Villa Ludovisi, Rome’s last noble villa is up for sale. Exclusively for us, Princess Rita opened the doors of her villa for the last time.
Auction of Villa Ludovisi
Villa Ludovisi will be auctioned on January 18, 2022. The minimum price being disclosed at 471 million euros ($535 million). The sale is the result of a lingering inheritance dispute following the death of Prince Nicolò Boncompagni Ludovisi. In this article, I elaborate more on the history of the villa and on why the villa is sold by auction.
Nicolò’s wife, the American Princess Rita (born as Rita Jenrette) was so nice to open the doors of her beautiful property in Rome to us.
What is Villa Ludovisi?
Villa Ludovisi as we know it today is the only building that remains of a huge estate of the Boncompagni Ludovisi family. The whole estate was owned by the family from 1622 to 1886 and amounted 89.6 acres (36.3 hectares). It was the largest estate within the city walls of Rome.
The family sold the estate (except of Villa Ludovisi) to a mayor Rome developer at the end of the 19th century. The allotment of the estate resulted in the construction of numerous new buildings for housing and hotels around the (now famous) Via Veneto, which was also created at the time. The family retained only Villa Ludovisi also referred to as Casino dell’Aurora.
Villa Ludovisi will be sold by auction in 2022, placing it in hands other than the Boncompagni Ludovisi family for the first time in 400 years.
Where is Villa Ludovisi located?
The short answer is: Villa Ludovisi is located on Via Lombardia 46 in Rome.
The longer answer is: the villa is located on the north side of the city center, sandwiched between the city park ‘Villa Borghese’ and Via Veneto. The name of the neighborhood is actually ‘Ludovisi’.
It is up to the new owners to decide whether Villa Ludovisi can be visited. That will certainly be the case should the Italian government become the new owner.
What is so special about Villa Ludovisi?
The villa is one of the last villas still owned by a noble family, in the center of Rome. Villa Ludovisi is particularly special because of its art. Caravaggio created a ceiling painting, which is very special because of its location and choice of subject. The baroque artist Guercino even painted two ceiling frescoes. Many other artists have worked on the villa, such as Carlo Moderno (architect) and Paul Bril.
Due to thát Caravaggio, an advocacy group has been protesting the sale. Some 38,000 signatories of an online petition against the auction believe that the work of one of the country’s greatest painters should not fall into private hands.
They want the Italian government to take money from the European corona fund (Next Generation EU) to preserve the villa for Italy. It is unlikely that will happen. Either way, the Italian government has the right of first purchase. Once the villa is assigned to a buyer, the Ministry of Culture can buy the plot at the same price as the bid.
(Last) visit to Villa Ludovisi
Arriving at the villa, we are led by Vera, a housekeeper, the only one as it turns out, to the Stanza dei Paesi for antichampering. This room is beautifully frescoed with landscapes (‘paesi’) by, among others, Paul Bril, the seventeenth century trompe d’oeuil painter from Antwerp. Dancing putti, naked little angels, seem to come down from a painted dome. We are so engrossed in this illusionistic image that we almost fail to hear that the resident has arrived. She barely has to cough.
The landscapes room
When we turn around we see Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi. The hostess is an elegant, frail woman who greets us kindly in English. Born in Texas 72 years ago, Rita has had an eventful life, which she prefers not to talk about, nor are we from the tabloid press.
Her connection to Italy is intimate. It began as a 16-year-old schoolgirl when she was in Rome with her parents. She threw a coin in the Trevi Fountain, she says, and wished one day to marry a Roman and live in Rome. Some people get all the breaks. In 2005, Princess Rita married Nicolò Boncompagni Ludovisi. In doing so, she entered one of the oldest noble families in Europe, and – as it turned out – in an environment that looked a bit like Dallas, the television series.
The princess has me sit on a Louis XVI-style sofa and herself on a ‘royal’ armchair. Between us is a low coffee table; above it, putti dance on the ceiling. They look sad, it seems, and there is a reason for that. The judge ruled last autumn that the villa should be sold by auction. Presumably within a year, the princess must leave the house. “When the judge made her ruling, I was so shocked. Does it not count that I have lived here for 18 years, that I have refurbished the villa and that I have opened it to visitors? My husband, in his will, actually granted me the usufruct of the villa”.
The sale is the provisional conclusion of a classic family feud over inheritance. After Nicolò’s death in 2018, the widow and the three children from Nicolò’s first marriage came face to face. The fight over pennies knows no bounds. The princess shows me a photo from three months ago. It shows her with a lieutenant colonel of the carabinieri. The latter was returning an important archive piece that had been lost. “Lost? It was stolen by relatives”, Rita says in a firm voice.
