Rome’s serene skies and stately buildings often serve to salve the wounds of its history. Layers of monuments and ruins conceal centuries of struggles and triumphs. Through its many rebuildings, the Eternal City seems to declare “Tomorrow’s another day.”
Villa Ludovisi Aurora is a case in point. Tucked away behind the grand hotels of the Via Veneto on the Pincian Hill, this little oasis shows little trace of the dramatic events and remarkable characters that have trod its grounds.
Yet in 2021, the villa was catapulted into the global spotlight when it was announced that the building, grounds, and its unique mural by celebrated Baroque artist Caravaggio would be put up for public auction. Inheritance wars, art thefts, and family drama all came to light as attention was trained on the villa with its asking price of 471 million euro (approximately $521 million) and a lineup of rumored prospective buyers from Bill Gates to the Sultan of Brunei.
The terrain was troubled from the beginning. Julius Caesar set up a fabulous garden on the site, but after his brutal murder in 44 BC it fell to the historian Sallust. A jewel among the aristocratic pleasure palaces, it was burned to the ground when Alaric invaded Rome in 410. The area lay fallow for over a thousand years until under the new Caesars of Rome, the papal court, new structures arose from the ashes.
The Princess in the Palace
After arson and murder, a public auction will seem pretty tame, but to Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, who has called the villa her home since she married Prince Nicolò Boncompagni Ludovisi of Piombino in 2009, it is a death knell. Née Rita Jenrette, the journalist, actress, and real estate broker rivaled Caravaggio in notoriety in her youth, until she met her prince.
Rita was reborn in the Villa Aurora (named, incidentally, for the goddess of the dawn). For 12 years, she worked to maintain the villa, in constant need of repairs, putting the site back on the list of great things to see in Rome as it had once been during the age of the Grand Tour when Henry James claimed that there “ is nothing so blissfully right in Rome, nothing more consummately consecrated to style.” Princess Rita often led the tours herself, sharing her love for the history and beauty of the place.
The princess said in an exclusive interview with The Epoch Times: “Nicolò gave his life for this … and for years I have supported this villa through my efforts.” After all that effort, she is “heartbroken to see it sold.”
The villa is no stranger to sudden sales, however. Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, a Tuscan ally of the Medici dukes, purchased the property in 1596 only to have it requisitioned for the nephew of the reigning pope. It was returned in 1599, when the cardinal hired Michelangelo Merisi, also known as Caravaggio, to paint his one and only mural on the vault of a little attic chamber.
Caravaggio, on the eve of his stratospheric success with the “Calling of St. Matthew” in San Luigi dei Francesi (St. Louis of the French), chose a daring composition: three towering deities—Jupiter, Neptune, and Pluto—seen in the nude in a sharp vertical foreshortening. Here, where Cardinal del Monte performed his alchemy experiments, whether fabricating gold or observing the heavens, Caravaggio personified the elements of water, air, and fire, each accompanied by its respective animal: an eagle, a hippogriff, and the three-headed dog. Cerberus. They are arrayed around a translucent celestial sphere with Earth visible at its center. In a strange twist of fate, Galileo would come to the villa a few years later on one of his many trips to persuade the Roman court of his heliocentric theory.
The tiny room with three giants crowding the vault, all painted with the same dark scowling features of Caravaggio’s own self-portrait, would perhaps be daunting to many. But for the princess, it is “the room where she does yoga.”
The villa changed hands again when Cardinal del Monte sold it to a new papal family: the Ludovisi Boncompagni of Bologna. From 1621 to today, it has stayed within the family, handed down from generation to generation.
The Ludovisi family expanded the property to an astonishing 74 acres spread over the Pincian Hill. The cream of the Baroque painters left their work in the villa and their sculpture collection became the envy of Rome.
To fresco the entrance vault, the family hired Francesco Barbieri, nicknamed Guercino, a disciple of the famed Carracci academy. In his first Roman work, he painted Aurora galloping across the ceiling strewing flowers and dispelling darkness. Like Caravaggio, he used a dramatic viewpoint from underneath up, demonstrating his exceptional drawing skills. The family so appreciated his work that they rehired the Bolognese painter to paint the personification of Fame upstairs.
The princess knows these works as if they were old acquaintances. She recounts her discovery that Bernini used to “spend many nights in the Aurora room playing cards,” and she fumes over Italian landscape and seascape painter Agostino Tassi’s collaboration on the vault, after his notorious rape of Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi. Her tone softens, however, as she says: “I love Guercino. I like the Guercino more than practically anything else in the villa.”
Since the glory days of the 17th century, the villa has been assaulted by time and greed. Speculation in the 19th century saw the estate dwindle to the half acre it is today. In 1896, JP Morgan considered buying the site for the American Academy. One hundred and four of the finest Ludovisi sculptures were sold to the Italian State in 1901, yet Caravaggio and Guercino have remained steadfast at the villa.
Princess Rita also discovered another priceless asset of the villa—the archive of family documents, a vast sea of papers that she has spent 10 years organizing, preserving, and digitalizing. Working with both Rutgers University and the Italian Art Police, Rita succeeded in reclaiming a handwritten 1867 letter from St. John Bosco to Princess Agnese Ludovisi, stolen in 2016 “by relatives.” The categorized 150,000 pages of documents—from letters of Marie Antionette, to a document, signed in Pope Gregory XIII’s own hand, recognizing the legitimacy of his natural son, Giacomo—are the legacy that the last owners of the villa will leave to the world. .
The loss of the villa is devastating. Following Prince Nicolò’s death in 2018, the inability to reach an agreement between Princess Rita and Prince Nicolò’s sons from his first marriage and settle the estate’s debt resulted in the magistrature’s involvement, which ordered the sale. The first auction on Jan. 18, 2022, produced no bidders, and the villa suffered the same fate on a second auction on April 7. The third round, in what has been dubbed the “Sale of the Century,” will take place on June 30, when the starting price will be lowered again.
The princess has no regrets regarding the time, energy, and personal funds she poured into the villa, saying: “The only thing that survives is art and architecture, … our paintings and our literature from generation to generation.”
As Aurora galloping across the villa’s vault knows, no matter how dark the moment may be, the sun always rises.