when Clement XIII resolved the claims of the Borghese, Colonnas, and Dorias by settling on Prince Giovanni Doria the name and estates of Girolamo Pamphilj, who died without male issue.

The only time I heard anything like self-regard from her was one afternoon when she recounted the state visit of George V during which Queen Mary had called on her mother. But even that was in a conversation about complicated alliances: Her great-grandfather had married Lady Mary Talbot, whom he had met at the coronation of Queen Victoria, and she was related to the Earls of Shrewsbury and Dukes of Newcastle. In 1958, after the death of her father, who had withheld consent, she married a British naval officer, Frank Pogson, valiant in the war and less successful in introducing cricket to Italy in the family park, the Villa Doria-Pamphilj, larger than the Vatican. Her father, Prince Filippo Andrea IV, was a leader of the anti-Fascist resistance, plotting in his own palace as Mussolini harangued the crowds across the Piazza San Marco, the shouting echoing in the 16th-century corridors of the palace where Handel and Corelli had made music. The prince was released from prison only to be persecuted by the Nazis for protecting the Jews of Rome. The young Princess Orietta and her mother hid for a while with their laundress, taking in washing, disguised by soaking their smooth hands in lye.

The family’s art collection really took off when Camillo Pamphilj, nephew of Innocent V, married the widow of Paolo Borghese in 1647. Princess Orietta’s favorite small drawing room was at the end of endless halls (there was a ballroom, several untouched 18th-century drawing rooms, and one dining room done in the dark paneling of a Bavarian hunting lodge, where during our happy meals Frank liked to pursue his progressive views on Catholic matters, all the while recommending Santa Maria in Cosmedin for its freedom from modern liturgical depredations). One passed Raphael, Titian, Caravaggio, Tintoretto, and Bernini’s bust and Velazquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent, but I remember only one decoration in her little parlor: unframed crayon drawings by her two adopted children.

Frank died in 1998 and his wife two years later, a month after Queen Elizabeth II visited in the footsteps of her grandmother. An old cardinal told a seminarian that it would take a year to learn all about Rome and a lifetime to know nothing about it. Roma, non basta una vita. If a lifetime is not enough, Orietta had many lifetimes in her as she bicycled to Mass. She claimed to know every pothole in those streets. As Charles I prayed that he might go from one crown to another, so it is noble to think that my old neighbors of ghostly grandeur have gone to grander halls.

  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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