Innocent or Not?

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Chance put this book into my hands – and I shall be forever grateful to her.

Searching for local colour from late seventeenth-century Rome for a project of my own, I came across the Italian historical thriller Imprimatur (2002) by Rita Monaldi and Francesco Sorti. Whodunnits are not really my thing, but this seemed likely to fit the bill. It had been a hit all over Europe and was favourably compared with Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.

Then I read that the Vatican had been accused of leaning on Italian publishers to boycott further editions of the novel because of its con­troversial claims about the Pope of that time, Innocent XI. Given the Catholic Church’s history of banning books, there was an appealing irony here. The book’s title, Imprimatur, means ‘Let it be printed’ and is the Church’s official stamp of approval for theologically vetted works. But the controversy – so it was said – had done even greater damage: it had forced the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to suspend Pope Innocent’s imminent canonization.

All this was intriguing, but it looked suspect. The book’s authors, Rita Monaldi and Francesco Sorti, are a married couple and both former journalists. The Vatican, being the world’s oldest extant insti­tution, is a favourite (and sometimes deserving) target of the press. But I know Italian (and British) journalists who have written books in which far worse things have been said about it, without hindrance. Besides, the controversy was not new.

The issue is whether Pope Innocent, while still Cardinal Benedetto Odescalchi, had directed his family’s merchant bank to lend large sums to the Protestant William of Orange. The money was to fund William’s wars against the Catholic King Louis XIV of France, but it may also have enabled William’s coup against another Catholic monarch, James II of England, in 1688. In short, the loans were seen as treachery amounting almo

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About the contributor

Christian Tyler, a retired Financial Times journalist, has not forgotten the advice once given him by Doris Lessing: if you want to learn about another country, don’t buy guidebooks. Read its fiction.

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