A villa in the heart of Rome that features the only known ceiling painted by Caravaggio is being put up for auction by court order after the home was restored by its last occupants: a Texas-born princess and her late husband, a member of one of Rome’s aristocratic families.
The Casino dell’Aurora, also known as Villa Ludovisi, was built in 1570 and has been in the Ludovisi family since the early 1600s. After Prince Nicolo Boncompagni Ludovisi died in 2018, the villa became the subject of an inheritance dispute between the children from his first marriage and his third wife, Rita Jenrette Boncompagni Ludovisi.
A judge recently ordered the villa put up for auction, which is scheduled for Jan. 18, with its value estimated at $533 million and a starting bid set at $400 million.
The listing on the Rome tribunal’s auction site highlights its many attributes, though it notes that 11 million euros ($12.5 million) in renovations will be necessary to make it comply with current standards. A “monumental property” on six levels, the listing says it is “among the most prestigious architectural and landscape beauties of pre-unification Rome,” with three garages, the Caravaggio, two roof terraces and a “splendid garden with arboreal essences and tall trees, pedestrian paths, stairs and rest areas.”
The American princess, who was formerly married to former U.S. congressman John Jenrette, Jr., tears up as she contemplates leaving her home of nearly 20 years. When she married Boncompagni Ludovisi in 2009, the villa had fallen into disrepair, and her new husband only used it as an office.
“I started really trying to restore it as much as I could, within means,” Mrs. Boncompagni Ludovisi said during a tour of the property Tuesday. “Really, you need to be a billionaire, not a millionaire. You need to be a billionaire if you have a house like this, a historic home, because you want to do everything right. You don’t want to get anything wrong.”
In 2010, the couple decided to open the villa to the public for tour groups and dinners to help fund the continued upkeep and renovations. Aside from the Caravaggio ceiling and the lush gardens outside, the 30,000-square-foot home off the swank Via Veneto features frescoes by Guercino. It also has — as Mrs. Boncompagni Ludovisi likes to note — had a storied line of visitors over the centuries, including American-British author Henry James and Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
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“After a period of time, you’d think you get used to it. But I never did,” she says.
The Caravaggio was commissioned in 1597 by a diplomat and patron of the arts who asked the young painter to decorate the ceiling of a small room he used as an alchemy workshop. The 9-foot wide mural, which depicts Jupiter, Pluto and Neptune, is unusual: It’s not a fresco, but rather oil on plaster, and represents the only ceiling mural that Caravaggio is known to have made.
“It is a rare image on the one hand, and on the other of great value, because it is by an outstanding artist,” said Claudio Strinati, an art historian and Caravaggio expert. “The choice of the oil-on-wall technique probably stems from the fact that Caravaggio didn’t know how to paint frescoes technically.”
Mrs. Boncompagni Ludovisi hopes eventually the Italian government will acquire the villa so it can remain in the public domain. As an historic site protected by the Culture Ministry, Italy can try to match the highest bid at the action.
For now, she is enjoying her final moments with the treasures.
“Sometimes I go up there and I take my yoga mat and I do my yoga beneath the Caravaggio, because it’s very relaxing,” she said. “And now, knowing I’ll be leaving I guess when that auction happens, I treasure every moment. I treasure every moment, every memory.”