The princess looks a bit like one of those black widows from Sicily, albeit in the Dynasty version. She is dressed in an all-black outfit made up of a mix of international fashion houses: a knitted jacket by St. John Knits on suede Gucci pants with medium-length heeled shoes by Chanel underneath. The darkness of her clothing is broken by a striped scarf in five colors by Yves Saint Laurent.
On the low coffee table is the invitation from William and Kate Middleton’s 2011 wedding. “We were not able to attend. Nicolò wasn’t feeling very well. I didn’t care. Nicolò was much more important”. From everything, it seems that almost four years later the princess seriously misses her “darling” (his pet name, Rita confides to me). When he had died, she did everything possible so that the prince would have a dignified final resting place. “I went to the Vatican, the Vicariate, the preservation commitee and the mayor to get my husband buried in the Church of Sant’Ignazio. That was his church, our family church”.
There’s something in that. The Ignatius Church, 200 yards from the Pantheon, was commissioned by Nicolò’s ninth great uncle, Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi. He was not the only prelate in the family. The Boncompagni side of the family produced Pope Gregory XIII. To that pope we owe the Gregorian calendar. The Ludovisi later put Pope Gregory XV into the field (both families came together in a single dynasty at the end of the seventeenth century).
Carlo Maderno’s Staircase
The access to the second floor at Villa Ludovisi consists of a narrow shell-shaped staircase, which comes from the designer pencil of Carlo Maderno, the architect of, among other things, the façade of St. Peter’s. “Once, when Woody Allen was here, he was a bit startled by the narrow staircase and called for Soon-Yi’s hand, so sweet”, says Princess Rita as she leads us up.
Caravaggio ceiling painting
Well, the villa has attracted the VIPs of their time over the centuries. Since Princess Rita has ruled the roost, American stars have passed through, such as Madonna when she was on concert tour in Rome and Bette Midler (“such a cultured woman”). In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Goethe, Gogol, Stendahl and Tchaikovsky, among others, visited Villa Ludovisi. Henry James also crossed those stairs in the early twentieth century. He speaks in ‘Italian Hours’ of “a winding stone staircase and a view from the loggia … with a sky of faded sapphire”.
All those celebrities came and come especially for the Caravaggio painting on the second floor. A Caravaggio is like a 100-carat diamond. The Italian artist is estimated to have made only about 80 oil paintings in his live. Very special about the Ludovisi Caravaggio is that the famous artist painted the ceiling here. With good will, you could call it a Sistine Chapel in miniature. Truly unique.
The subject matter is also unusual for Caravaggio. He is the man of biblical representations, self-portraits and still lifes, but here we see Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto above the elements of the universe. And you should see Pluto, the god of the underworld, how he is depicted in an act of flashing! He blatantly displays his genitals and lush pubic hair. As a child, Nicolò Boncompagni Ludovisi had never seen the fresco because it was covered up so as not to damage his tender soul. His American wife is less bothered by nudity. Princess Rita points again to Pluto’s family jewels. “In Texas today, this would be banned”, she says.
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Because of the subject and location, there were long doubts about whether the painting was really by Caravaggio. The experts have now come to an agreement. The auctioneer has no doubt at all. The minimum price of nearly half a billion euros would otherwise be a bit eccentric for a villa with an area of 2,800 square meters and a garden about 6,700 square meters. No, the high price tag is there because of Caravaggio.
Guercino’s propaganda paintings
On the ceiling painting in the one of the living rooms, Guercino has combined all his flair and imagination to depict Aurora, the goddess of dawn. She arrives at the end of the night in a chariot driven through the sky. It’s a theme that was popular in the 17th century. You don’t have to make too many ideas about what the patron wanted to say with it: just as Aurora displaces the night and allows a new era to begin, so with the Ludovisi pope, the patron, a new era also begins.
Because of this incredible ceiling painting of Aurora, Villa Ludovisi is also called the Casino dell’Aurora.
Guercino also shows himself to be an excellent propaganda painter in another room. His ceiling painting shows the goddess Fama triumphantly blowing a long trumpet, while she takes Honor and Virtue in tow. Clearly, here, too, the eulogy is blown at Ludovisi. The crimson and golden yellow of the robes of the three figures are in the family colors.
When Guercino began working on both paintings in 1621, the villa had just fallen into the hands of the Ludovisi pope. The villa had been built thirty years earlier on the site where the Horti Sallustiani used to be. These were the gardens of Sallustius, the first century Roman poet. Before Sallustius, this area was owned by Julius Caesar. What historical opulence!
You almost wonder why the villa is only worth half a billion euros.